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The Secret History of the Holy Temple

This week’s parasha is Pinchas and begins with God’s blessing to Pinchas for putting an end to the immorality conducted by the Israelite men with the Midianite women. Following this, the Torah describes another census, then the incident with the five daughters of Tzelafchad, the appointment of Joshua to succeed Moses, and ends with a long list of holidays and the sacrificial offerings to be brought on those days. Elsewhere in the Torah, we read that these sacrifices must be brought only in the one specific place God chooses (Deuteronomy 12:11).

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

In the Wilderness, and several centuries after, this place was the Mishkan, the “mobile sanctuary”, or tabernacle. Around the first millennium BCE, King Solomon built a permanent sanctuary in Jerusalem which would be known as the First Temple. After the Babylonians destroyed it, a Second Temple was built on the same spot, and was itself destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE. According to tradition, both destructions occurred following the 17th of Tammuz and culminated on the 9th of Av, hence the period of mourning known as the “Three Weeks” which we find ourselves in now. This is the basic history of the Holy Temple that most are familiar with. In reality, the Temple’s history has many more hidden secrets and intriguing ups and downs.

Mishkan, First Temple, and “High Places”

The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) recounts the history of the Mishkan. It was constructed under the leadership of Moses, Betzalel and Aholiab and erected a year after the Exodus. Once in Israel, the Mishkan was in the city of Gilgal for 14 years, during which time the Holy Land was conquered from the Caananites and divided up among the tribes of Israel. Once the conquest was complete, the Mishkan was moved to Shiloh, where it stood for 371 years. Finally, it spent 57 years in the towns of Nov and Gibeon until the Temple was built (480 years after the Exodus, based on I Kings 6:1).

Common Depiction of the Ark of the Covenant

Common Depiction of the Ark of the Covenant

The epicentre of the Mishkan was the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. However, towards the end of the period of Judges, the Ark was removed from the Mishkan and taken into battle against the Philistines in the hopes of bringing about a miraculous victory. No victory was had; the Israelites were defeated, suffered the deaths of the sons of Eli the Kohen Gadol, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas of this week’s parasha), and lost the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines. The Ark and the Mishkan would never reunite again.

King David later brought the Ark back to Jerusalem and placed it in a special tent, while the Mishkan remained in Gibeon. We see that at this point sacrifices were actually brought in both locations – David brought offerings before the Ark in Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:17), while offerings were also brought on the actual altar in Gibeon (I Kings 3:4). In fact, the Tanakh tells us that before the Temple, people brought offerings and sacrifices in various “high places” across the country (I Kings 3:2), and not just the one place “that God chooses”.

It was King Solomon who first attempted to centralize the sacrificial rituals in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, people continued to offer sacrifices across the country instead of trekking all the way to the Holy City. Following Solomon’s death and the split of the kingdom in two, Jeroboam (king of the northern, “Israelite” kingdom) built two more temples – in the cities of Dan and Beit-El. These two temples quickly turned idolatrous, with Golden Calves being the centre of worship. The Temple in Jerusalem also turned idolatrous shortly after, with worship of Asherah trees being particularly common (I Kings 14:23, II Kings 21:7). The Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us that it was primarily because of this idolatry that the Temple was destroyed.

While everyone knows how the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, it was actually sacked and emptied out long before that. Just five years after Solomon’s death, the people of Judah descended into so much idolatry that God sent the Pharaoh Shishak (or Sheshonq) against them. Shishak took away all of the gold and treasure from the Temple, and King Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) replaced what he could with essentially brass replicas (I Kings 14:25-28). So, the First Temple only lasted with all of its original holy vessels for about 35 years, since it was completed in the 11th year of Solomon’s 40-year reign (I Kings 6:38). For its remaining three and a half centuries, it was only a hollow shell of Solomon’s Temple, with counterfeit vessels, and lengthy periods of rampant idolatry.

Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been taken by Shishak as well, since it is no longer mentioned in the Tanakh, except for one reference in II Chronicles 35:3, which describes how Josiah purified and rebuilt Solomon’s Temple. The corresponding passage in II Kings 23 does not mention the Ark. Some suggest that Solomon hid the original Ark somewhere in the Temple Mount, knowing that the kingdom would fall apart after his death. Josiah brought the Ark back from this secret location temporarily, before hiding it again so that the Babylonians could not carry it away (Keritot 5b). Some believe the original Ark is still hidden away deep below the Temple Mount.

