Return to Zion and the Construction of the Second Temple (III):The Differences Between the First and Second Temples (IIa)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Rav Yitzchak Levi



            In the previous shiur we examined the differences between the First and Second Temples against the backdrop of their construction and the ruling powers. In this shiur we wish to deal with the ways in which Chazal and later Jewish thinkers related to this issue, and see how the explanations offered regarding their destruction contribute to our understanding of the essential differences between them.




In the previous shiurim we saw that with respect to the resting of the Shekhina – the primary function of the house of God – the First Temple was clearly superior to the Second Temple. However, various talmudic passages deal with other aspects of this question, as we shall see below. Let us note already now that by their very nature the comparisons relate not only to the two Temples but also and primarily to the two periods during which they stood and to the spiritual level of the people living in those times.




The Gemara in Yoma states:


Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: The former ones whose iniquity was revealed had their end revealed. The latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed.[1]

Rabbi Yochanan said: The fingernail of the former generations is better than the whole body of the later generations. Resh Lakish said to him: On the contrary, the latter generations are better, although they are oppressed by the governments, they are occupying themselves with the Torah. He [Rabbi Yochanan] replied: The Sanctuary[2] will prove [my point] for it came back to the former generations, but not to the latter ones.

The question was put to Rabbi Elazar: Were the earlier generations better, or the later ones? He answered: Look upon the Sanctuary! Some say he answered: The Sanctuary is your witness [in this matter]. (Yoma 9b)


According to Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar, the people living at the time of the First Temple were better than the people living at the time of the Second Temple in that they sinned out in the open rather in secret. It was for this reason that the prophets revealed to them – measure for measure – that at the end of seventy years they would return to their land. In contrast, the people living at the time of the Second Temple, who sinned in secret, did not merit to be informed when their exile would come to an end. Resh Lakish disagrees and says that the people living at the time of the Second Temple were better because they occupied themselves in Torah studies despite the fact that they were oppressed by foreign authorities. The dispute is "decided" on the basis of the testimony of the Temple: Seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple was built in its place, but after the latter was destroyed, it was not rebuilt and has still not been rebuilt until this very day. This proves that the people who lived during the period of the First Temple must have been better than their counterparts from the Second Temple period.


The parallel passage in the Yerushalmi reads as follows:


Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Yaakov bar Acha and Rabbi Abuna were sitting and said: And these [the sins for which the Second Temple was destroyed] are greater, for the First Temple was rebuilt, whereas the Second Temple was not rebuilt. Rabbi Zeira said: The first ones repented, whereas the second ones did not repent. Rabbi Elazar said: The former ones whose iniquity was revealed had their end revealed. The latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed. They asked Rabbi Eliezer: Are the later generations more fit than the earlier generations? He said to them: The Temple will be your witness to prove it: Our forefathers caused the ceiling to be removed - "And he stripped the covering of Yehuda" (Yishayahu 22:8), but we have smashed the walls – "When they said: Raze it, raze it, to its very foundations" (Tehillim 137:7). They said: Any generation in whose days [the Temple] is not rebuilt is regarded as if it caused its destruction. (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1)[3]


According to Rabbi Zeira, the people of the First Temple period were privileged to have their Temple quickly rebuilt because they repented of their sins, something that the people of the Second Temple did not do. Rabbi Eliezer brings additional testimony to the superiority of those who lived during the First Temple period: Regarding the First Temple, only the roof was destroyed, as opposed to the Second Temple, which was destroyed down to its very foundations, i.e., its destruction was more complete.


The explanation offered by Rabbi Meir of Dvinsk, the author of the Meshekh Chokhma, regarding the superiority of the members of the Second Temple period is exceedingly instructive. In his commentary to Shemot 14:29, Rabbi Meir distinguishes between the individual and the community regarding punishment for transgression: On the individual level, sins between man and God are more severe, whereas on the community level, corruption of interpersonal moral traits is more severe. In light of this assertion, he explains that the First Temple was speedily rebuilt, but the Second Temple was not, because the sin of the people of the Second Temple – groundless hate (i.e., corruption of community morals) – was more severe than the sins of idolatry, incest and murder, all put together. He says as follows:


