The Temple, the Jewish People and Torah Study

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Public Sacrifices – Pharisees vs. Sadducees

Our parashot focus on the construction of the Miskhan. To understand the meaning of the Mishkan, let us begin with a ruling found in last week’s parasha (Shemot 30:11-16): the obligation that each individual donate a half-shekel. The Yerushalmi (Shekalim 1:1) explains that at the beginning of each year (Nissan), the half-shekel was collected for the communal sacrifices of the entire coming year. While this rule is familiar and clear to us today, it was a matter of bitter dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (Tzedukim and Perushim) at the end of the Second Temple Period, as we read in Megillat Ta’anit:

From Rosh Chodesh Nissan until the eighth of [the month], the daily sacrifice was established; there is no public mourning.

The scholium (commentary) on Megillat Ta’anit explains:

These are the days on which one is not allowed to fast, and on some of them it is not permitted to mourn: From Rosh Chodesh Nissan until the eighth of the month the daily offering was established; mourning is forbidden. For the Baytusim said: The daily sacrifice of an individual can be brought. One person may bring on one Shabbat; another may bring for two Shabbatot; someone else might bring for thirty days. And how did they arrive at this? They said: “The one lamb you [singular] shall offer in the morning” – meaning, an individual.

The Sages told them: You are not permitted to do so, since the sacrifice must be brought on behalf of all of Israel, as it is written, “Command Bnei Yisrael and say to them: My offering, the provision of My sacrifices made by fire, for a sweet savor to Me, shall you observe, to offer to Me in their due season” (Bamidbar 28:2). [The sacrifices] must all come from the [half-shekel] donation to the Temple… And when the Sages ultimately prevailed against them, they enacted that [the people’s] shekels should be weighed and placed in the treasury, and that the daily sacrifice should be offered from the public funds, and all the days that they debated were declared festive days.

Who were the Baytusim (Boethusians)? They were Sadducees, descendants of the priestly family of Tzadok, concerning whom we read:

But the Kohanim and the Levi’im, the sons of Tzadok, who kept the charge of My Sanctuary when Bnei Yisrael went astray from Me – they shall come near to Me to minister to Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer to Me the fat and the blood, says the Lord God. They shall enter into My Sanctuary, and they shall come near to My table, to minister to Me, and they shall keep My charge. (Yechezkel 44:15-16)

These Kohanim, who for the most part had property and status and lived together in Jerusalem, maintained control over the Temple, mainly by appointing a Kohen Gadol from among themselves, such that their halakhic rulings would be upheld. These Kohanim believed that the Temple belonged to individuals, and accordingly they sought to allow individuals to bring a “daily sacrifice” of their own.

The Temple – or the Mishkan, as in the case of our parashot – was at the center of the dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Pharisees insisted that the Temple belonged to all of Israel, while the Kohanim were merely their agents or representatives (Kiddushin 23b).[1] The victory of the view of the Pharisees apparently followed the appointment of a Kohen Gadol who belonged to this group rather than to the Sadducees, and thus the Sages were able to institutionalize the rule that the daily sacrifices are purchased with public funds.

Mishkan – A National Objective

But what is the meaning of this rule? And why is it so important that Chazal forbade public mourning on the days this rule was established?

In order to understand the depth of the dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, we must first consider the significance of the Temple. The Rambam, at the beginning of his Hilkhot Melakhim (Laws of Kings), enumerates three commandments that became incumbent on Bnei Yisrael when they entered the land:

Israel were given three commandments upon entering the land: To appoint a king, as it is written, “You shall surely appoint over you a king…”; and to destroy the seed of Amalek, as it is written, “You shall erase the memory of Amalek…”; and to build the Temple, as it is written, “You shall seek His dwelling place and you shall come there.”

I believe that the importance of appointing a king and destroying the seed of Amalek is not inherent to these actions in and of themselves; rather, they are stages in the process leading up to building the Temple.[2]

The Mishkan and the Temple are Merely a Condition

Clearly, however, even the Temple itself is not the ultimate aim. We might speak in terms of an elevated and amorphous aim, such as, “On that day the Lord will be One and His Name – One,” but we might formulate the purpose in more tangible terms: to bring Israel closer to their Father in heaven.

