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Talmudic Methodology - How Did the Greeks Defile the Temple?

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion



How Did the Greeks Defile the Temple?

by Rav Moshe Taragin


One of the salient but often neglected components of the Chanuka miracle was the repurification of the Beit Ha-mikdash - ve-tiharu et mikdashekha. This assumes, of course, that the Temple had been contaminated by the idolatrous worship of the Greeks. Although from a phenomenological/metaphysical standpoint the very entry into the mikdash and the vile actions committed therein constituted a pollution of its kedusha, the question still remains: Al pi halakha - was the kedusha actually compromised and were the stones and utensils prohibited for re-use? We are, after all, aware of the halakha "ein adam osser davar she-eino shelo", a person cannot impose a prohibition upon something which he does not own. For example, I cannot, through neder (a halakhic oath), confer an issur upon someone else's item. Similarly, by worshipping someone else's animal, a person cannot confer upon it the status of "avoda zara" and its concomitant issurim. How could the invading Greek armies have imposed a prohibition upon that which they didn't own. This, then, becomes the principal hurdle to overcome in terms of understanding how the Greeks defiled the Beit Ha-mikdash by imposing upon its utensils an issur of avoda zara.

The gemara itself implicitly asks the above question but its answer, rather than clarifying, stirs a large debate among the Rishonim. In Avoda Zara (52b) the gemara bases the decision of the Chashmona'im to "bury" the stones of the mizbei'ach after they returned upon a pasuk in Yechezkel 7. The prophet predicts (v. 12) the Babylonians entering to the mikdash during the destruction of the First Temple, writing "U-va'u bah peritzim ve-chileluha" - scoundrels will enter and profane the mikdash. The Chashmona'im extrapolated from this reference that when Gentile assailants enter the mikdash and avail themselves of its utensils for their ritual worship, the utensils become forbidden and the kedusha is halakhically compromised. What the pasuk does not address, however, is the halakhic mechanism by which the kedusha is affected. This task is left up to the Rishonim. After all, ein adam osser davar she-eino shelo!!!

Rashi in Avoda Zara (52b) provides the key toward solving this problem. He asserts that once the Gentiles entered the mikdash all its utensils LOST their kedusha; automatically, then, they became hefker - the property of no one. The Yevanim obtained ownership (by seizing the hefker), and through worshipping avoda zara with these utensils they imposed the status and the issurim of "avoda zara". Rashi is alluding to an interesting condition regarding the monetary status of hekdesh. The ba'alut (proprietorship) upon hekdesh is a FUNCTION of the kedusha. Since we are not dealing with OWNERSHIP by a particular person but rather an ASSOCIATION with a particular institution, the ownership is atypical. Said otherwise, there exists no objective or intrinsic monetary ownership of hekdesh. Rather, there is a status of "hekdesh" which mandates certain halakhot and also associates the item with a particular entity which "possesses" that item - i.e. the institution of hekdesh. Once the item loses its kedusha and its status, it is no longer OWNED by hekdesh, since its ownership in the first place was only a consequence of its halakhic status and the attendant kedusha. (See Afterword for parallels of this concept.) Rashi explains that the Gentiles were able to impose the issur of avoda zara because they were considered the halakhic owners of these items. What Rashi does not address is why exactly the kedusha disappeared immediately upon the entry of the Greeks. What mechanism dismantled the kedusha?

To skirt the issue of Rashi, the Tashbatz (Volume III Responsa 5) maintains that when the Greeks entered the mikdash the Jewish authorities actually were mafkir the utensils (renounced their ownership), actively creating a state of hefker and allowing the Gentiles to assume possession and prohibit these items through their pagan worship. This position is historically suspect and somewhat hard to imagine, but the very fact that the Tashbatz felt compelled to adopt it indicates his uneasiness with Rashi's principle of automatic loss of kedusha and consequent hefker.

To return to Rashi's position, how exactly did these items forfeit their kedusha? Remember, once they lost their kedusha, Rashi maintains, they were automatically hefker and at the disposal of the Greeks. We must now investigate the exact mechanism by which the halakhic kedusha of these utensils was removed by the marauding Yevanim. The Mishna La- melekh (in his Sefer Parashat Derakhim) and the Maharit (at present I cannot find the exact teshuva), both posit a very interesting concept which has halakhic and even theological import. Any utensil of halakhic kedusha which lies in the possession of a Gentile automatically loses its kedusha. Once it is bereft of its kedusha, according to Rashi, its legal ownership fades and the Greeks may take possession.

