History Crash Course #35: Destruction of the Temple
On the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the 9th of Av, the Temple burns to the ground.
We left off the story in the last installment with Vespasian being made Caesar and returning to Rome. His son Titus now takes over the siege of Jerusalem.
Titus attacks just after Passover in the year 70 CE, battering the city with his catapults which propel a rain of stone, iron and fire onto the population. By then, the city defenders are weakened from hunger and perhaps even more so from internal strife. Even so, it takes Titus two months of intense fighting before he is able to breach the outer city walls reach the Temple Mount.
The date for this event is 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz(1) . To this day, religious Jews fast on the 17th of Tammuz in commemoration of this event.
Roman historian, Deo Cassius, reports:
Though a breach was made in the wall by means of engines, nevertheless the capture of the place did not immediately follow even then. On the contrary, the defenders killed great numbers [of Romans] who tried to crowd through the opening and they also set fire to some of the buildings nearby, hoping thus to check the further progress of the Romans. Nevertheless, the soldiers, because of their superstition, did not immediately rush in but at last, under compulsion from Titus, they made their way inside. Then the Jews defended themselves much more vigorously than before, as if they had discovered a piece of rare good fortune in being able to fight near the Temple and fall in its defense.
A horrific slaughter ensues with the Romans taking the city, literally house-by-house. One of the excavations that gives testimony to the destruction is the famous "Burnt House" which is open to visitors in Old City Jerusalem today. Here the skeletal remains of a woman's arm were found where she died on the doorstep of her house, with a spear still lying nearby.
Despite the determined resistance of the Jewish defenders Titus slowly works his way to the Temple Mount. Now a duel to the death ensues, and finally, five months after the Romans had begun this attack Titus orders the Second Temple razed to the ground. The day is the 9th of Av, the very same day on which the First Temple was destroyed.
Deo Cassius again:
The populace was stationed below in the court and the elders on the steps and the priests in the Sanctuary itself. And though they were but a handful fighting against a far superior force, they were not conquered until part of the Temple was set on fire. Then they met their death willingly, some throwing themselves on the swords of the Romans, some slaying one another, others taking their own lives and still others leaping into the flames. And it seemed to everybody and especially to them that so far from being destruction, it was victory and salvation and happiness to them that they perished along with the Temple.
All of the neighboring countryside is denuded of whatever trees remained from the siege to create the giant bonfire to burn the buildings of the Temple to the ground. The intense heat from the fire causes the moisture in the limestone to expand and it explodes like popcorn, producing a chain reaction of destruction. In a day's time, the magnificent Temple is nothing but rubble.
Josephus describes the destruction of the Temple:
While the holy house (The Temple) was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age...but children and old men...and priests, were all slain in the same manner... The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those who were slain... one would have thought the whole city would have been on fire. Nor can one imagine anything greater and more terrible than this noise. (2)
History as Destiny
The destruction of the Second Temple is one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people, and certainly one of the most depressing.
It is a sign that God has withdrawn from (though certainly not abandoned) the Jews. Although the Jews will survive ― in accordance with the promise that they will be an "eternal nation" ― the special relationship with God they enjoyed while the Temple stood is gone.
Sadly, this period of time, perhaps more than any other reflects the maxim that Jewish past is Jewish future, that Jewish history is Jewish destiny.
There's no period of time that more closely reflects what is going on today in Israel and among the Jewish people worldwide. We are still living in the consequences of the destruction of the Second Temple, spiritually and physically. And the same problems we had then are the same problems we have now.
States the Talmud (Yoma 9b): "Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another."
What is the antidote to this problem which is so rampant in the Jewish world today? The answer is ahavat chinam, the Jews have to learn to love their fellow Jews.
There's no hope for the Jewish people until all learn how to communicate with each other, and respect each other, regardless of differences.
God has no patience for Jews fighting each other. It's extremely important to study this period of time carefully because there are many valuable lessons that we can learn about the pitfalls that need to be avoided.
Before setting fire to the Temple, the Romans removed anything of value. Then they harnessed a group of Jewish slaves to take these priceless artifacts to Rome. Their arrival in Rome is memorialized in engravings of the Arch of Titus, still standing there today near the Forum which depicts the Triumph or victory parade held by victorious legions to celebrate their victory and display the spoils of war.
It was the tradition in the Roman Jewish community that Jews would never walk under that arch. On the night of May 14, 1948, when Israel was declared a state, the Jews of Rome had a triumphant parade and marched under the arch. Their message: "Rome is gone, we're still around. Victory is ours."
But at the time it was a horrible disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people died, many more were enslaved. There were so many Jews flooding the slave market after the Great Revolt that you could buy a Jewish slave for less than the price of a horse. Israel was in despair.(3)
Jerusalem has been conquered, the Temple has been destroyed, but it was not over yet.