At the end of the First Temple period, the prophets were critical of the attitude towards the Temple as an independent ideal:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in lying words, saying, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these.” For if you thoroughly mend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor follow other gods to your own detriment, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, forever and ever…

Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to Ba’al, and follow other gods whom you do not know, and come and stand before Me in this House, which is called by My Name, and say, “We are delivered,” that you may do all these abominations? Has this House, which is called by My Name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I Myself have seen it, says the Lord. (Yirmiyahu 7:3-11)

Yirmiyahu protests a situation in which “you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to Ba’al,” and still assume that that you will be able to “come and stand before Me in this House, which is called by My Name, and say, ‘We are delivered’”! A person cannot sin and then rely on the Temple service to save him. Yeshayahu conveys a similar message.

Lest we think that this phenomenon characterized only the end of the First Temple period, we see that God warns King Shlomo of this from the start, when he builds the Temple:

The Lord appeared to Shlomo a second time… “But if you turn from following Me, you or your children, and will not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them, and this House, which I have hallowed for My Name, I will cast out of My sight, and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people, and at this House, which is high, every one that passes by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss, and they shall say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land, and to this House?’ And they shall answer, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God, Who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold of other gods and have worshipped them, and served them; therefore the Lord has brought upon them all this evil.’” (Melakhim I 9:2-9)

God tells Shlomo explicitly that a reality in which the Temple stands in ruins is possible and will happen, if its presence and symbolic power is not backed up by observance of the commandments.

Even As They Were Slain Before the Altar

The reliance on the Temple with no parallel moral and religious anchor reached the point of absurdity, as described by Josephus in his Wars of the Jews:

But as soon as Pompey had filled up the valley, he erected high towers upon the bank, and brought those engines which they had fetched from Tyre near to the wall of the Temple Mount and tried to batter it down, and the slingers of stones beat off those who stood above them and drove them away, but the towers on this side of the city, wondrous for their size and magnificence, resisted for a long time.

Now, in the midst of the many hardships and troubles which befell the Romans, who were besieging the city, Pompey observed the ways of the Jews and was astounded by their courage and fortitude. Above all he admired how they did not interrupt their Divine service, even while dodging flying arrows and catapult stones. It was as though the city was in full peace, with the offering of the daily sacrifices and all the ritual purifications and the other customs of the Divine service in all their meticulous detail. Even on the very day that the Temple Mount was captured, the Kohanim did not cease the sacrifices of that day as appointed for the Divine service, even as they were being slain before the altar

And many Kohanim, viewing their enemies assailing them with their swords drawn, did not fear them, but remained at their post, serving their God. And while they sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice and offering the incense they were slain upon their offerings, for they put the Divine service before their own preservation. Many were killed by the swords of their fellow Jews, who rose up against them, and an innumerable multitude threw themselves from the tops of the towers. Some lost their minds at the sight of the catastrophe and set fire around the walls, and were burned above. Of the Jews twelve thousand were slain… (Book I, chapter 7)

Kohanim stood in the Temple, and instead of saving themselves they continued to perform the sacrificial service, until they were killed! We have no books of prophets from the end of the Second Temple period, but Josephus’s writings alone offer evidence that this was not a one-time phenomenon. The same single-minded dedication is expressed in many other places in the book. One example is when Caius (Caligula Caesar) commands his emissary, Petronius, to place a statue of himself in the Temple:

And when the Jews insisted on their law and the custom of their forefathers, which prohibited them from displaying any image of God, nor any statute in the form of mortal man – not only in the Temple, but in any other place in their land – Petronius answered them, “But I, too, am bound to follow the order of my own lord; if I transgress it, showing compassion to you, I will rightly and justly be deserving of death. While it is not I who will wage a war against you, but the man who sent me, I, too, must follow his command, like you.”

At these words the people cried out with a great voice that they were ready to suffer for the laws of their forefathers. But Petronius quieted them and said, “If so, then you are at war against Caesar!” The Jews replied that they offered sacrifices twice every day for Ceasar and the Roman people, but if he wished to place idols in the Temple, he would first have to sacrifice the entire Jewish nation, for they would willingly give up their lives to be slain, along with their children and their wives.

Upon hearing this, Petronius was astonished at the courage of these people and at their boundless fear of God, and he pitied them seeing that they were ready to die. So on that occasion they parted without him doing anything. (Book II, chapter 10)

There is a fundamental muddling here of means and end. Even the Temple itself is a means – a means of bringing the Divine Presence to dwell amongst Israel. The Temple service is not an end in and of itself.

