Tag Archives: Great Flood

Why Was the Temple Really Destroyed?

‘Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

Tonight, we usher in Tisha b’Av to commemorate a number of tragedies in Jewish history, most notably the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. The first iteration of the Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. The second, originally built by Jewish leaders like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel upon the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile—and later greatly magnified and renovated by King Herod at the end of the 1st century BCE—was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Why were these Temples destroyed? What did the Jewish people really do (or not do) to merit such catastrophes?

We have all heard the simplistic answers before. Now especially, with what’s going on in the State of Israel, many are quick to point out that sinat hinam, baseless hatred and divisiveness among Jews, is the reason. People on the left and right of Israeli society today are warning that sinat hinam will do us in yet again. But the real story is much more complicated, and interesting, than that.

The reasons for the destruction of the First Temple are simpler to understand: there was a general lack of Torah observance. Idolatry was rampant, as described throughout the Tanakh, and there was a plethora of sexual sin and even bloodshed (Yoma 9b). In addition, the people failed to properly observe Shabbat and Shemitah (the Sabbatical year). Among other things that the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) notes are failure to recite Shema twice daily, interfering with children’s Torah education, a lack of honour for elders and priests, and Jews turning a blind eye and not rebuking each other for their sins.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) tells us that following the Babylonian Exile, the Sages that rebuilt Judea and ushered in the Second Temple era convened a special assembly and beseeched God to remove the desire for idolatry. God acquiesced, and idolatry was no longer really an issue among Jews going forward. Thus, Torah observance in the Second Temple era was much better. In fact, it was so much better that it was perhaps too much, and the Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) says the Second Temple was destroyed because people were too exact with the law, and didn’t go lifnim mishurat hadin, “beyond the letter of the law”. This phrase is typically interpreted to mean that they should have been even more stringent than the law requires, but it can also mean the opposite, that they should have been more understanding and rule more kindly and favourably (see Ben Yehoyada here, as well as Rashi on Bava Metzia 83a).

In fact, we know that there was a push to make Jewish law extra strict in the times leading up to the Temple’s destruction. The most infamous case of this was when Beit Shammai took over the Sanhedrin and forcibly passed 18 new decrees, including the requirement to consume only pat Israel (Jewish-made bread), and to forbid all gentile-made cheese (gevinat ‘akum) and gentile-made wine. When this happened, Rabbi Yehoshua sadly remarked that they had “erased the measure”: by making Judaism even more difficult, few would want to observe it and it would ultimately serve to drive people away from God’s law. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4) goes so far as to call this event as tragic as the Golden Calf!

Another major factor in the Temple’s destruction was sexual immorality (Yoma 9b). Although the statement here in the Talmud is said with regards to the First Temple in particular, we know this was an issue in Second Temple times, too, as we see in other places. In Gittin 58a, for instance, we are presented with a convoluted story where a young apprentice desired the wife of his master, so he cooked up a plan that ended with the apprentice stealing the wife of his master, and enslaving the master to serve them. It was at this specific point that God decreed the Second Temple’s destruction. And it was not an isolated case either. In Sotah 47a we read how Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leading sage in Judea during the Second Temple’s destruction, abrogated the entire sotah procedure for a suspected adulteress because there was just too much adultery going on!

There are few things God hates more than sexual licentiousness and public promiscuity. Such behaviour is undoubtedly a cause for catastrophe, and we should keep this in mind when reflecting on the disgusting hyper-sexualization of society going on today. We must not forget the Sages’ teaching that God did not decree the Great Flood until that generation had started marrying two men and even men to beasts (see Beresheet Rabbah 26:5, as well as Chullin 92a-b). The former has now not only become common but bizarrely needs to be celebrated, while the latter might still seem absurd but has started to happen in our days, too. There is an ironic connection to the Temple here that is worth pointing out:

The villain initially cast for the role of destroying the Temple was the Roman emperor Nero (Gittin 56a). However, he soon realized that God was using him as a pawn: Nero learned that God uses despicable people as His agents of evil, so that He could then punish them, too. Nero understood he was that evil pawn, and would eventually perish for it. So, he abandoned the task. From historical sources, we know that he committed suicide because everyone left him—including his own royal guard—as they were fed up with his monstrosity. Nero had killed his wife, then regretted it so much that he found a slave boy that looked like her, castrated him, dressed him up like the wife, and married the boy. This is the kind of villain God tasked with destroying the Temple. Today, such a person might be celebrated by secular society and the mainstream media as a progressive hero.