The Shita Mekubetzet in Bava Metzia (24b) cites a teshuva of the Maharam Me-Rotenburg which applies a similar principle in a more limited scope. Mere possession of an item by a Gentile does not suffice to dispossess it of its kedusha. However, any time one of these items is plundered as part of a general despoliation, its kedusha is automatically surrendered. Possession alone does not inhibit kedusha, but the state of being pillaged is antithetical to the prospect of kedusha. A third solution to this problem is offered by the Tashbatz. He affirms that the state of ruin (even if prompted by natural causes) revokes the kedusha of an item or, interestingly enough, a site. This has critical ramifications for batei knesset and batei midrashot which have fallen into deterioration.

There are, however, two additional routes toward the resolution of this question. Each suggests that what removed the kedusha was the very usage of these utensils and the benefit thereby received - in short, the halakha of me'ila. Generally, if a Jew derives benefit from something of hekdesh he commits the sin of me'ila (see the masekhet named for it). Aside from the various punishments he receives, the object loses its kedusha and becomes chulin (without holiness). Quite possibly, the loss of kedusha alluded to by Rashi was a product of me'ila - the use of these utensils for profane purposes. This solution, however, raises an additional problem. Generally, the laws of me'ila do not apply to Gentiles; hence, a Gentile who derives benefit from an item of hekdesh does not perform an act of me'ila, does not receive the punishment for me'ila, nor does he divest the item of its kedusha. How, then, did the Greeks manage to compromise the kedusha?

Here we arrive at two possible approaches. We might succeed in locating Jewish violators who committed the sin of me'ila and caused the items to lose their kedusha. Alternatively, we might maintain that the Greeks themselves, despite the fact that they were Gentiles, succeeded in creating a scenario of me'ila.

The Ba'al Ha-ma'or in Avoda Zara (52b) presents a novel and somewhat radical position which captures the tragic circumstances prior to the nes (miracle) of Chanuka. The "peritzim" who entered the mikdash and defamed it were not the Greeks but the Hellenist Jews. These Jews - peritzei Yisrael - were capable of me'ila, and it was their act of me'ila which destroyed the kedusha. Without kedusha the very ownership of hekdesh faded - based upon Rashi's formula - allowing the Greeks to acquire possession and impose the issur of avoda zara through their idolatrous stunts.

The Ramban strikes the Ba'al Ha-ma'or's position with the following question, based upon a Tosefta in the second perek of Megilwhich asserts that a mizbei'ach can never be redeemed through the process known as pidyon. From this law he infers that the mizbei'ach has the status of a "kli sharet" - the actual utensils used in the mikdash as part of the ritual ceremony. Klei sharet never lose their kedusha; neither me'ila nor pidyon - the process of redeeming an item of hekdesh by offering hekdesh money in exchange, succeeds in stripping them of their kedusha. Me'ila, even when perpetrated by Jews, would have no deleterious effect in removing the kedusha of a mizbei'ach, since it is considered a kli sharet.

To defend the Ba'al Ha-ma'or, we might scrutinize the various assumptions underlying the position of the Ramban. Firstly, he assumes that indeed a mizbei'ach has the status of kli sharet. This, the Tosefta does not clearly state - it only mentions that pidyon is impossible upon these stones. Does that necessarily imply that the mizbei'ach is a utensil and not simply part of the architecture of the mikdash? Secondly, he assumes that the same status which applies to the mizbei'ach as a distinct functional instrument of the mikdash would also apply to STONES which have been detached from that mizbei'ach. The Yevanim evidently removed stones which they used for their own heathen purposes. It was these dismantled stones, not the entire altar, which were buried by the Chashmona'im. Possibly the Ramban is correct in regarding the mizbei'ach as an entity which can never lose its kedusha because it is considered a kli sharet. The constituent stones, however, when disjoined, may lose their kedusha. Finally, the Ramban takes no notice of the special circumstances of this episode. A kli sharet might retain its kedusha eternally because of its utility - it always has a valuable use in terms of facilitating the service of the Beit Ha-mikdash. What happens when the Beit Ha-mikdash itself is dominated by invading pagans and the service is suspended? Do the utensils still retain their kedusha despite their current inactivity? Or might we maintain that me'ila in THIS context can potentially damage the kedusha?