Mishkan vs. Torah Study

What are the ramifications of the above discussion for our own lives and our own situation? After the Destruction, Torah study came to replace the sacrificial service. In the daily prayer service, the order of the sacrifices is recited prior to Pesukei De-Zimra:

When he finishes the parasha of the burnt offering, he says: “May it be Your will that this [recital] be considered and accepted as though I offered a burnt offering.” (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 1:7)

In later generations, with the increasing suffering of the Jewish People, the Vilna Gaon and his disciples reached a degree of great self-sacrifice in the pursuit of Torah study. Of special note is R. Chaim of Volozhin, author of Nefesh Ha-Chaim, who reinstituted Torah study as a dominant and central element in Jewish life. The fourth section of his book elaborates on the subject of “Torah lishmah” (Torah for its own sake). In the third chapter he states explicitly, concerning this expression, “But in truth, the entire matter of ‘for its own sake’ means ‘for the sake of the Torah.’” Further on, in chapter 9, we find:

Similarly, with Chazal’s analogy of the small kav measure of preservative required for the large kur volume of produce, which allows the periodic breaking off from Torah study to additionally reflect a little on Fear of God. We can also learn that just as when mixing more than a kav of preservative into the kur volume of produce results in no additional ability to preserve, and would therefore be considered as theft and price fraud, so too with Fear of God – if a person invests more time in it than the amount necessary to preserve the large produce of the Torah studied, then this additional time is theft of Torah study that would have otherwise been studied at that time, as one is only permitted to involve oneself with the acquisition of Fear of God in accordance with one’s assessment of one’s nature that at this time it is necessary and a requirement to involve oneself with acquiring Fear of God and ethics for the purpose of preserving and maintaining the produce of Torah study.

In truth, a person who habitually studies Torah for its sake, as we have explained the concept for in 4:3, does not need to expend great effort, toil, and time in the study of works of the Fear of God to establish Fear of God in his heart as does a person who does not habitually study Torah. [Study of] the Holy Torah itself clothes a person with a visually evident Fear of God with the investment of a small amount of time and effort – for this is the way and the precious quality of the Holy Torah. As per: “One who involves himself in Torah study for its sake … will be clothed with humility and Fear of God.”[3]

How highly R. Chaim of Volozhin valued Torah study! Even fear of heaven is secondary in relation to this commandment, and therefore we find in the next chapter:

And when one is engaged and immersed in Torah, there is certainly no need for the above-mentioned matter of devekut (cleaving to God) at all, for through the engagement and immersion alone he cleaves to the will and word of God, and God, His will and His word are all one.

During one’s learning there is no need to concentrate on cleaving to God, since Torah study is an end in and of itself.

This strengthening of Torah study continued in the generations that followed, even after the famed yeshiva of Volozhin was closed (incidentally, as a result of internal Jewish dispute).

It would seem, though, that in recent times this position has been taken to an extreme by certain sectors, to the point that Torah has become the single, one and only aim – at a great price in terms of the attitude towards the Jewish People as a whole. We must remember that beyond the tremendous importance of Torah study as an aim and an end in its own right, ultimately it does also serve the broader aim of bringing Jews closer to their Father in heaven.

At the very least, we must ensure that Torah study does not actually cause harm to other parts of the Jewish People. In our lives, the Torah replaces the Temple, and therefore it is regarded as a worthy and lofty aim – but even this lofty aim has a certain limit.

Just as Yirmiyahu was not prepared to accept a situation in which the Temple was severed from all other aspects of national life, so we cannot allow ourselves to ignore Am Yisrael in our struggle for the Torah.

The struggle for Torah can take the form of prayer assemblies, but it can also take a form that brings chillul haShem and harm to the Jewish People. We cannot accept this. Our ultimate purpose is not just development of the Torah for its own sake, but also for the Jewish People to draw close to God.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Pekudei 5774 [2014].)

[1]  Of course, the Tanna’im, who were Pharisees, also express the position that the Kohanim are agents or representatives of God, but that is a separate discussion.

[2]  It should be pointed out that King Shaul lost his kingdom precisely because of error in these two areas: he thought that there was inherent and independent significance in wiping out Amalek, and therefore did not wait for Divine involvement, in the form of the presence of the prophet. He also failed from this point onwards by pursuing David. This persecution caused Shaul to forget the purpose of his appointment as king, and gradually to view his kingship as an end in itself, which was supposedly being hindered and obstructed by David.

[3] Translation by Avinoam Fraenkel, Nefesh HaTzimtzum, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 2015).