"And the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and to the left" (Shemot 14:29). When we reflect upon the ways of the Torah, we see that regarding the received mitzvot, such as idol worship and incest, there is karet and stoning, and the other forms of judicial execution, and flogging. This is not true about social conduct and traits, such as quarreling, evil talk, gossip, theft, where there is no flogging, because these are prohibitions that are given to payment, or else prohibitions that don't involve an action. However, this is only when performed by an individual. But when the community is corrupt, here we find the reverse in the Yerushalmi Pe'a (1:1): The generation of David were all righteous men, but since there were informers among them, they fell in battle, etc. And the generation of Achav were idol worshippers, but since there were no informers among them, they would go out to battle and emerge victorious. For if the community is corrupt regarding idol worship and incest, about this it is stated: "Who dwells with them among their uncleanness" (Vayikra 16:16). But regarding the traits of evil talk and quarreling, it is written: "Be exalted, O Lord, over the heavens" (Tehillim 57:6) – remove, as it were, Your Shekhina from them (Vayikra Rabba 26, 2). And more than this they said (Yoma 9b) that in the first Temple they were idol worshippers, etc., whereas in the Second Temple, they occupied themselves with Torah and mitzvot, etc. because of groundless hate. And there they asked: Who were greater? Set your eyes on the Temple which returned to the first ones, etc. We see then that if the community is corrupt in its traits, it is worse than if they are corrupt regarding the mitzvot. And therefore Rabbi Yochanan said in Chelek (Sanhedrin 108a): See how great is the power of robbery, for the generation of the flood transgressed all [the prohibitions], but their decree was only sealed because they sent out their hands to steal, as it is written: "I will destroy them, for the earth is filled with robbery" (Bereishit 6:13). For regarding incest they had the law of a community, and He would have had mercy upon them, but regarding social conduct, this is impossible. And therefore, regarding the desecration of Shabbat which due to our great sins has spread, we can hope that He will delay punishment, for they are a community. And even regarding idol worship they said in the Sifrei: "And the soul… and it shall be cut off" (Bamidbar 15:30) – the community is not cut off. But since they breached proper social conduct to rob and steal, and they became corrupt in their traits… God will take vengeance and not delay. For how should they be regarded? If as individuals, for mitzvot they are cut off; and if as a community, surely the rules of social conduct they ignore! And similarly regarding the generation of the flood: for robbery alone He would have judged them as individuals, but since "all flesh has corrupted its way," if He would judge each of them as an individual, he would be cut off; so perforce He judged them as a community, and they were liable to be cut off due to the robbery. We therefore find that for the Golden Calf which was a sin of idol worship the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned them, and was appeased. But for the spies, which was evil talk and ingratitude, He did not pardon them, but rather He decreed: "In this wilderness they shall be consumed" (Bamidbar 14:35). And with this we understand the Midrash (Mekhilta Midrash Avkir), cited in the Yalkut (234): "And the waters were a wall to them" – this teaches that Samael rose up and said: Master of the universe, did not Israel worship idols in Egypt, and yet You perform miracles for them, etc. And He filled up with anger at them, and wanted to drown them [therefore the word is spelled choma, defectively, as if it were read cheima]. That is to say, he did argue about the miracles performed when He took them out of Egypt, because even though they were corrupt in mitzvot, for they worshipped idols and violated the Covenant of Circumcision, they were firm in their traits, for there was no evil talk among them, and they loved one another; see there Mekhilta, Bo, parasha 5. And therefore as a community, the Holy One, blessed be He, performed miracles for them. But in the water, where they divided into four groups, some saying, Let us return to Egypt, he informed against them that they must be judged as individuals, and therefore they should be cut off for idol worship, and he asked how then does God perform miracles for them!


Rabbi Kook relates to this issue in the continuation of "The Process of Ideas in Israel" referred to in an earlier shiur (see note 6):


It seems that concerning [Israel's] first arrival [in the land] when ultimate holiness was reached in the First Temple, the holiness stemming from their unique [Divine] essence was very great, for the Shekhina openly rested upon them, and the like. In the Second Temple, the holiness stemming from their [Divine] unique essence was small in comparison to the First Temple, but the holiness stemming from deeds was great, for then were the men of the Keneset Ha-gedola, and many rabbinic commandments were added, which is all holiness stemming from deeds. But the holiness stemming from their unique [Divine] essence was not as great as during the First Temple. Therefore Chazal said in the first chapter of Yoma: "The former ones whose iniquity was revealed had their end revealed. The latter ones whose iniquity was not revealed have their end still unrevealed." This means that the deficiency of the former ones was in their deeds which are revealed, but regarding the holiness of their unique essence their souls were exceedingly elevated; thus, repair was easy for them. But regarding the latter ones whose deficiency was the shortage of inner holiness, this being the meaning of their iniquity not being revealed, even though on the surface their deeds seemed better, nevertheless their end was not revealed. For the repair of inner essence that is missing requires more time and greater effort. (Ayn Aya, Berakhot, chap. 1, letter 17)


In other words, during the First Temple period the deficiency was in deeds, and therefore the repair was short and simple, so that the community that had been exiled could return after seventy years. During the Second Temple period, on the other hand, the deficiency was in the unique Divine essence that rested in the people, a deficiency whose repair requires hundreds and even thousands of years.