The Second (Third, Fourth, and Fifth) Temple

Soon after the destruction of the First Temple, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, and Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their temple. When they came (about 50,000 altogether), the Jews met resistance by the Samaritans. These people claimed to be the original Jews that remained behind while the majority of Jews were taken to Babylon (and Assyria before that). The Babylonian Jews claimed that the Samaritans were imposters, foreigners from another land that were settled in Israel by the Assyrians. The Talmud calls them Kutim, from the place in Iraq where they are said to have originated.

The Samaritans had their own temple erected on Mt. Gerizim, which they consider the original holy mountain (as opposed to Mt. Moriah, where the temples stood). The Samaritans resisted the new Jewish arrival, and prevented them from rebuilding the Jerusalem temple for a while. Ultimately, the Second Temple was built, and the Samaritans would slowly be forgotten. A small number still exist today, and hold on to their traditional beliefs. They still claim to be the original Israelites and “Guardians of the Ark”, and insist that Mt. Gerizim is the holy mountain. Archaeological evidence shows that an elaborate temple dedicated to Hashem did exist on Mt. Gerizim as far back as the 5th century BCE. The temple was destroyed around 128 BCE by the Maccabee warrior-king and high priest John Hyrcanus (Yochanan Hurkanus), the son of Simon the Maccabee, and grandson of Matityahu, the original leader of the wars with the Syrian-Greeks, as commemorated during Chanukah.

Elephantine Papyrus asking the governor of Judea for help in rebuilding the Elephantine temple

Elephantine papyrus asking the governor of Judea for help in rebuilding the Elephantine temple

At the same time, two more temples were erected by Jews outside of Israel. In 1967, archaeologists discovered a Jewish temple in Egypt, on the island of Elephantine (modern-day Aswan). In the middle of the first millennium BCE, Elephantine had a large Jewish population. Various papyri have been found there, among them a letter to the governor of Judea to help rebuild the Elephantine temple. It is not certain when this temple was first constructed. After the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, many Jews fled to Egypt (with the prophet Jeremiah reluctantly joining them) to avoid the Babylonians. It is possible that they built this temple instead of the Jerusalem temple. It is also possible that this temple was built alongside the Second Temple during the early Persian period. The Elephantine temple was gone by the middle of the 4th century.

Some time later, another Jewish temple was built in Egypt, in Leontopolis. We know far more about this temple, since it is mentioned by historical sources like Josephus, and is even mentioned in the Talmud. It was built in the 2nd century BCE by a kohen named Onias (Chonio), the son of Simon the High Priest. The Talmud (Menachot 109b) says this was Shimon HaTzadik, and gives two accounts as to what happened. In one account, Shimon appointed his son Onias to take his place before his death, but his older brother Shimi wrested the high priesthood from him, so Onias fled to Alexandria and built his own temple. This was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 19:19).

Josephus suggests the Leontopolis temple stood for as long as 343 years, and was a centre of sacrifices and offerings. The great Jewish philosopher Philo offered sacrifices there, in addition to the Jerusalem Temple. It appears that in those days it was common to worship God at both temples! Indeed, the Romans were aware of this, and when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Vespasian gave the order to destroy the temple in Leontopolis as well. The order was carried out in 73 CE, putting an end to Jewish sacrificial services.

Since then, Jews have been waiting for a Third (Jerusalem) Temple. However, as we’ve written before, it is highly unlikely that this Temple will offer any sacrifices. Instead, it will be a holy gathering place of unity, peace and prayer; a place for deeper contemplation, meditation, inspiration, and elevation. It will be, as many sources suggest, an eternal edifice that will not have to be built by man at all, but will descend miraculously from Heaven. May we merit to see it soon.

The Unusual Connection between Jacob, Issachar, and Rabbi Akiva  

This week’s Torah reading is Vayetze, which recounts how Jacob – following the advice of his parents – leaves the Holy Land and journeys to the land of Charan. There he meets Rachel, with whom he falls in love instantly, and agrees to labour for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. As the well-known story goes, we see how Jacob’s father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying Leah, Rachel’s elder sister. Jacob is forced to work yet another seven years for his beloved Rachel. The Torah then gives us a detailed account of the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah, setting the foundations for the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who descend from each of the children.