Below is a brief list of sources regarding these three assumptions of the Ramban. A more detailed elaboration is beyond the scope (and the length) of this article.

I.General status of mizbei'ach: Zevachim (27b); Rambam Sefer Ha-mitzvot positive commandment 20; Ra'avad in his Hasagot to the Rambam's short list of mitzvot (contained in the beginning of the Mishneh Torah) - in his comments on positive commandment 20; Minchat Chinukh to mitzva 95. Whether the presence of a mizbei'ach is me'akev, Rambam Beit Ha-bechira 1:1; 1:13; 2:1.

II.Possible distinction between the stones themselves and the mizbei'ach: 1)What money of hekdesh was used to pay for the stones? See Ketubot 110b, Yerushalmi Shekalim perek 4, and the Rambam Shekalim perek 4. See also the Minchat Chinukh in his additions to mitzva 40 regarding the mizbei'ach of Ya'akov. III.Status of kli sharet after the avoda in the mikdash has been suspended: Me'ila (20a), Rashi and Rabbenu Gershom ad locum. See also Or Samei'ach Hilkhot Akum 8:1. A final option which will be considered is suggested by the Ra'avad (in his commentary to Avoda Zara as well as in his commentary on the Rif known as "Katav Sham") who writes; "The Torah gave the Gentiles the ability to prohibit these utensils (stones) through me'ila, even though normally a Gentile is not a 'candidate' for me'ila." The pasuk in Yechezkel informs us of a special category of me'ila which was operative during the entry of these Gentiles to plunder the mikdash. Indeed, even a kli sharet, which under normal circumstances cannot relinquish its kedusha, fell prey to this me'ila cum destruction. By isolating this case the Ra'avad is able to solve two questions at once: How can a Gentile execute me'ila and how can me'ila wrest kedusha from a mizbei'ach which apparently is a kli sharet. Methodological Points: --------------------------- 1.When confronted with a halakhic problem, one has two general options. First of all one might apply conventional categories (possibly in novel ways) to explain the current phenomenon. Alternatively, many times conventional models cannot properly explain the case and there is a need for the development of new halakhic constructs. For example the Ra'avad developed a new paradigm of me'ila which operates under completely different laws from the standard model. Alternatively, to explain the manner by which the ba'alut of hekdesh was removed several mefarshim developed overall concepts of what sustains the kedusha of hekdesh. In short: first try to solve a dilemma through something "old"; if that fails search for something "new". Afterword: ------------ The classification of the legal ba'alut of hekdesh is a central question of halakha. For amplification, see Chidushei Ha-grach al Ha-Rambam, Hilkhot Me'ila 2:5.

Machshava: ------------- Several important issues were considered. The incompatibility between the Gentile world and the world of kedusha was reflected in the Maharit's statement that Gentile possession of a davar she-bikdusha suffices to dismantle that state. There are indeed several religious states of which a Gentile is capable: piety, morality, selflessness, justice, and even saintliness. Kedusha in the transcendent sense, in the manner in which we apply it to Ha-kadosh Baruch Hu - Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh - has little meaning to a Gentile world which has sacrificed the transcendence of G-d in order to humanize the Divine Principle. For a fuller exposition on this matter see the opening sections of Halakhic Man. (Reading Rudolph Otto's "The Idea of the Holy" would also be helpful.)

From the teshuva of the Maharam Mi-Rotenburg we can infer that kedusha comprises "sovereignty" and when the items in question are pillaged by others the kedusha automatically ceases to exist. From the Tashbatz, we may infer that for kedusha to be sustained (at least in terms of kedushat chefetz - holiness of object) there must be active involvement in the world of ritual performance. Kedusha cannot exist in a vacuum. once the site has become desolate and no longer active it forfeits its kedusha.

The Ba'al Ha-ma'or once again reminds us that so often we are our own worst enemies.

May we be zocheh to once again rededicate a mikdash and actualize the notion of kedusha in our lives.



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