The status of Israel following the destruction of the Temple, and theological explanations for those conditions
This well-known midrash, as well as its parallel in Sifre Deuteronomy 305 and later texts (such as Jerusalem Talmud Ketubbot 5:9, 30 b-c; Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 66b-67a), graphically illustrates the status of Israel after the destruction of the Temple and discusses the causes of their desperate state under non-Jewish rule, particularly Rome. This midrash draws on Deuteronomic reasoning, attributing the demise of the First and Second Temples to divine punishment for Israelite sins: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48, NRSV).
Section A presents examples from the First Temple. This passage follows a discussion (not cited here) of how the people of Israel counted years, referring to Exodus 19:1: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (NRSV). That preceding material describes a few phases: The Israelites first calculated years based on their Exodus from Egypt; and, later, from their entrance into the land of Israel. When the Temple was built, they started counting afresh, until its destruction. The midrash then states that, because they did not want to count the years from the establishment of the Temple, its destruction became their point of reference.
Our source (A) then states that, since “They did not want to count for themselves – [thus,] they will count for others,” as demonstrated by biblical quotations from Haggai and Daniel, where the years are counted according to the reigns of Darius and Nebuchadnezzar, respectively. Here “others” (’aḥerim) refers to gentiles, a common usage in tannaitic midrashim (on this use and its implications, see Wilfand, “Supporting non-Jewish Poor”). Two additional verses conclude this section. First Song of Songs 1:8: “If you do not know, O fairest among women, follow the tracks of the flock, and pasture your kids beside the shepherds’ tents” (NRSV), which symbolizes the downfall of Israel in several texts. For example, in Sifre Deuteronomy 305, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakay tells his students:
“All my days, I have been searching for [the meaning of] this verse [and now] I have found it: “If you do not know, O fairest among women, [follow the tracks of the flock, and pasture your kids beside the shepherds’ tents]” (Song 1:8, NRSV). Do not read “your kids” (gdiyotaikh) but “your bodies” (gviyotaikh). For whenever Israel carries out the will of God (Maqom), no nation or kingdom [can] rule over them. But when they do not carry out the will of God (Maqom), he turns them over to the hands of the lowest nation of all nations (lit. a nation that is lower than [all other] nations). And not [only] in the hand[s] of lowly nation, but in the hand[s] of its cattle (lit. the cattle of a lowly nation).”
The closing quotation of Section A, from Deuteronomy 28:47-48, emphasizes the imperative for Israel to obey God’s instructions not only perfunctorily but with full intention.
The remaining sections (B-D) present a narrative set after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), which integrates the imagery from Song of Songs 1:8 with the theology of Deuteronomy 28:47-48. Section B portrays Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakay, perhaps the most prominent of the first-generation tannaim, who was active in the first century, before and especially after the Great Revolt (66 CE). While going up to Emmaus (which was settled by 800 veterans after the destruction of Jerusalem according to Josephus, Jewish war VII.217) with some of his students, this sage notices a young woman gleaning barley amid manure from the flocks. Seen from afar, she is recognized as an anonymous Hebrew, probably in contrast to the Arab horseman who is also mentioned (C). In its parallel in Sifre, this woman is identified as the daughter of Naqdimon ben Guryon, one of the wealthiest residents of Jerusalem (cf. Tosefta Ketubbot 5:9-10). She and her family are more central in the Sifre’s version since Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakay speaks with her and he remembers her family’s exceptional wealth. These memories emphasize the dramatic decline that befell this woman as well as the people of Israel. In the Mekhilta, the woman is only seen from afar and her identity is not disclosed, she is merely recognized as a Hebrew, probably in contrast to the Arab horseman. Yet, it is explained that in both cases this female symbolizes Israel and its state after the destruction. Section C presents an exchange between the master and his students, who, in response to his questions, report that she is Hebrew and the horse belongs to an Arab. The fact that this Israelite woman collects barley, which is considered a less desirable grain, amid the dung of grazing flocks underscores her dire poverty and desperation.