In his commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim), the Arizal focuses specifically on Issachar, the fifth son of Leah. He begins by quoting a verse in Tanakh (I Chronicles 12:33) that describes the tribe of Issachar as yod’ei binah, knowledgeable and wise people. He then draws from the midrash which states that Rabbi Akiva, the famous 2nd century Jewish sage, was Issachar, and that, in addition to being among the greatest rabbis of all time, he was among the aseret harugei malkhut, “The Ten Martyrs” of Israel. These were ten Talmudic sages that were killed mercilessly by the Romans.

Reincarnation and the Ten Martyrs

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

The narrative of the Ten Martyrs appears in many Jewish texts and goes something like this: a certain Roman emperor took an interest in learning the laws and stories of the Torah. He discovered that while the Torah is clear on the rule that kidnapping is punishable by death, the sons of Jacob who kidnapped their half-brother Joseph were never punished for their sin. Technically, by Torah law they should have been put to death.

And so, the emperor summoned ten of the greatest rabbis of the day, among them being Rabbi Akiva and Ishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest. He presented them with this conundrum and they agreed with his conclusion. The emperor decided that the ten rabbis should suffer the fate that was meant to befall the ten sons of Jacob. He decreed a death penalty upon them and had them imprisoned.

During the rabbis’ confinement, Ishmael ben Elisha invoked God’s Ineffable Name to receive communication from Heaven, and found out that this punishment was indeed decreed upon them from Above. The ten rabbis ended up being tragically martyred at the hands of Rome.

The Arizal explains that this punishment was decreed upon them from Heaven because these ten rabbis were none other than the reincarnations of the ten sons of Jacob! In that sense, they deserved their deaths as a rectification for their sins in their past lives. Each of the ten sages paralleled one of the ten sons of Jacob, and Rabbi Akiva was the reincarnation of Issachar.

The Uniqueness of Issachar

The Arizal brings up an interesting grammatical anomaly in the Torah’s text regarding Issachar’s conception. The text reads v’ishkav ima b’lilah hu, which is typically translated as “And he [Jacob] lay with her [Leah] on that night.” However, such a translation would require the text to say b’lilah hahu, whereas the text actually says b’lilah hu, which may be read “at night, he.” The Arizal explains that on that night, he [Jacob] transferred a major part of his own soul into the newly conceived child. Of all the children, Issachar was most like his father, and this is why he (and his descendants) were so wise and knowledgeable, like the patriarch Jacob himself.

Therefore, since Issachar had such a major share in Jacob’s soul, his reincarnation into Rabbi Akiva meant that Rabbi Akiva had a major part of Jacob’s soul, too. And this is why, the Arizal explains, they share a name, since Akiva is simply an Aramaic rendition of Yakov, “Jacob”. This is also why Rabbi Akiva was so exceedingly wise, like Jacob and Issachar.

The Arizal presents a further proof for this by quoting from the text of Jacob’s blessings to his children before his passing. Jacob’s blessing to Issachar was that he should be a chamor gorem, “a large-boned donkey” (Genesis 49:14). In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva tells the story of how before he was himself an observant Torah scholar, he despised all the Torah scholars. He said that he would wish for them to have their bones crushed by the bite of a donkey! The Arizal tells us this is the deeper secret within Jacob’s prophetic blessings, as the similarity of words tie together the lives of Issachar and Rabbi Akiva.

Ultimately, Jacob became Israel and fathered the Jewish people, while the tribe of Issachar was the one that kept Torah wisdom alive throughout Israel’s early history; and finally, it is Rabbi Akiva who is most often credited with saving Judaism from near extinction following the devastating Roman-Jewish wars. Jacob, Issachar, Akiva: three wise figures sharing one soul, and playing a crucial role in the history of the Jewish people.

The Hidden History of Lag B’Omer

This week’s Torah reading is Emor, which begins with a continuation of various priestly and Temple-related laws. The parasha then lists all of the Biblical holidays, starting with the weekly Sabbath, then Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. The holidays of Chanukah and Purim are Rabbinically-instituted, having occurred long after the events of the Torah were complete (although it is important to note that the Torah does hint to those future events, too).

It is here in this week’s parasha that we are also commanded to count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, the period known as Sefirat HaOmer (the meaning of which we have explored in the past; see ‘The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat HaOmer’ in Garments of Light). There are a number of important dates that fall during the Sefirat HaOmer period. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Lag B’Omer, which literally means “the 33rd day of the Omer” (Lag, ל”ג is the Hebrew designation for the number 33), celebrated this past Wednesday evening and Thursday. This festive holiday is marked with lighting bonfires, playing with bows and arrows, and taking a break from the usual mourning customs of the Omer period.Bonfire

The basic story of Lag B’Omer is that during the first 32 days of the Omer Period nearly two thousand years ago, a plague decimated Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. All of his students died, hence the mourning customs still observed today to commemorate that tragic event. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is why the mourning rituals are now lifted.

