The Destruction of the Second Temple

The destruction of the Temple, and the subsequent destruction of the national entity of the Jewish people, occurred to a great degree because of warfare among the Jews themselves. The warring groups besieged in Jerusalem destroyed all hopes of victory.

In the midst of all the carnage, the leadership of the Jewish people passed, on a permanent basis, from the hands of political leaders to the hands of religious leaders. And the primary religious leader at the time was the famous Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who though a disciple of the great Hillel was not a descendant of Hillel.

The Talmud says that for forty years he was a business man; for forty years he studied Torah; and for forty years he led the Sanhedrin. He served together with Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, who was a descendant of Hillel. Rabbi Shimon disappeared at the beginning of the war. We do not know exactly what happened to him. Most authorities say that he died during the war. It is not clear if he died of natural causes or because of the war. Either way, to a certain extent he abdicated his powers as Nasi (“prince” or “leader”) to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.

Greetings to the Emperor

While Jerusalem was under siege there was an agreement between the Zealots and Romans that every night the dead would be allowed to be taken out of the city to be buried. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had himself placed in a coffin to cross the lines and come to the Roman general Vespasian. The Zealot guard, suspecting a trick, actually ran a sword through the coffin, but Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai miraculously survived.

He came before Vespasian and informed him that he was about to become the emperor of Rome. At that moment, a messenger arrived telling Vespasian that he was indeed appointed the emperor. In his elation over the good news he granted Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai three wishes.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, he asked a) that the family of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel be spared, b) that the great holy man of the era, Rabbi Tzadok, who had fasted on a regular basis for forty years, be given medical attention, and c) that he spare Yavne (Jamnia). This last request was immortalized in the Talmud with the words, “Give me Yavne and its sages.” In other words, with this last request he asked Vespasian to spare the Sanhedrin and let it be reconstituted as an academy in the town of Yavne, promising him that they would not mix in military matters.

The question arose why he didn’t ask for something grander. For instance, why didn’t he ask that the Temple or Jerusalem be spared? The Talmud is of the opinion that he knew such a wish would not be granted, since it flew in the face of Vespasian’s entire campaign. Consequently, he did not want to waste his wish, so to speak. The Jerusalem Talmud seems to indicate that he did ask him – and he was refused. Vespasian refused it but granted him three other wishes.

In any event, Vespasian was thrilled because he thought that the old Jew didn’t know what to ask for. He considered the requests to be more or less meaningless. However, it was the Roman who was being had.

The victory of Rome would be nullified because the line of Hillel (the line of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel) would live and provide spiritual leadership for the Jewish people. By keeping the holy man Rabbi Tzadok alive, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai relied on the principle that one righteous people can influence and protect an entire generation. Finally, by allowing the Sanhedrin to reconstitute as an academy in Yavne the Jewish people were able to survive throughout the ages.

Whereas Vespasian thought he was giving him nothing, in reality he was giving him everything. Despite the destruction of country and Temple, the Jewish people emerged from the conflict with their religious leadership and religious infrastructure intact, elements that would allow them to outlast Rome, not to mention numerous other situations and tyrants in ensuing history.

The Destruction

When Vespasian left for Rome he left the army in charge of his son, Titus. Late in 69 CE he brought his catapults, siege towers and battering rams to the walls. They destroyed the outer wall and then the second, inner wall. Then he laid a heavy siege that caused a hunger and pestilence to rage throughout the city.

While this was happening the Jewish generals inside the city were still fighting among themselves, slaughtering each other. Finally, the Romans tightened the siege even more until in the spring of 70 CE they were at the last wall. It was breached in the month of Tammuz. The Romans fought their way through the city, but met incredibly fierce resistance and suffered enormous casualties from the desperate fighters, but advanced anyway until they surrounded the Fortress of Antonius, which guarded the Temple.

According to Josephus, a Roman soldier took a torch and threw it against the beautiful tapestries that Herod had made for the Temple and that hung along its walls. When they caught fire the Romans attempted to put it out, but there was not sufficient water. Somehow the fire was so intense that even the stone took hold and the building collapsed. The Talmud says that it burned not only on the late afternoon of the ninth of Av, but the entire day of the tenth.[1] It was just a raging conflagration.

They were unable to put out the fire and the entire Temple burned – along with thousands of Jews, according to Josephus. Many of the distraught defenders jumped into the flames, feeling that if the Temple was going up in flames then the Jewish people were going up in flames. In general, desperation and despair was so rampant that thousands and thousands of Jews committed suicide. This type of suicidal behavior is rare among the Jewish people, and indeed was performed mostly by the Zealots, not adherents of the Pharisees, who followed Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai’s lead and were not willing to associate the national death of the Jewish people with the end of the Jewish people.

