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

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion






Rav Yitzchak Levi





            One expression of the differences between the two Temples with respect to the resting of God's Shekhina is the relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law.[1] Relating to the connection between the .merits of the two Temples and the reasons for their destruction, the Sefat Emet writes:


The essence of the first Temple was the Written Law. [2] Thus, the Sages said that it was destroyed on account of idol worship, incest and bloodshed. But the essence of the second Temple was the Oral Law. They therefore said that it was destroyed by groundless hate… The idea of the Oral Law is really the entirety of the good traits implanted in the hearts and souls of the people of Israel, which stems from the root of Israel's conjoining with God. And, therefore, owing to the love and unity of the people of Israel, there is no deficiency. (Sefat Emet, Purim 5638).


The Written Law is impressed with the seal of God, and therefore it suited the first Temple, in which the Shekhina rested. Impressed in the Oral Law is the seal of the people of Israel, and therefore it suited the second Temple, in which the Shekhina did not rest.[3]


In light of this difference, we can well understand the Gemara in Rosh ha-Shana:


Rav Yehuda bar Idi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: The Shekhina left Israel by ten stages [lit., made ten journeys]… and the Sanhedrin correspondingly wandered to ten places of banishment. (Rosh Hashana 31a)


            Rashi explains (ad loc.): "All these places of banishment of the Sanhedrin refer to the second Temple, whereas the journeys of the Shekhina refer to the first Temple." During the second Temple period, when the Shekhina did not rest in the Temple, and its essence was the development of the Oral Law, the banishment of the Sanhedrin – the removal of the Oral Law's supreme institution – is what expressed the process of the destruction.




            The Shela writes (Hilkhot Ta'anit 57a):


The second Temple was destroyed on account of the sin of groundless hate, and owing to our many sins, we have not yet been cleansed of this sin. Therefore, the son of Yishai has still not come. What follows from this is that the sin of the first Templesins between man and God, namely, idol worship – was the opposite of "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul." And the sin of the second Temple – sins between man and his fellow, namely, groundless hate – was the opposite of "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself"


            The first Temple was destroyed on account of sins between man and God, including idol worship, which is the very opposite of "And you shall love the Lord your God." The second Temple was destroyed on account of sins between man and his fellow – on account of groundless hate, which is the very opposite of "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." The first Temple was connected to the resting of the Shekhina – the direct connection between God and Israel – and therefore the sins that brought about its destruction were sins that caused a severance of this connection and the cessation of the resting of the Shekhina. The second Temple was connected to "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself," and therefore it was groundless hate and division that led to destruction, exile and dispersion among the nations of the world.


            The Maharal offers a similar explanation. The way he formulates it is that the three sins that led up to the destruction of the first Temple are connected to impurity. Since what distinguished the first Temple was the resting of the Shekhina, impurity led to its removal. In contrast, the Shekhina did not rest in the second Temple; what distinguished the second Temple was the unity of Israel that was reached through the Temple. And, therefore, what destroyed it was the groundless hate that divided Israel.


You might ask: Why was the first Temple destroyed on account of these three sins, whereas the second Temple was destroyed on account of groundless hate? And you must not say that this was a matter of chance. Moreover, these three sins, namely, idol worship, incest and bloodshed, have a common denominator in that in all three cases, one must give up one's life rather than transgress. Why were these three an element in the destruction? The simple explanation is that in the first Temple the Shekhina was among them and this lay the distinction of the first Temple, it being unique in that the Shehina rested in it. Therefore it was destroyed when they were no longer fit for the Shekhina to rest among them, namely, when they defiled the Temple. God, may He be blessed, does not rest among them in their uncleanness unless their sin was unintentional. About that it is written: "And so he shall do for the Tent of Meeting, that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness" (Vayikra 16:16). And these three sins are called uncleanness, as it is stated in tractate Shevu'ot in the first chapter (7b): "And he shall make atonement for the sanctuary for the uncleanness of the children of Israel" – I should include in this idol worship, incest, and bloodshed. Idol worship, for it is written: "To defile My sanctuary" (Vayikra 20:3); incest, for it is written: "You shall not commit any of these abominations… that you shall not defile yourselves in them" (ibid. 18:26-30); bloodshed, "And you shall not defile the land in which I dwell" (Bamidbar 35:34). And therefore it was for these three uncleannesses that the Temple was destroyed. But the Shekhina did not rest in the second Temple as it did in the first Temple, and therefore it was not destroyed on account of these three sins. But the second Temple's distinction lay in Israel themselves. And clearly Israel became united through the Temple, for they had one priest and one altar, and the bamot were forbidden, and there was no division and separation in Israel. This is clear, and it will be further clarified in the following chapter. Through the Temple they become one whole nation. And for this reason the Temple was destroyed on account of groundless hate, for their hearts were divided and they became separated, and they were unfit for the Temple which is the unification of Israel. (Netzach Yisra'el, chap. 4)