The big question is: why were Rabbi Akiva’s students punished with a plague? What had they done to deserve this? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) says that apparently these 24,000 students failed to love and respect one another. However, this immediately begs a whole bunch of other questions.

First of all, it was Rabbi Akiva who taught that the greatest principle of Torah is to love your fellow (TY Nedarim 9:4). Could it really be that Rabbi Akiva’s own students failed to uphold their master’s central teaching? And if it really was the case that these students didn’t love or respect each other, then they really weren’t very righteous people, so why are we so fervently mourning their deaths? Throughout history, there have been much greater numbers of much greater people who have perished, yet we do not mourn for such a lengthy period of time for any of them!

What’s Really Going On?

The Talmud (TY Ta’anit 24b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva was a central supporter of Shimon Bar Kochva during the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), also known as the Third Roman-Jewish War. Bar Kochva was initially very successful against the Romans, and it seemed like the Jews would be able to throw off the yoke of the Roman authorities, and rebuild the Temple (after it was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE). Not surprisingly, Rabbi Akiva went so far as to declare Bar Kochva as the Messiah! After all, the major role of Mashiach is to secure Israel’s borders, end the exile, and rebuild the Temple – which Bar Kochva seemed to be doing. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper has written that Bar Kochva’s army may have reconquered Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer itself (hence the holiday), and began the reconstruction of the Temple on that day. In fact, the Third Temple was nearing completion when Rabbi Akiva announced the messiahship of Bar Kochva.

Unfortunately, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head, and it seems that he became a violent dictator, even killing his own uncle, Rabbi Eleazar haModa’i. Soon, his armies fell to the Romans, who brutally quashed the rebellion. The Romans went on a killing spree, massacring countless people in Judea. One of their victims was Rabbi Akiva himself, who was tortured to death with iron combs (Berachot 61b).

It isn’t hard to imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed in a similar fashion, during this tragic time period. The “plague” that took their lives was the Romans, and the war ended on Lag B’Omer. Indeed, one explanation for why we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer is to commemorate the Bar Kochva war, when the Jewish guerilla warriors would light signal fires to each other. It may also explain why there is a custom to this day to play with bows and arrows – implements of war.

So why would Jewish texts say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague? It wasn’t uncommon in those days for the secular authorities to censor various texts. Perhaps the Romans, in a propaganda effort, forbid the Jews from publicly speaking about the real reasons for the deaths of the 24,000. Others suggest that it was the Sassanians, under whose domain the Talmud was completed, that censored the text to discourage Jews from rebelling against Sassanian authority (as they had rebelled against Rome so many times and so devastatingly). The Rabbis therefore had to encode the real history of Lag B’Omer through indirect means, like bonfires and bows and arrows. Maybe this is why they said that Rabbi Akiva’s students died out of failure to respect one another. They knew that such a statement would immediately set off alarm bells, for this is probably the last thing Rabbi Akiva’s students would fail in.

Many scholars of the past, both religious and secular, have explored this possibility in depth, including Rav Sherira Gaon, Nachman Krochmal, Eliezer Levi, and Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, as well as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim and others in modern times.

Rashbi and Kabbalah

Ultimately, the story ends with a small number of Rabbi Akiva’s students – some say five, others a little more – surviving “the plague”, and going on to re-establish Judaism, saving it from extinction. One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi). The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) is explicit in telling us that he hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, together with his son, surviving off of a carob tree. This is yet another piece of evidence suggesting Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans, and not in a plague.

It was Rabbi Shimon who was first to publicly reveal the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. It is said that he did this to his own students on the day of his death – which was the 18th of the month of Iyar, and the 33rd day of the Omer. The central book of Kabbalah, The Zohar, which was first published sometime in the 13th century, is believed to have originated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and is directly based on those teachings that he revealed. According to tradition, those Kabbalistic teachings were so holy and powerful that when Rabbi Shimon expounded on them on that day of his death, the very house in which he and his students were in appeared to be engulfed in flames. This is cited as another reason for lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.

Rabbi Shimon told his students not to mourn his death, for it was a happy occasion: the deepest of spiritual and mystical secrets were now revealed, and would help to preserve the Jewish religion and nation for centuries to come.