We will see that this will happen at Masada too. The last defenders — generally from the Sicarii, Zealots and Nationalists — kill themselves rather than fall into Roman captivity. The Pharisees were willing to undergo the Roman yoke because they felt they would be able to see to it that the Jewish people would survive.

The only piece of the entire Temple compound left today is the fragment of the Western Wall, which was the wall to the Outer Courtyard to the Temple Mount itself.


With the destruction of the Temple the Romans continued a war of extermination against the Jews. They moved south and conquered the fortress of Herodian. There was one other Jewish fortress in Trans-Jordan, which the Romans destroyed. The final place controlled by Jews was the fortress of Masada, which was commanded by Elazar ben Yair, one of the leaders of the Sacarii.

Titus had captured the other two Sacarii leaders and paraded them in chains during the triumph through the streets of Rome before executing one of them, Shimon bar Giora, and sentencing the other, Yochanan Gush Chalav, to spend the rest of his life in hard labor. He died a few years later in the Roman dungeons. Elazar ben Yair had escaped Jerusalem and, together with about a thousand people, found refuge in Masada.

There he was surrounded by Roman forces and a three-year siege ensued. The Romans built a great ramp up the sheer face of the cliff, remnants of which can be seen today. They used 30,000 Jewish slaves to build that ramp, thus putting the defenders in the awful dilemma of firing upon their own people to prevent completion of the ramp.

They held out until 73 CE when the ramp was almost complete and it was obvious that the Romans would assault the walls and win. Elazar ben Yair, in the famous story, again recorded in Josephus, called a meeting and declared that they were not going to allow themselves to become slaves to Rome. Instead they would commit suicide.

And that is what they did. When the Romans finally entered the fortress in the morning they found only corpses.

In the popular mind, the stand at Masada is very heroic. It sounds dramatic and certainly included a great deal of heroism. Nevertheless, the traditional Jewish viewpoint is that they were wrong. It was a useless, futile act that was destructive rather than strengthening. It is only in our time that Masada became popular, inspiring an extreme bravado that can be more counter-productive than productive.

Dispersed Throughout the Roman Empire

Out of 10,000 Jews that were brought to Rome almost all were sold into slavery, as Josephus writes. However, there were still wealthy Jews in the Roman Empire and they were eager to redeem their brethren from slavery (“redeeming captives” is a very important commandment in Jewish law). Others collected money for the purpose. Jews were able to work out underground railroads for escaping slaves.

The net effect was that in a short amount of time there were a vast number of Jews who found themselves living all across the Roman Empire. They were called “freed men,” which meant that there were originally slaves but had since obtained their freedom. Many of them became citizens of the Roman Empire, indeed citizens of Rome itself. Rome became a city with a very large and strong Jewish population.

The influence in the Jews is poignantly seen in the rise of anti-Semitism in the Roman Empire and among the speeches of the Roman Senate. All of that happened because Rome brought so many Jews as slaves into its empire.

Hope Amidst Despair

Ultimately, the influence of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai won out over that of Titus. He passed many rules of public policy and instituted many “remembrances to the Temple.” Some were prohibitions – for instance, the prohibition against having musical instruments in the synagogue. The Temple had a full orchestra. Forbidding music in the synagogue serves as a remembrance to the Temple.

At the same time, there were remembrances to imitate exactly what was in the Temple. For example, it is forbidden to have a seven-branched candelabra lit in the synagogue, because the one in the Temple had seven branches. Of course, the center bima (stage area where the Torah scroll rests when it is read from) in the synagogue is a remembrance of the altar, which was in the center of the courtyard.

From the very midst of the despair and destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted all these remembrances, thereby keeping the Temple alive in the Jewish people. His decrees became part and parcel of Jewish life – and have remained so for over 1900 years. As such he was able to institute in the heart and soul of the Jewish people a belief in the Temple and the hope that it will be rebuilt again, along with the belief that the Jewish nation will rise again.

[1] In fact, there is an opinion in the Talmud that the day of destruction should be the tenth of Av instead of the ninth because the building was actually destroyed on the tenth. Nevertheless, since it started on the ninth, and because of the connection to the destruction of the First Temple, the ninth remained the memorial day for the destruction of both Temples.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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