The common denominator of all these explanations is the assumption that the causes and consequences of the two destructions is in some way connected to the essence of each Temple. The essence of the first Temple was the resting of the Shekhina. Thus, it was destroyed on account of idolatry, which nullifies the love of God and the resting of His Shekhina, and as a result of the destruction, prophecy ceased, it too being a means for the resting of the Shekhina. The essence of the second Temple lay in the distinctive qualities of Israel, and therefore it was destroyed on account of groundless hate, and in the wake of the destruction, there came exile and dispersion.




            In his book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu (pt. 1, pp. 214-216}, Rav Dessler explains the difference between the destruction of the first and second Temples from a mussar perspective:


Based on what we explained above, we can understand the difference between the exile of Bavel and the exile of Rome. The first Temple was destroyed because the people sinned with idol worship, incest and bloodshed, all of which are rooted in lust. Surely Chazal have said: "Israel worshipped idols only to allow forbidden sexual relations in public" (Sanhedrin 63b). And similarly their bloodshed was directed against those who wished to interfere while they were satisfying their desires.

On the face of it, we find another reason for the exile of Bavel – that which Scripture states: "Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies' land, etc" (Vayikra 26:34). And Chazal have explained that the seventy years of the exile of Bavel corresponded to the seventy sabbatical years that were not properly observed (see Rashi, ad loc.). When, however, we examine the matter more deeply, we find that this transgression is the root of the aforementioned sins. The sabbatical year – "the sabbath of the land" – represents the holiness that is found in nature, just as Shabbat sanctifies the six days of the week, as is well known. The cancellation of shemita means that we refrain from bringing holiness into our world, so that spiritual ascent becomes impossible. And what is more, a person falls into the hands of uncleanness and lust, which results in the three severe sins mentioned above.

Thus, when their measure became full, they fell into the hands of the kingdom of Bavel, which was marked by the quality of lust, the Temple was destroyed, and they remained in exile there for seventy years. They had to stand this difficult test, to be exiled from the holy land and live among the nations whose entire influence was similar to the quality which had caused them to stumble, so that they would strive with all their remaining strength and repair their sin at its root…

When they returned to Eretz Israel they were still subjugated to Persia, because they were still deficient in their spiritual perfection. Therefore the construction of the second Temple was with the permission of King Koresh and under his control. And they descended to a level at which prophecy was removed and manifest miracles disappeared from the second Temple. And they were left with nothing but the Torah. The men of the Keneset ha-Gedola strengthened and reinforced the Torah through enactments and fences, and magnified Torah study by increasing the number of students. However, when they were negligent in the observance of the Torah, the exile of Greece came upon them…

At the end of the second Temple period, quarreling and hatred intensified in Israel. As Chazal said: "The second Temple – why was it destroyed? Because of groundless hate" (Yoma 9b). That is, really "groundless," not as a result of competition in attaining a certain objective. Pride was the root of this desire for absolute control that brought them to hate their fellows, for they were unable to tolerate the very existence of others.