A group of about 1,000 Zealots escaped and made their way into the desert , near the Dead Sea, where they holed up in the great fortress on top of a mountain plateau called Masada that rises more than 1,200 feet above the shores of the Dead Sea. Masada was built by Herod, the Great, as a place of refuge for him. As such it was practically self-sufficient. With its own water collection system and storage houses that could feed an army for years. What's more, the fortress was practically inaccessible from below and easy to defend.
Indeed, the Zealots manage to survive there for three years.
If you go visit the ruins of Masada, you will see the remains of the fortress as well as the Roman siege wall, camps and ramp that the Romans built, using Jewish slave labor, in order to capture Masada(4) .
Josephus reports on the capture of Masada in 73 CE and the narrative resembles in some way the capture of Gamla. Here, too, the Zealots killed their own families, then each other until finally, there was only one man left, and he committed suicide. Josephus recounts the final speech of Zealot leader, Eleazar ben Yair:
Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time has now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice... It is very clear that we shall be taken within a day's time; but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends...
Let our wives die before they are abused and, our children before they have tasted slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow this glorious benefit upon one another mutually and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument to us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire... and let us spare nothing but our food; for it will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not conquered for want of provisions; but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery." (5)
For the modern state of Israel, Masada is a symbol of Jews who chose to die as free men rather than be enslaved or executed by the Romans, and is held up as a Zionist ideal. Up until recently, Israeli soldiers would go up to Masada to be sworn in, and call out for the mountain to hear and echo back: "Masada will never fall again!" (We will discuss this in greater detail in future installments on modern Zionist history.)
Back in 73 CE when Masada, the last Jewish stronghold, fell, the Romans could finally declare an end to the revolt.
Congratulating themselves on asserting the Roman might against the defiant Jews, the Romans also minted coins depicting a weeping woman and proclaiming Judea Capta, "Judea Captured."
But was it?
The land was no longer under Jewish control, but it had not been since the days of Hasmoneans anyway. True, the Temple, the center of Jewish worship and the symbol of Judaism's special connection to the one God, was gone. But Judaism ― along with all its unique value system ― was alive and well.
Thanks to the foresight of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the center of Torah learning at Yavneh thrived. It was here that the rabbis put together the legal/spiritual infrastructure which would allow the Jewish people to survive without many of the normative institutions which were the backbone of Judaism: Temple and its service, the High Priesthood, the monarchy. It was here that the rabbis institutionalized public prayer as a replacement for the Temple service and made the synagogue the center of Jewish communal life(6).
But most importantly, it was here that the rabbis devised a way of making sure that Judaism lived on in every Jewish home. In the coming years, when the Jews would be dispersed the world over ― doomed for two thousand years to have no common land, no centralized leadership, and aside from Hebrew scriptures, no common language ― they would carry with them their Judaism undiminished.
But that was yet to come.
1) See Talmud ― Taanit 26a-b and Josephus, The Jewish Wars 6.2.1. The Talmud describes the 17th of Tamuz as the day the wall of the city was breached while Josephus describes it as the day the Antonia Fortress that stood to the north of the Temple Mount was demolished by the Romans.
2) Josephus, The Jewish Wars 6.5.1.-Josephus would have us believe that Titus tried to prevent the destruction of the Temple, but the accuracy of such a claim is greatly in doubt. Josephus, who was at this point working for the Romans and became an adopted member of the family of Vespasian and Titus certainly tried to paint them in the best light possible.
3) If you visit the Forum (Ancient capital of the Roman Empire) in the center of Rome you can still see the Arch of Titus which stands along side the most famous landmark in Rome-The Coliseum. The correct name for this giant arena, which seated 50,000 people, is the Flaviun Amphitheater. It was completed in the year 80 C.E. and its primary function was blood sport such as gladiatorial combat. There is probably no other building in the Roman Empire that was more antithetical to Jewish values (i.e. value of life) than the Coliseum. It is sadly ironic that the building was probably done by Jewish slave-laborers from the Jewish revolt and the money for the construction probably came from the booty taken from the destruction of Jerusalem.
4) Masada remains the best preserved Roman siege site in the world. Exactly as the Romans besieged and breached the walls is exactly as you see the site today.
5) Josephus, The Jewish Wars 7.8.6-7.The most obvious question about this dramatic speech is how did Josephus get the text. Josephus writes that rather than join in the mass suicide, two women and a few children hid and so the speech was preserved. The veracity of such a claim is much in doubt. Dramatic speeches were a common literary device created by many ancient historians to spice up the narrative although there is little reason to doubt the accuracy of the story or the fact that the speech, even if it was contrived, was a fairly accurate representation of Zealot sentiments.
6) See; Talmud ― Brachot 28b