In Section D, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakay reflects on this woman to his students. He explains that, seeing her, he now understands Song of Songs 1:8, a verse that he had always pondered. He continues with examples that convey the logic of Deuteronomy 28:47-48; by speaking in the second-person plural form, his teaching addresses the people of Israel. In the first interpretation, he states that, since Israel refused to be subject to God (here called “Heaven”), now they are subjugated by inferior or defective Arabs (I), who are depicted as the lowliest nation. This portrayal is consistent with Sifre Deuteronomy 305, where the mention of Arabs emphasizes Israel’s disgrace (“he turns them over to the hands of the lowest nation of all nations”). Negative characterizations of Arabs appear in tannaitic literature, including remarks about their alleged odors, poor character, and low status (see, for example, Sifre Deuteronomy 38; Mekhilta de Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai 14:22). Such stereotypes were probably not unique to rabbinic sources (see, for example, Isaac, The Invention of Racism, p. 408); the inclusion of an Arab here likely follows the mention of “shepherds’ tents” in Song of Songs 1:8.
Sections II and III speak of Rome without stating its name. Indeed, the sole reference to Rome in the Mekhilta occurs indirectly, in a botanical identification of a plant (ezov romi). In the second example (II), Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakay tells the Israelites that, since they did not want to pay the “shqalim of heaven,” the half sheqel for the Temple (derived from Exodus 38:26), they now pay far more to the kingdom of their enemies (on “fifteen seqalim” see Carlebach, “Rabbinic References to Fiscus Judaicus”). Significantly, here (and in III), this sage does not accuse the Israelites of failing to fulfill their responsibilities but of reluctance, echoing Deuteronomy 28:47: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart”; he thus emphasizes the importance of intention and the willingness to contribute. As several scholars have observed, this teaching seems to allude to the Jewish tax, which Vespasian imposed after defeating the Jewish forces in the Great Revolt (see, for example, Carlebach, “Rabbinic References to Fiscus Judaicus”). Josephus reports that Vespasian required all Jews to pay two drachms to the Capitol in Rome, rather than send this sum to their Temple in Jerusalem (Jewish War VII.218). Cassius Dio, Roman History LXV.7.2 also mentions this tax for Jupiter Capitolinus (see also Goodman, “Nerva, the Fiscus Judaicus”). The rebuilding of this temple in Rome was one element of the Flavian architectural commemoration of the victory over Judea, together with the construction of the temple of Peace, the arch dedicated to Titus in the Circus Maximus, and the Colosseum (see Gallia, “Remaking Rome,” p. 152-151; Millar, “Last Year in Jerusalem”; Imperial dedication of the Flavian amphitheatre [CIL VI, 40454a]; Arch of Titus, Roman Forum (81-82 CE)_Reliefs; The Temple of Peace [Rome]). As Andrew B. Gallia writes: “The rebuilding of the Capitolium was paid for by the tax (fiscus Iudaicus) that had been imposed on Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem” (Gallia, “Remaking Rome,” p. 152). This payment was therefore considered a means of humiliating the Jewish people and emphasizing their defeat. While the midrash acknowledges these realities, it cites Deuteronomy 28:47 to explain this state of affairs as divine punishment, not the result of Roman power or the superiority of its gods.
In Section III, Rabban Yoḥanan tells the people of Israel that, since they did not want to maintain the roads to the Temple and the public spaces in towns along the way, where pilgrims would lodge (see, for example, Mishnah Bikkurim 2:3), now they are repairing burganin and burgasin (stations or towers; from the Greek purgos, purgion or the Latin burgus) for “those who ascend to the major cities of the kings.” This passage refers to the provincial inhabitants who were required to construct these facilities, which were part of the infrastructure of Roman roads. Aharon Oppenheimer argues that this passage (III) was added by a third-century editor, for it reflects the conditions and labor imposed on local populations during the political crisis of that time (“Relations between Jews and Arabs,” p. 18). He also claims that this stereotyped image of Arabs emerged in the third century when they exploited the political instability by invading the land of Israel. Oppenheimer supports his claims with passages from the Babylonian Talmud and late midrashim that mention an Arab invasion during this period. However, these texts may reflect later periods and possibly the relationship between Jews and Arab tribes in Babylonia. Moreover, conditions during the third-century crisis in Palestine are debated (see, for example, Doron Bar, “The 3rd Century Crisis” and ‘‘Was There a 3rd-c. Economic Crisis in Palestine?”).
This midrash continues (beyond the selection cited here) with citations of additional biblical verses which demonstrate that Israel must choose between following God and obeying its enemies, and underscoring that their prosperity is directly correlated to their willingness to serve God. Thus, this passage assumes a measure for measure principle. This source applies Deuteronomic reasoning to the situation of Israel under Roman rule, especially after the destruction of the Temple. From this perspective, Israel’s status reflects its relationship with God; as with past empires, Rome is an instrument only.
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