The task of destroying the Temple was ultimately left to Vespasian and his son Titus. The exact way that it came about is through the infamous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56a). In short, a wealthy man intended to invite his friend Kamtza to his party, but the invitation went to the wrong address and instead came his enemy, Bar Kamtza. The wealthy man wished to eject Bar Kamtza, and Bar Kamtza was so embarrassed he offered to even pay for the entire party if only they would let him stay and not suffer the shame. The host refused and kicked him out unceremoniously. People often misunderstand this story and think that here is an example of terrible sinat hinam that caused the Temple destruction. But that’s not how the story ends!

After getting kicked out of the party, Bar Kamtza said: “the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the [humiliation]!” How could the rabbis at the party stay silent? Angry, Bar Kamtza went to the Romans and told them that Israel is plotting a rebellion. He said he could prove it if they would send an official Roman sacrifice to the Temple. The Romans would see that the Jews would refuse their offering. As the sacrificial animal was being delivered, Bar Kamtza nicked it so that it would be blemished and unfit for offering. The Sages and priests were in a bind: on the one hand, they could not offer up a blemished sacrifice, as this would be insulting to God. On the other hand, rejecting the official Roman offering would certainly insult the Caesar and trigger a cruel response from Rome. One of the leaders at the time, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas, concluded that their hands were tied and they should simply do nothing. The Romans were insulted, and the war began.

What is typically overlooked here is not the villainy of Bar Kamtza or his host, but the weakness, silence, and indifference of the rabbis. In fact, the passage concludes with Rabbi Yochanan teaching: “The ‘humility’ of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The fault is placed not on Bar Kamtza, nor his host, nor the sinful Jewish masses, but squarely on the rabbis.

Today, again, we have rabbinic leaders who stay silent, who are indifferent, who are afraid to act, who don’t empathize with their flock, who rule stringently without heart, and who don’t bother getting involved in difficult issues. We have rabbinic leaders who take bribes masked as “charity” and avoid rebuking the wealthy and powerful; who spend their time in business and politics instead of spiritual upliftment and community building. Rabbinic leaders who do nothing to actually solve the many issues plaguing the Jewish world, and instead cowardly choose to support an unhealthy status quo. The prophet Jeremiah saw this long ago when he quoted Hashem declaring v’tofsei haTorah lo yeda’uni, “and the ‘guardians of the Torah’ don’t know Me!” Those who claim to hold steadfastly to the Torah—the supposed, self-appointed tofsei haTorah—are really the furthest from Hashem.

And so, the Temple was destroyed not simply because of sinat hinam. It was destroyed because of lax Torah observance, and also because of overly strict Torah observance. It was destroyed because of sexual immorality and shameless promiscuity. And perhaps foremost, it was destroyed because of the silence and indifference of rabbinic leaders. The Temple has yet to be rebuilt because we are still dealing with these same problems. Until every Jew speaks out and refuses to play along, nothing will change. Until every Jew rises up and opposes the insanity on both sides of the social, political, and religious spectrum, we shouldn’t expect a rebuilt Temple or a Mashiach. Crying about it and pretending to be sad on Tisha b’Av is essentially pointless—two thousand years of that clearly hasn’t brought us one iota closer. To conclude with an oft-used (and oft-misused) verse: et la’asot la’Hashem, heferu Toratecha! “It is a time to act for God, for they have violated your Torah!” (Psalms 119:126)

Wishing everyone a meaningful fast

More Learning Resources for Tisha b’Av:
The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews
The Powerful Link between Tisha b’Av and Tu b’Av
The Jews Who Destroyed the Temple

The Seven Earths

This week’s parasha, Vayikra, begins outlining all the sacrificial services in the Tabernacle (and future Temple). One category of offerings is called shelamim, “peace offerings”, introduced at the start of chapter 3. Our Sages taught (as cited by commentators like Rashi and Bartenura) that these offerings are called “peace offerings” because they serve to infuse the entire world with peace. The Zohar (III, 9b) picks up on this and opens a discourse on the nature of the “entire world”, and what it is really composed of. The Zohar states that when God created the world, He created “seven heavens above, seven earths [or lands] below, seven seas, seven [great] rivers, seven days, seven weeks, seven years [in a cycle] seven times, and seven thousand years [of civilization] that the world will endure…”

An 1808 Persian illustration of the Seven Heavens

The Zohar here draws from a more ancient Midrash that “all sevens are beloved” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:11). That Midrash expounds on another place in Vayikra that outlines the High Holidays, which are specifically in the seventh month of the year. Why the seventh? The Midrash states that there are seven heavens, and the highest heaven, called Aravot (from Psalms 68:5), is the most beloved. Of the seven earths or lands, the highest is called Tevel (as in Psalms 9:9), which we humans inhabit, and it is most beloved. The seventh generation from Adam was most beloved, for this was the generation of Enoch, who “walked” with God and never died, transforming into an angel. Similarly, the seventh generation of God’s chosen people was most beloved, for Moses was the seventh generation starting from Abraham. The Midrash continues with other sevens, including that the seventh day (Shabbat) is most beloved, as is the seventh Sabbatical year (Shemitah), and the seventh month, Tishrei, which is why the High Holidays are in that month.

