all about the ancient Jewish Temples

INTRODUCTION

The Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group, a nation, and a tribe with a history dating back over 3000 years. Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. However, Judaism did not always look as it does today.

In ancient times, the Temple in Jerusalem stood at the center of Jewish practice. During this period, the priestly family, known as the Cohanim, performed all of the daily and holiday duties of sacrificial offerings. If your last name is some sort of iteration of “Cohen,” your ancestors likely belonged to the priestly class.

Rabbinic Judaism, which is what most Jewish sub-ethnic groups practice, did not become the mainstream form of Judaism until the sixth century, following the destruction of the sacred Jewish temples, as well as various expulsions and deportations of Jews from our ancestral homeland. Essentially, rabbinic Judaism allowed us to hold onto our tribal spiritual beliefs and practices while in the diaspora, exiled from our homeland and our sacred temple. It’s most likely that without rabbinic Judaism, our tribal identity, beliefs, and way of being would’ve long ceased to exist.

Even so, remnants of Temple Judaism remain in rabbinic Judaism. For example, Cohanim continue to carry special restrictions and privileges, just as the high priests did during the times of the Temple.


SOLOMON’S TEMPLE

According to the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the First Jewish Temple, also known as Solomon’s Temple or the Beit HaMikdash in Hebrew, was built during the period of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1042-930 BCE). Its construction was completed in 957 BCE.

The Temple served not only as a place of worship, but also as a place of general assembly. According to the Tanakh, King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, which King Solomon later placed inside the Temple in the “Holy of Holies,” the sanctuary and most sacred area at the heart of the Temple. Only the High Priest of Israel was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, bringing incense and carrying the blood of a sacrificial lamb.

The Tanakh is incredibly detailed about the Temple’s architecture and design. Some archeologists surmise that the Temple was built according to Phoenician design, and as such, it might’ve resembled Phoenician temples. Archeologists have found other architectural features in Southwest Asia that resemble the Temple as it is described in the Tanakh.

The First Temple stood until the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Until recently, there was no real archeological evidence corroborating the existence of the First Temple; nevertheless, historians have long concluded that some sort of Temple did exist during this period, though its grandiosity, builder, and size are disputed.


BABYLONIAN CONQUEST

In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem. According to the Tanakh, in August of 587/586 BCE, the Babylonians set the Temple on fire. The royal palaces and “all the houses of Jerusalem” were also set aflame.

The Temple was plundered, and everything of value was taken to Babylon. In 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE, the Jews of Jerusalem were mass deported (i.e. ethnic cleansing) out of the Land of Israel and into Babylon. This deportation and the destruction of Jerusalem are thoroughly corroborated by archeological record. In fact, today’s Persian, Iraqi, and Central Asian Jews are likely the descendants of the Jews deported to Babylon.

According to Jewish tradition, the Temple was destroyed on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, which is considered the saddest date in the Hebrew calendar. The Temple stood for over 400 years until its destruction.


SECOND TEMPLE

In 539 BCE, the Jews exiled to Babylon were permitted to return to the Land of Israel. Though many stayed, others went back home. In 516 BCE, what was originally a modest structure was built atop the remains of the First Temple, on Temple Mount. During the period of the Herodian Kingdom of Judea (37 BCE-4 BCE), the Temple was refurbished, becoming much larger and more spectacular. For this reason, the Second Temple is sometimes called “Herod’s Temple.”

Many of the plundered items of Solomon’s Temple were long lost, and as such, were not present in the Second Temple. These items include the Ark of the Covenant, the divination items on the priestly breastplate, the holy oil, and the sacred fire.

The Second Temple also had a Holy of Holies, which contained a menorah; the “Lehem HaPanim,” which was a table with cakes or loaves of bread that was always present as an offering to G-d; and a golden altar of incense. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Second Temple, unlike the first, lacked the shechinah (“divine presence of G-d”) and ruach hakodesh (“holy spirit*”).

The Second Temple is central to the story of Hanukkah, as the Maccabees rededicated the Temple to the Jewish G-d after defeating the Greek Seleucid Empire. The Second Temple was of great importance during the period of the (Jewish) Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea (140 BCE-37 BCE). For historic context, the Hasmonean period was the last time Jews had our own sovereign state until 1948. The Second Temple remained a pillar of Judean life until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE.

*note that the Jewish concept and Christian concept of “Holy Spirit” are not at all the same.