Pride also gave rise to impudence – to sin without any shame whatsoever, as Chazal said: Jerusalem was destroyed because nobody felt shame in front of the other, as it is stated: "They should have been ashamed when they had committed abomination; but they were not at all ashamed" (Yirmiyahu 6:15) (Shabbat 119b)… When a person is ashamed of his deeds, it is because he feels that there is a contradiction between his deeds and what he apprehends with his reason, and the pangs of his conscience press him to conceal his deeds. Therefore, when a person sins and is ashamed, "the sin is not complete," for his shame indicates that his conscience is demanding that he do nothing against the will of God. Thus, there is not yet total destruction of spirituality. But when a person is not ashamed of his deeds, when he does not care whatsoever that his actions contradict what he knows and apprehends, "the sin is complete," for his entire being, his actions and his mind, rebel with impudence against heaven. The people of that generation who had no shame, who through their pride reached total destruction of knowledge and spirituality, caused the destruction of the Temple

When the quality of pride spread and intensified among the people of Israel, to the point that their measure became full, the Temple was destroyed, and they were handed over to the fourth kingdom (Edom, Rome, the seed of Amalek), whose quality was pride and denial in the form of "my strength and the might of my hand," "me and nothing else"…


            The destruction of the first Temple was rooted in lust, and therefore Israel was exiled to Bavel, which was characterized by lust. The destruction of the second Temple was rooted in pride – the desire for absolute control, which brought Israel to groundless hate, for nobody could tolerate the very existence of the other – and therefore, they were exiled by Rome, which was characterized by pride.


            In a slightly different manner, and in continuation of the ideas cited earlier, Rav Dessler's words correspond to the essential differences between the two Temples. Lust is a flaw in the material desires of man, and therefore it brought to the destruction of the first Temple, the essence of which was the connection between material life in all its aspects and God, and which was destroyed on account of the sin of idol worship. Pride is a flaw in ideas: after the removal of the inclination for idol worship, the essence of the second Temple was drawing close to God in a spiritual-intellectual manner – and its failure lay in the desire to rule over others and in impudence toward God.




            The Gemara in Yoma states:


Rav Katina said: Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the keruvim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another. And they would say to them: Look! You who are beloved before God as the love between man and woman. (Yoma 54a)


            Rav Chisda raises an objection against the words of Rav Katina: Even the Levites who carried the vessels of the Mishkan in the wilderness were not permitted to gaze upon them, and they had to wait until the priests covered them, as it is stated: "But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die" (Bamidbar 4:20). How then were the Jewish people permitted to gaze upon the ark and the keruvim? The Gemara answers by way of a metaphor proposed by Rav Nachman:


Rav Nachman said: This may be likened to a bride. As long as she is in her father's house she is reserved in regard to her husband, but when she comes to her father-in-law's house, she is no more so reserved in regard to him. (ibid.)


            That is to say, the Mishkan in the wilderness was like the state of betrothal, when modesty is required and one is forbidden to gaze, whereas the fixed Temple in Eretz Israel was like the state of marriage, when gazing is permitted.


            Rav Chana bar Katina objects to this answer from what is related in the mishna in Shekalim (6:2) about a priest who uncovered the place of the ark and then died at the hand of heaven so that he not see the ark. Rav Nachman answered: "You ask from a case of divorce? If she was divorced, they return to their original desire." That is to say, the destruction of the first Temple was like divorce, and in the second marriage – i.e., the second Temple – modesty returned, as during the period of betrothal. We see then that in a certain sense the second Temple was like the Mishkan – the period of betrothal – and different from the first Temple.




            Thus far, we have seen various aspects of the distinctive features of the two Temples. Some sources note the superiority of the second Temple in size, splendor, the number of years it stood, and the absence of idol worship, but other sources clearly indicate the superiority of the first Temple with respect to the resting of the Shekhina therein. In light of this the question arises: Why in fact was the second Temple larger and more splendid than the first?