Now, the Midrash above seems to suggest that just as the seven heavens are overlayed one on top of another, so too are the seven “earths” overlayed one of top of another. The surface world is our Tevel, and beneath us are six more layers of worlds, respectively called Eretz, Adamah, Arka, Gai, Tziyah, and Neshiya (אֶרֶץ, אֲדָמָה, אַרְקָא, גַּיְא, צִיָה, נְשִׁיָּה). The Zohar first quotes this teaching, tracing it back to Adam himself, and says that the lower worlds are arranged concentrically like an onion. In each subterranean world are distinct creatures that are different than those in our world. However, the Zohar then brings an alternate teaching from the great Rav Hamnuna Saba. This one is absolutely breathtaking because of its precise scientific knowledge, way ahead of its time:

… the entire world spins around like a ball, with some [people] on top and some [people] below. The living beings [across the seven lands] all differ in their appearance because of the different environments in each land, yet are all like other human beings.

When one land has light, another land has darkness, so that when it is daytime for one group [of people], it is nighttime for the other. In one land, it is always daytime, except for a short hour of night. And this is the [true meaning] of what is written in the ancient Book of Adam.

The Zohar here addresses all of our concerns and makes sense of the seven lands. The truth is that the seven lands are all on the surface, just different continents around our globe. The beings in these worlds are not distinct, bizarre creatures, but just like all shar bnei nasha, other normal human beings, but with different skin colours and appearances since they adapt to their environment!

Not only does the Zohar reveal that there are seven continents (something that humans would not uncover for hundreds of more years!) but it also tells us the world is spherical, and that it is rotating “like a ball” (not confirmed by scientists until the 1800s!) The Zohar knows about time zones, too, and says that it is daytime in some continents while it is simultaneously night in other continents. More incredible still, it knows that in the continent of Antarctica (first sighted only in 1820!) it is sometimes entirely day with practically no night, and vice versa. (This is true in the Arctic as well, but the Arctic is not a continent.)

Rav Hamnuna Saba concludes that this is the true meaning of the ancient secret of the seven lands. One should not think that the worlds are subterranean and arranged like an onion, for this is an incorrect interpretation. To help confirm this, the Zohar goes on to relay a story about Rav Nehorai Saba, who rejected the Midrash about the seven lands and did not believe it could be true. It happened that he was once at sea and a terrible storm began to rage. The ship capsized and Rav Nehorai was cast into the depths of the ocean. He washed up on a foreign land, with strange-looking people speaking a language he did not understand. Eventually, a miracle happened and he was teleported back to his home. He would often be found crying in the study halls, and when people asked why, he answered: “Because I sinned against belief in the words of the Sages…” Rav Nehorai would henceforth teach: “Happy are the righteous who labour in the Torah and know the mysteries of the supernal secrets; woe to those who disagree with them and are not believers!”

Rav Nehorai was not alone in his initial doubt. Even the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) living in the 16th century still had a hard time believing in the seven lands, and admitted that it seemed impossible and baffling! He concluded that, like Rav Nehorai, one should accept it on faith alone (see Pardes Rimonim, Gate 6, Chapter 3). Today, we don’t have to be baffled, and we have all the empirical evidence we need to know that Rav Hamnuna Saba was correct all along. Science has finally caught up and confirmed what was once a most profound mystical secret.

Cain’s Children

Elsewhere (I, 9b), the Zohar states that when God banished Cain following his murder of Abel, he was exiled to the land of Arka, one of the “seven lands”. While some erroneously thought this to mean that Cain was somehow sent deep into the nether regions of the planet, the truth is that, as we’ve seen, he was simply banished to another continent. We learn that Cain mated with the people there, and this is where his children came from. This confirms the statement of Rav Hamnuna Saba that the inhabitants of the other lands are human beings, too, and not strange otherworldly creatures. Cain just went to another continent, probably Africa or Asia. (The Torah says in Genesis 4:16 that Cain went to the region of Nod, east of Eden.)

The Zohar above solves another great mystery: if Adam and Eve were the only people, and they only had Cain and Abel, the latter of which died, who could Cain have mated with? The Zohar reveals that there were other, “uncivilized” people, too. Adam and Eve were unique in that they were given a divine intellect, but they were not alone. This also explains why the Torah seemingly mentions the creation of man twice, in both chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. The inescapable conclusion is that chapter 1 of Genesis describes the creation of mankind, all human beings, while chapter 2, in the Garden of Eden, describes the birth of the first fully civilized man, infused with a unique divine spirit, and given the tools to transform the world. Cain would have been the first to set forth and “civilize” the rest of the world. This may be why the Torah specifically tells us that Cain went and built a city (Genesis 4:17).