FIRST JEWISH REVOLT

Between 66-73 CE, the Jews in Judea revolted against Roman rule for the first time. The revolt ended in disaster, with Jewish towns decimated, tens of thousands massacred, and the Second Temple destroyed.

In 70 CE, the Romans circled Jerusalem but were unable to breach its walls, so they set up camp around the city and began building trenches around the circumference of the walls. Anyone caught in the trenches attempting to flee the city was crucified; at one point, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day.

For seven months, the Romans sieged Jerusalem, until the summer of 70 CE, when they were finally able to breach the city walls. Records of the time indicate that all of the besieged Jews — men, women, even children — fought to the death, preferring to die for the cause of sovereignty over survival if survival meant that the Romans would exile them from their homeland. Ultimately, the Romans ransacked and burnt the entire city. The Second Temple was destroyed once again on July 29 or 30 of 70 CE, which also fell on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av.

The Romans pillaged the temple, taking with them its spoils to Rome. The looted Jewish treasures remained in Rome until the year 455, when vandals raided the city. After that, their whereabouts become murky. It’s likely that they were long melted down or used to construct any number of churches. There has long been a baseless conspiracy theory that the items, including the menorah, are hidden away in a Vatican basement.


FOREIGN CONQUEST

Around 60 years after the siege, Jerusalem remained in ruins. In 129/130 CE, the Romans established a colony in its place, known as Aelia Capitolina, which remained the official name of Jerusalem well into the seventh century. Most significantly, the Romans established a temple to Jupiter over the ruins of the Jewish Temple.

It’s likely that the establishment of the Roman colony is one of the main factors that prompted the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135/6 CE, when the Jews in Judea revolted against Roman rule for the third time. This revolt was also catastrophic, culminating in the genocide or forced displacement (ethnic cleansing) of 600,000-one million Jews.

After the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Chain, and Dome of the Rock were built over the remains of the ancient Jewish temples in the eighth and seventh centuries. This was not a coincidence, as it was customary for the Arab armies to construct their mosques over the sacred sites of those they conquered.


ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE

There is vast archeological evidence and historical record corroborating the existence of the Second Temple. After all, the Kotel, or what remains of the Western Wall surrounding the Temple, still exists to this day. In recent years, newfound evidence has potentially corroborated the existence of the First Temple.

In the past decade, archaeologists have found an ancient shrine model in the Israeli city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, which they dated back to the 10th century BCE, as well as an actual temple in the outskirts of West Jerusalem, dated back to the 9th century BCE. Both resemble, in astounding detail, the description of Solomon’s Temple in the Tanakh. Additionally, some scholars believe that an inscription in a pottery shard dated to the 600s BCE makes reference to Solomon’s Temple.

While many historians have long doubted the historicity of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1042-930 BCE), we do know now that some sort of unified Israelite nation state did indeed exist. However, it’s likely that its grandiosity was exaggerated, and as such, the Temple might’ve been (at least in the beginning) more modest than imagined.

Unfortunately, due to the precarious geopolitical situation, archaeologists have been unable to conduct excavations at Temple Mount. As such, there is much history left to uncover, though it likely won’t happen anytime soon.


TODAY

Temple Mount has long been at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For example, in the 1920s, the virulently antisemitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem accused Jews of planning to take over Temple Mount, which incited anti-Jewish massacres. In 2000, future Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount was used as bogus justification for the Second Intifada.

Though Israel reunited — or captured, depending on who is telling the story — the city of Jerusalem in 1967, a Jordanian Islamic Waqf (religious committee) continues to oversee Temple Mount. It’s the Islamic Waqf that makes all decisions pertaining to Temple Mount, though Israel provides security and upholds the Waqf’s rulings, in light of the delicate political situation.

Though Temple Mount is significant to Jews and Christians, only Muslim prayer is permitted. Christians and Jews are able to visit, though tourists and Jews can only enter the site through the Mughrabi Gate during extremely limited hours.

For decades, “worshippers” at Temple Mount have used the sacred site as a vantage point from which to hurl Molotov cocktails, boulders, cinderblocks, and other items at Jewish visitors to the Western Wall or Israeli police. The Israeli police forces have often responded with tear gas or even deadly force.

UNESCO, which has repeatedly refused to designate Jewish sacred sites as “Jewish,” has condemned Israel for performing or attempting to perform archeological excavations near Temple Mount.

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