As we have already seen, the promise of the prophet Chaggai, "The glory of the latter house shall be greater than that of the former, says the Lord of hosts" (Chaggai 2:9), was for various reasons never fulfilled. Nevertheless, the Amoraim tried to learn from this verse that the Second Temple was superior to the First:


"The glory of the latter house shall be greater than that of the former." Rav and Shmuel, and some say Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar, disagree. One says: In structure. And the other one says: In years. And this is [right] and that is [right]. (Bava Batra 3a-3b)


            That is to say, the Second Temple was greater than the First in two ways: 1) the size of the structure – regarding the First Temple, "Its length was sixty cubits, and its breadth was twenty cubits, and it height was thirty cubits" (I Melakhim 6:2), whereas the Second Temple was "a hundred cubits by a hundred cubits, and a hundred cubits high" (Middot 4:6); 2) the years that it stood – the First Temple stood for 410 years, whereas the Second Temple stood for 420 years (Rashi, Bava Batra 3b)




The Gemara in Yoma (9a) also notes the difference in years, but it concludes that it was actually the First Temple that was superior:


Rabba bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: What is the meaning of the passage: "The fear of the Lord prolongs days; but the years of the wicked will be shortened" (Mishlei 10:27). "The fear of the Lord prolongs days" – this refers to the First Temple, which stood for four hundred and ten years, and in which there served only eighteen High Priests. "But the years of the wicked will be shortened" – this refers to the Second Temple, which stood for four hundred and twenty years, and in which there served more than three hundred [High} Priests. Take off there the forty years which Shimon the Righteous served, eighty years which Yochanan the High Priest served, ten which Yishmael ben Fabi served, or, as some say, the eleven years which Rabbi Elazar ben Charsum served. Count [the number of High Priests] from then on and you will find that none of them completed his year [in office].


The Gemara's calculation teaches that excluding certain exceptional individuals, most of the High Priests who served in the Second Temple did not last more than a year in high office, and this testifies to their wickedness. Indeed, we know from various sources that during the Second Temple period, the High Priests also served as political leaders vis-a-vis the foreign powers, and many of them did not excel in their virtues. The office was often purchased with money by priests who were interested in the ruling status that it conferred – in some cases to the point of scorn for the primary function: service in the Temple. According to this talmudic passage, despite the longevity of the Second Temple, the level of the High Priesthood testifies to the superiority of the First Temple.




To summarize this section, we shall cite the words of the Malbim regarding the question posed to the prophets by the people living during the Second Temple period whether to continue observing the fast days that had been established to commemorate the destruction (Zekharya 7:3). The Malbim, in the name of the Abarvanel, summarizes the matter as follows:

They asked this question because this Temple was insignificant in their eyes for seven reasons:


1)         They saw that the Shekhina had not returned to dwell there as in the First Temple. And five things were missing in the Second Temple.

2)         They were under the rule of the Persian kings, and they feared that once again they would be driven out of the land.

3)         There was no general ingathering, and the exiles did not return from the four corners of the earth.

4)         They saw that the land had been cursed and did not return to its former strength, this being a sign that Divine providence was not as it used to be.

5)         They saw that they were scorned and disgraced by the surrounding nations.

6)         They saw that the Cutheans controlled a large part of the country and that the returnees from Babylonia were few in number.

7)         They saw that they were not being ruled by a king from the House of David.[4]




"And they cried with a great [loud] voice unto the Lord, their God" (Nechemya 9:4).[5] What did they cry? Rav said, and some say it was Rabbi Yochanan who said: Woe, Woe, it is he [the evil inclination] who has destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, killed all the righteous, driven all Israel into exile, and is still dancing around among us! You have surely given him to us so that we may receive reward through him. We want neither him, nor reward through him. Thereupon a tablet fell down from heaven for them, whereupon the word "truth" was inscribed [Rashi: That is to say, I agree with you]… They ordered a fast of three days and three nights, whereupon he was surrendered to them [by heaven]. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion. Thereupon the prophet said to Israel: This is the evil inclination for idolatry, as it is said: "And he said: This is wickedness" (Zekharya 5:8). (Yoma 69b)


            The Gemara describes how through their fasting and Torah study the members of the Keneset Ha-gedola succeeded in totally wiping out the evil inclination of idolatry, which was seen as the main cause of the destruction and exile. Indeed, as opposed to the First Temple period, when idolatry seized an exceedingly important role in the life of the nation, during the Second Temple period there is no testimony to idol worship in either the words of the prophets or in historical descriptions.


