First and Second Temple


According to tradition both the First and Second temple were built on ‘Mount Moriah’, the site on which Abraham offered Isaac to G_d. King David built an altar to G_d on the site and a generation later his son, Solomon built the First Temple as a permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, destroyed King Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E. When Herod became king he decided to rebuild the Temple in 19 B.C.E. It cannot be said that the rebuilding of the Temple was a sign of any real religious virtue on Herod’s part for he is well known as a cruel and vicious king who murdered his wife, son and countless others including High Priests without regard. Despite Herod’s violent reign, and the general disregard for him felt by the Sanhedrin and High Priests, the second Temple once again became the centre for Jewish religious life. To understand the effects that the destruction of the Second Temple had on the Jews of Palestine we must first understand the role that it had played in Jewish life up to that point. Many of the developments of religious thought and practice after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, can be seen to reflect rituals being practiced in Second Temple times. Therefore to understand why these changes and reinterpretations occurred we must be informed of some of the preceding traditions.


The Second Temple served many functions for the Jewish community, and even those living in the Diaspora would pray in the direction of the Temple as a sign of their engagement and awareness of it’s importance. It was both the centre for sacrificial rituals, the meeting place of the Sanhedrin, and the destination of pilgrims during festival times. Ancient authors indicate that most of the Jewish people supported all aspects of Temple worship. Philo wrote that throughout the empire Jews ‘collect[ed] money for sacred purposes’[1] and sent it to Jerusalem. According to Josephus the Jews in Mesopotamia made ‘dedicatory offerings’[2] to the Temple in addition to the temple tax of one- half shekel.


Inside the wall of the Herod’s Temple, which was more than 400 metres long, was an enclosed area where the business of the Temple-sacrifice was carried out. In the open air there was a large altar, a basin, a shambles (where the animals were butchered) and cooking facilities. These were directly in front of the roofed sanctuary, which was not much used. It was divided into two chambers. The outer one contained another altar and a candelabrum, the inner was empty. Only the High Priest entered this inner sanctum , and he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Thus the Temple area consisted of areas of increasing sanctity and admission was progressively restricted. Purity was so strictly observed that priests had built the inner area of the Temple complex. This reveals that purity laws had been developed. The ideas of holiness and separation, which allowed only the most pure to come near, informed the entire arrangement of the Temple and it’s rites. The Temple was not only holy because G_d was worshipped there, but also because G_d was there. Jews did not think that G_d was there and no where else, nor that the Temple confined him. Since he was the creator of the universe, he could be approached in prayer at any place. Nevertheless, he was in some special sense present in the Temple. As the author of II Maccabees expressed it, ‘He who has his dwelling in heaven watches over that place [the Temple] itself and brings it aid’.


Every day, without exception, the community as a whole provided two male yearling lambs that were offered to G_d as burnt sacrifices, along with flour, oil and wine[3], one in the morning, to open the temple service, and one in the evening, just before it’s conclusion. On the Sabbath these sacrifices were doubled. The community offered additional sacrifices to mark each new moon, and on the major festivals and the annual fast (Yom Kippur) there were still further community sacrifices. The Torah does not specify the precise purpose of most of the community sacrifices. It would have been simple to interpret the daily burnt offerings as atoning,