In several places in his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Ovadya Seforno emphasizes that God has no need for luxury buildings, and therefore, not only is the resting of the Shekhina not dependent on the structure's size and grandeur, but to a certain degree, there is an inverse relationship between them: The highest level of the resting of the Shekhina was in the Mishkan – a temporary structure adapted to the conditions of the wilderness – whereas in the second Temple, which was the largest and grandest sanctuary, the resting of the Shekhina was at the lowest level. Seforno expresses this idea in various contexts, two of which we will bring below:[4]


[The Torah] attests to, and defines the [quantity] of gold, silver and brass included in the work of the Mishkan, which was a very small amount, compared to the riches of the first Temple… and even more so were the riches of Herod's temple. Nevertheless, the appearance of God's glory was more constantly found in the Mishkan of Moshe than in the first Temple and was not present at all in the second Temple. This teaches that it is not the amount of riches and the size of the structure which causes the Shekhina to dwell in Israel, but God desires those who fear Him and their deeds that He should dwell in their midst. (Seforno, Shemot 38:24)


Behold, the dedication of the altar at that time was, in general, a small event compared to the dedication of the first Temple with its many vessels, its riches and its abundance of sacrifices… And even though the event was very small in comparison to the dedication of [the Temple of] Shelomo, nonetheless, when Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting he heard the same voice that he had heard prior to the act of the Golden Calf. This did not occur in [the time of] the first Temple and certainly not in [the period of] the second Temple, for no prophet went into the Temple to prophesy in such a manner that he would attain prophecy at once. Now this was because this dedication [of the Sanctuary] was acceptable [to God], as were those who made the offerings, and as was Moshe who was the shepherd. (Seforno, Bamidbar 7:88-89)


            The enlargement of the outer altar in the second Temple stemmed, in paradoxical manner, from the diminished presence of the Shekhina in it:[5]


We learnt elsewhere: When the children of the exile went up [to Eretz Israel], they added thereto four cubits on the south and four cubits on the west, like a [Greek] gamma. What is the reason? Rav Yosef said: Because it [the first] was not sufficient. Abaye said to him: It was sufficient for the first Temple, when it is written: "Yehuda and Israel were many, as the sand which is by the sea in multitude" (I Melakhim 4:20); would it be insufficient for the second Temple, of which it is written: "The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand" (Ezra 2:64). There [in the first Temple] the heavenly fire assisted them; here [in the second Temple] it did not assist them. [Rashi: Here – in the second Temple the heavenly fire did not assist them, as we learned in the first chapter of Yoma (21b): "I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified" - [even though it is read as va-ekavda] it is written "va'ekaved" – without a he, because] it was missing five things. These are the five things that were missing in the second Temple, and fire is one of them. And we said there: It was there, but it did not assist.] (Zevachim 61b)


            In similar fashion the Tosafot (Menachot 106a) cite in the name of the Arukh:


Keeping off the raven… sharp points were set in to the roof of the sanctuary to keep the ravens away, so that they not perch on it… The Arukh further explained: In the first Temple, where the Shekhina rested, it was not necessary to keep off the ravens, for birds did not fly over it. But in the second Temple, the sanctity of which was not like the sanctity of the first Temple, it was necessary to keep off the ravens.


            The Chatam Sofer in his novellae to Bava Batra (3a) regarding the verse, "The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former" (Chaggai 2:9),[6] may have had a similar idea in mind:


In the first Temple, the Shekhina and the tablets [of the law] were the main thing and the Temple itself was secondary, like a peel to a fruit. In the second Temple, however, which was missing these things, the glory of the Temple itself was more essential. In this matter it is the latter [house], for in the third Temple, may it speedily be rebuilt in our days, the glory of God will be in it in stronger force, and the Temple itself will be secondary to it.


            We see then that not only does the size and splendor of the second Temple not stand in contradiction to the absence of the Shekhina, but rather they follow from it.




            In this shiur we continued our discussion of the fundamental differences between the first and second Temples as they are reflected in the words of Chazal regarding the distinctive points of each of the Temples and the causes of their destruction. We also clarified the meaning of the abolition of the inclination for idol worship.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] The sources in this section are taken from Rav Moshe Odas's book, Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evne, Jerusalem 2006, chapter "Bein Bayit Rishon le-Bayit Sheni," p. 374ff.

[2] The connection between the Written Law and prophecy is clear.

[3] Rabbi Kook expanded on this relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law in his Orot ha-Torah, chap. 1, letter 1.

[4] See also his commentary to Shemot 20:19-20; 40:36.

[5] The three sources that follow are cited by Rav Moshe Odas; see note 1.

[6] I was pointed to this source by Rav Moshe Odas; see above note 1.