Rabbi Kook relates to this issue in several places.[6] He notes that a great price was paid for the nullification of the evil inclination of idolatry: removal of the life force of the principle of Divine love from the world. Owing to the failure of the moral force during the First Temple period, it was necessary to diminish the wild and natural aspects of life, but this caused the life force of love to lose its pure value. With the nullification of the evil inclination for idol worship, the healthy aspects of life and the expression of all the life forces in the love of God were also impaired, and therefore the Second Temple was deficient, and characterized by a certain withdrawal from such forces. And furthermore, the people of Israel infused this spirit into the religions of other nations, and among the people of Israel themselves this phenomenon brought to the development of the Oral Law through severance from the full breadth of material life.[7]


            Rabbi Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin also related to this issue in his book, Resisei Laila (80b-81a):


For the revelation of the Oral Law began at the time of the sealing of prophecy and the removal of the revelation of the Shekhina in Israel… And even though [the prophets] were also sages, nevertheless owing to the abundance of prophecy and revelation of the Shekhina then in Israel, apprehension through wisdom was considered as naught. Because this is uncertain and dark apprehension owing to this world… For this reason they said in Sanhedrin (24a) that the verse, "He has set me in dark places" (Eikha 3:6), refers to the Babylonian Talmud. But when the Shekhina rested in Israel they did not enter into dark comprehension, for then all governance was according to prophecy…

Just as the Torah governs Israel, so God governs all the worlds, and even the nations are governed this way… The wide extent of idol worship and magic continued the entire time that there was a revelation of Shekhina and prophecy in Israel; when this disappeared, and the Oral Law began, there also began Greek wisdom, which is human wisdom. For the men of the Keneset Gedola began at the beginning of the Greek empire, at the same time that prophecy ceased…  


            Two points should be noted. First, there is a connection between the revelation of the Oral Law and the sealing of prophecy. As long as there was direct and fixed revelation from above, the significance and clarity of comprehension from below remained limited. Second, there is a connection between the existence of prophecy and the existence of idol worship, and between the abolition of one and the abolition of the other. The fiery lion that nullified the evil inclination for idolatry emerged from the Holy of Holies, teaching that there are two aspects to revelation: on the good side it illuminates with prophetic revelation, but on the bad side it leads to idol worship, that is, to the attempt to connect with the revelation of the Divine by way of the material world.


            The diminishment of the connection to Divine revelation exacts a price with respect to the connection between the material world and the purity of Divine love (as argued by Rabbi Kook), but on the other hand, it widely broadens occupation with the Oral Law, a human creation that only became exposed and revealed with the cessation of prophecy.[8]


            In the continuation of this shiur we will try to understand the nature of the two Temples by comparing the causes of their respective destructions.



(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Rashi: "Whose iniquity was revealed" – they did not conceal their transgressions. "Had their end revealed" – "That after seventy years are accomplished at Babylonia I will take heed of you" (Yirmiyahu 29:10). "The latter have their end still unrevealed" – the people living during the period of the Second Temple concealed their wickedness.

[2] The reference here to the Temple as "bira" might allude to its serving as the seat of God's kingdom.

[3] The Korban Ha-eida explains (s.v. pi'apanu et ha-ketalim): "At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, even the foundations were destroyed, as it is written 'Raze it.' And it says, 'We have smashed the walls,’ because any generation in whose days the Temple is not rebuilt is regarded as if it caused its destruction.

[4] It is very possible that the loss of the resting of the Shekhina and the cessation of the Davidic monarchy were responsible for all the other deficiencies.

[5] The reference is to what was said at the time of the fast, the great confession, the rejection of the foreign gods and the making of the covenant: "And they cried with a great [loud] voice unto the Lord, their God" (Nechemya 9:4).

[6] See especially Eder Ha-yakar, pp. 30-31.

[7] In shiur 26, we cited Rabbi Kook's extensive discussion regarding "The Course of Ideas in Israel" in his Orot, pp. 109ff.

[8] This is a very broad issue which cannot be discussed here at greater length.