This text (sugya) from the Jerusalem Talmud discusses the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple. It follows the biblical pattern of understanding both destruction and exile as punishment for Israel’s sins. Despite its role as the agent that brought about the destruction of the Temple, Rome is not mentioned here.
Section A asserts that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed because of idolatry, forbidden sexual acts and the shedding of blood. These sins appear in rabbinic texts as a group of the most egregious sins that can be committed. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Shevuot 4:2, 35a, a Jew may transgress any law in the Torah to avoid being killed, with the exception of these three prohibitions (see also Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a).
Section B introduces an opinion that differentiates between the sins that precipitated the destruction of two Temples. Additionally, it discusses Shiloh–an early cultic center mentioned, for example, in Jeremiah 7:12: “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel” (NRSV)–from those that preceded the demise of the two Temples. The opinion in this section is ascribed to Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta, who was active early in the second century CE in the Land of Israel. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:6, 68d), he participates in an argument with Rabbi Akiba about whether Bar Kokhba is the messianic king. This teaching (B) states that Shiloh was destroyed because of a disgraceful approach to sacrificial offerings and the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, forbidden sexual acts and the shedding of blood. At that stage, Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta asks why the Second Temple was destroyed since the people of that generation were known to have “toiled in the Torah,” meaning that they were committed to studying the Torah, and to have carefully observed mitzvot, which is to say giving charity or being scrupulous adherents to religious imperatives. The two possible understandings of the Hebrew term mitzvah apply to its usage from (at latest) the third century onward, when this word comes to denote not only its original meaning–“a commandment,” especially a religious act or a meritorious deed–but also “alms” or “charity.” Nevertheless, the text continues by stating that “every kind of good conduct was [found] among them.” The only sins that Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta associates with the people of the Second Temple are love of “mammon, and hating one another with unjustified hatred.” This passage concludes with the assertion that, according to Scripture, “unjustified hatred” is comparable to idolatry, forbidden sexual activity and the shedding of blood. The sins attributed to the generation of the Second Temple seem to accurately reflect the socio-economic gaps and violence among the Jewish populace in Judea prior to the revolt. Beyond merely aiming to provide explanations for the destruction, these two sections (A+B) seem to use the destruction and its causes as a warning against specific sins, especially when carried out within the Jewish community. Section B includes a quotation from Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta that has a parallel in Tosefta Menahot 13:22. However, whereas the Tosefta speaks of hating “one another before God,” the Jerusalem Talmud conveys an expression that is absent from earlier tannaitic texts: “unjustified hatred” (sin’at ḥinam). In the Jerusalem Talmud, “unjustified hatred” alone (rather than love of mammon and hating one another, the paired transgressions mentioned in the Tosefta) is equal to the most severe sins: idolatry, forbidden sexual activities and the shedding of blood. The parallel Tosefta concludes with a passage that speaks about the final Temple and articulates certainty about, or at least hope for, its impending construction. This notion is not found in our source from the Jerusalem Talmud since it omits that material.
Moreover, the next sections, which compare the conduct of the generations that witnessed the destructions of the Temples, display an awareness that the Temple is still in ruins, without anticipation of an imminent change in that status. In section C, we find rabbis from the third century CE claiming that the people of the Second Temple committed sins that were worse than those of the First since, after the first destruction, the Temple was rebuilt but not after the second. In section D, Rabbi Elazar (also a third-century amora) says that, while the sins of both generations and the end of exile following the destruction of the First Temple have been revealed, and the close of exile for the people of the Second Temple (and onward) remains unknown. Section E describes an exchange between Rabbi Eliezer, who was active after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE onward) and anonymous people (perhaps students). He too perceives the transgressions committed by the Second Temple generation as more severe. Rabbi Eliezer compares biblical verses to demonstrate that, while the ceiling (or roof) was removed in the destruction of the First Temple, in the destruction of the Second Temple, “we have smashed the walls,” declared in the first-person plural. Rabbi Eliezer takes responsibility for that later destruction, quoting a verse from Psalms: “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said: ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’” (137:7, NRSV). This verse originally refers to Edomites who encouraged the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem during the first destruction. However, Rabbi Eliezer reads it in reference to the second destruction, identifying the Edomites as the Romans. In fact, Rome is often called Edom (or Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites) in rabbinic texts. This teaching from the Jerusalem Talmud concludes with the statement (F) that “Each generation for whom (lit: that) [the Temple] is not built during its days is considered as if it [this generation] had destroyed it.”
Rome is not explicitly mentioned in this passage from the Jerusalem Talmud. This discussion about the destruction of the two Temples seems to articulate an educational message as well as a theological one: Israel’s sins caused these destructions and, furthermore, their current transgressions–not the political realities of the Roman Empire–are responsible for the Temple's continued state of ruin. Repentance is required in the present, not only in the past. Thus it is hardly surprising that this text is in tractate Yoma, which discusses the Day of Atonement, when Jews are required to repent from their sins.
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