A Little History

TIMELINE

Jewish

calendar

year BCE

1948 1812 Birth of Abraham

2238 1522 Sons of Jacob descend to Egypt

2448 1312 Exodus from Egypt

2488 1287 Joshua leads Jews into Israel

2503 1272 Construction of Tabernacle at Shilo

2854 906 Birth of King David

2870 890 Death of Eli Hakohen (dest. of Shilo)

2882 878 Saul becomes king (dest. of Nov)

2928 832 Building of 1st Temple

3338 422 Destruction of 1st Temple

3408 352 Building of 2nd Temple

3828 68CE Destruction of 2nd Temple

The basic structure common to each Mikdash included a Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakedoshim) containing the ark; a Kodesh (to the immediate east of the Holy of Holies) in which was placed the menorah, showbread-table and the small, golden mizbayach (altar); and an uncovered courtyard where the large mizbayach stood.

The Tabernacle (Mishkan) that Moses erected at the foot of Mt. Sinai was built to be taken apart and moved when needed. Dozens of times over the next decades, the curtains, columns and tools of the Mishkan were carefully packed away and carried off into the desert behind the guiding pillar of smoke (or, by night, of fire).

Tent-like curtains covered the Mishkan, reflecting the temporary nature of our lives in those wilderness years.

Fourteen years after we entered Israel, once most of the country had been subdued, a new Mishkan was built in Shilo. This one had stone walls, but the old curtain coverings for a roof…our presence in the Promised Land had become a little more permanent.

Shilo stood for 369 years. Upon its destruction, a more temporary Mishkan was erected, first in Nov, then – after the first Jewish king, Shaul, destroyed the city of Nov (I Samuel 1:22) – in Givon.

Finally, after more than four centuries, Solomon (Shlomo) was able to build what was called Bais Olumim – Eternal House. The Jewish people had come home (BT Zevachim 118b).

That incarnation of the Temple might well have remained a permanent, but for the sins of the Jewish people (see II Kings 24:20). With its destruction 410 years after being built, the greatest period in our history closed.

The Temple built by Ezra and Nechemiya after seventy years of exile in Babylonia was a poor copy of the original. As much as it was refurbished and beautified over the years, the Second Temple era was a time of exile (note that our sages call the Greek rule, the “Greek exile” – despite the fact that through it all, we lived on our land and our
Temple stood).

Today, we await the building of the third Temple – the real Bais Olumim.

THE SECOND TEMPLE

The Tanach tells us that as the Second Temple was dedicated, the joyous noises of the happy Jews were drowned out by the grief-stricken cries of those older people who remembered the glory of the Solomon’s house. There was not a lot of money in Jerusalem in those years, and worse still, there were not a lot of Jews; most had decided to stay behind in the strong Torah communities of the exile rather than face the dangers and discomfort of settling the Holy Land.

As if that wasn’t enough, the local political climate at the birth of the second commonwealth was far from stable. Samaritans, struggling for the favor of the Persian king, fought physical and political battles against the fragile Jewish community. The community itself was small and at times badly weakened by Torah ignorance and even intermarriage (Nechamiya 9:2).

The result of all the turmoil was a Temple that – while grand – couldn’t compare to its predecessor. How could it be otherwise? The builders had to literally go about their work with sword in one hand and tools in the other (Nechemiya 4:15).

This second Temple lacked an ark (it had been hidden decades before the previous destruction to protect it from the hands of the enemy); the high priest had no working breast plate through which to consult God (see Numbers 27:21); there were fewer open miracles with which to see the Divine presence and the materials and architecture of the building itself were disappointing (BT Yoma 21b). But it was better than exile.

The fact was in any case, that the whole period of the second empire was a kind of half-exile. The sages, led by the 120 members of the Men of the Great Assembly, actually used the years of the second Temple as a preparation for the longer exile they knew would come. It was this body which, knowing that the Jewish nation soon would not have a Temple at its center, instituted the prayers and blessings that we use today.

For the Jewish people, these were years of decline. Just over the horizon lay a seemingly endless exile. The future was bleak and the world’s various powers (The Persians, Greeks and Romans) would not leave this tiny land and its people to enjoy its present either.

But for the existence of great leaders like Shimon Hatzadik, Shemaya and Avtalion, Hillel and Shamai and Rabbi Akiva, our people would long before have been swallowed up by the sands of time. It was only the Torah – the Torah of those leaders – that acted as a beacon in the dark night to define us as a nation and provide for the possibility of a true moral existence.

What, by the way, was so famous about this Second Temple high priest, Shimon Hatzadik (known as Simon the Just)?

  • It was Shimon who was shown the image of a holy man clothed in white every Yom Kippur as he left the holy of holies (in the fortieth year, the last of his life, the image wore black – see BT Menachos 109b).
  • It was Shimon who, throughout his long term as high priest, merited that the oil in the “western” cup of the menora burned the longest of any cup (even though it was lit first) – a clear, yet daily, miracle (see BT Yoma 39a).
  • It was a very young Shimon who, at the head of a procession of Jerusalem’s sages, set out to greet the great emperor, Alexander. The Macedonean, as far as anyone knew, was planning to destroy Jerusalem and put an end to what he saw as its opposition to his rule. At the head of his huge army, astride his tall horse, Alexander was not likely to give the Jews much time to plead their case. But it was the face of Shimon that inspired the king to dismount and kneel on the ground before the Rabbi. “This face,” explained Alexander, “appeared to me before every battle I won…” (see BT Yoma 69a)
  • It was Shimon who strengthened the walls of the Holy City, and with them, the hearts of the dispirited Jews who had given up everything to live near the Temple.

Shimon Hatzadik, as much as anyone, built the foundation for Jewish life in Israel for the next four hundred years, and by extension, set the tone for Jewish life until this day. See the later chapter, “Chonyo” for an interesting insight into Shimon Hatzadik’s own family.

THE LINGERING EXILE

The majority of Jews chose not to follow Ezra up to the Holy Land to rebuild the Second Temple. While the communities of the exile contributed funds and resources to the project, they were noticeably absent during those early years. Ezra, the Torah leader of his generation, was unsparing of his criticism of those who stayed behind.

The Jewish world was much bigger than one might think:

  • Bavel (Babylonia – modern-day Iraq) was unquestionably the preeminent Torah community in the world, and was host to the greatest Jewish population. Already at the time of the destruction of the first Temple, the Babylonian community was strong and ready to receive and support the new exiles. It was one of God’s many kindnesses that He arranged for Torah leaders to be brought to Bavel to prepare a home, decades before the mass of post-destruction Jewish exiles would arrive.
  • France. France? In the time of the Temple? Wrong. France, four hundred years BEFORE the building of the FIRST Temple. There is a tradition from the author of Sefer Meiros Eynayim (quoted by “She’eris Yisroel”), that there were members of the tribe of Benjamin who escaped after losing a Jewish civil war – fought just one hundred years after the exodus from Egypt (see Judges, chapters 19 and 20) – and ran to France. One of the communities they founded was the famous city of Worms (Rashi’s home). This tradition contends that one of the reasons the city of Worms suffered so badly at the hands of the medieval crusaders was because their ancestors had failed to answer Ezra’s plea for immigrants to the fledgling Jewish community in Jerusalem.

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