Why the Second Temple

When you hear someone speak about “The Temple,” he could be referring to any one of nine separate structures:

  • There was the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that Moses built in the desert (see Exodus 25 etc.). That one was dismantled and carried by the Jews on all their journeys until the nation reached Israel.
  • Once they had chosen the town of Shilo as their center, a house with stone walls was built, but instead of a roof, it was covered by the same curtains that had covered the previous Mishkan.
  • When the Mishkan in Shilo was destroyed, it was replaced by a more temporary Mishkan – first in Nov, then later moved to Givon. That’s four so far…
  • Givon was followed by the Temple of King Solomon. Five (see TB Zevachim 112).
  • Less than a century after the destruction of the first Temple, Cyrus (Koresh), king of Persia allowed Ezra and Nechemiya to build the Second Temple after the action of Purim – see Ezra Chapter One).
  • Three hundred and seventeen years later, that structure was torn down by the quasi-Jewish king, Herod (Hurdos – see TB Bava Basra 3b), and was replaced by a magnificent building that, like its predecessor, was also doomed to destruction – this time, at the hands of the Romans. Seven.
  • There might even be evidence that, during the rebellion of Bar Kochia following the destruction of the Second Temple, a third Temple was built – only to be destroyed in turn two and a half years later (see Rashash to BT Pesachim 74a). That’s eight.
  • And then, when God sees fit, there will be a “third” Temple. Nine.

Each of these versions of the place in which God chose to dwell (see I Kings 8:16) was different in appearance and purpose from those before and after. Each played a different role in preparing the Jewish people and the world in general for their higher calling.

But to completely describe the long and complex history of the Temples in a useful way would be beyond the scope of this book. So we have to limit ourselves to one. So why the second – the one that Ezra and Nechemiya built? Well, as was mentioned, this was the one on which the rabbis of the Talmud themselves, most specifically in the Mishna tractate called Middos, concentrated.

And why did our rabbis spend so much of their precious time teaching about just this temple? Partly because many of the measurements and characteristics of the Second Temple reflected those of both the first (Solomon’s) and the third (to be built in the time of the Messianic redemption). No one in the time of the Mishna had seen the first Temple, nor had the complete meaning of Ezekiel’s prophetic words been revealed to them. They were, however, familiar with the Second, which was built – as much as possible – according to the best of both the first and third (see Maimonides, commentary to the Mishna, beginning of Middos).

Learning about the Second Temple, therefore, is not simply an historical exercise (as interesting and important as that might be) but has practical relevance to us today. It’s our closest link to the “floor plan” of the final Temple. If the rabbis of the Talmud – whose hallmark is brevity – dedicated one whole tractate (Middos) to a straightforward description of this particular building, then its study must be worth our while.

And Kohanim (priests): pay attention: you’ll have to know your way around! Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have to ask?

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