In any case, Cain’s descendants all perished in the Great Flood, leaving only the line of Seth, from whom Noah and his children descended. Intriguingly, Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764), in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on the Torah, held that the Great Flood did not affect the Americas! Only the Old World of Asia, Africa, and Europe were punished. His reasoning is pretty solid: Had the Flood destroyed everyone around the globe, how could Noah’s children have populated the New World? They didn’t have the advanced ships needed to traverse the oceans! We must conclude that America was spared, and the people there, who were not affected by the sins of the Old World anyway, were completely unharmed. (We probably have to include Australia here, too.)

On this note, it is important to mention that some in the religious world think that the continents only split as a result of the Great Flood. Both Torah and science agree that the continents were once joined together (a landmass scientists refer to as Pangea). However, scientists estimate that the continents split long ago, and it could not have happened within the timeframe of human history. Rav Eybeschutz’s statement also confirms that the continents were already split at the time of the Flood. As the Midrash cited above states, God created the world initially with seven lands, so the seven distinct continents surely already existed at the time of Adam’s creation.

How scientists map the development of the continents, which drift about 2.5 centimetres per year. For how to deal with the age of the universe and reconciling it with Torah chronology, see here.

Continental Sefirot

The three upper Sefirot of mochin (in blue) and the seven lower Sefirot of the middot (in red).

When the Zohar speaks of all the sevens embedded in Creation, it implies that these correspond to the seven lower Sefirot. So, how do we connect the continents to the Sefirot? The Old World three of Asia, Africa, and Europe are surely tied to the three main axes of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet. We generally say that Noah’s sons divided up the three Old continents amongst themselves, with Shem getting Asia, Ham getting Africa, and Yefet getting Europe. The Zohar (I, 73a) tells us that the three sons embody Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet, so we can easily conclude that Asia is Chessed, Africa is Gevurah, and Europe is Tiferet.

Asia is by far the largest continent, and Chessed is also called Gedulah, “largeness”. Asian cultures are known for their warm hospitality and their altruistic, tight-knit communities, a sure sign of Chessed. There is no doubt that hot Africa, with its difficult history, is the severity of fiery Gevurah, also called Din, harsh “judgement”. Tiferet is “beauty”, sharing a close root with Yefet, which means pretty much the same thing.

It is worth briefly exploring the unique case of the land of Israel. Geographically, we consider Israel to be a part of Asia, and those Asian qualities mentioned above are certainly prominent in the Holy Land. Yet, mystical texts typically associate Israel with Tiferet, which is closer to Europe. Indeed, Israel’s history is most closely intertwined with that of Europe, and not only in the present day when Israel is politically closer to Europe than Asia, but even in ancient times during its close encounters with Greece and Rome. Geologically, meanwhile, the land of Israel is actually part of the African continental plate! (This makes a lot of sense, too, since Canaan was a son of Ham, who got Africa.) We have to conclude that Israel, being a special land, is really outside of the seven divisions, and has elements of all the continents and all the Sefirot. (It’s important to note here that the continental plates don’t match up exactly with our divisions of the continents, since Europe and Asia are part of one Eurasian plate, while India and Arabia have their own tectonic plates.)

The “twin” continents of North and South America are undoubtedly the “twin” Sefirot of Netzach and Hod. This explains well the qualities of both: North America is the place that contains history’s most dominant and powerful empire—a fitting aspect of “victorious” Netzach. South America, meanwhile, is best known for its vibrant cultures and colours, and its showmanship in music, dance, and sports—a clear aspect of the “splendorous” Hod.

Australia is best paired with Yesod. An interesting parallel here can be made when we remember that the personification of Yesod was Joseph. He was a prisoner sent “down under” unjustly, but nonetheless emerged from this ordeal into greatness. Australia, too, is infamous for its origins as a penal colony, where the British originally sent their prisoners. (Australia celebrates its national holiday, Australia Day, on January 26th, the anniversary of the day that the penal colony was established in 1788!)

Finally, there is no doubt about the nature of cold and empty Antarctica at the very bottom of the globe. This is the “empty” Malkhut at the bottom of the Sefirot, with little energy of its own to emit and serving only as the receptable for the Sefirot above. We might learn from this that, while Antarctica has seemingly played no role in human history thus far, it has a significant role to play in the future era of Malkhut, when God’s Kingship will be revealed once again—an era which we all hope and pray will be upon us imminently.

Beresheet Q&A

Who was Og and how did he survive the Great Flood? What exactly were the Ten Trials of Abraham?What is the difference between Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (“Chabad”)? Which of the “Cosmic Shemittot” are we in? Where was the Garden of Eden? Find out the answers to these and other big questions in Sefer Beresheet: