Taanit, Daf 23, Teachers: Susan Suna & Dena Rock
Thoughts by Susan Suna
A quick search shows that Herod is mentioned in the Talmud, Midrash, Halacha, Kabbalah, Tosefeta and more. Even today as we tour the country and visit the Old City, Maarat Hamachpela, Masada, Herodian, etc. we encounter Herod, not only his magnificent buildings but also the man behind them – his failings and his achievements. On our daf the focus is on Herod’s time period and not on the man himself. While the people were building the Beit Hamikdash, it rained at night. Yet during the day, the clouds would part and the sun would shine. The people understood from this that the work of Heaven was being performed by their hands.
The Ben Yehoyadah distances the people who were building the Mikdash from Herod himself. Herod murdered the Rabbis of his generation. His intent in building the Mikdash was to save himself. Herod thought that building the Mikdash would absolve him of having murdered the sages of his generation. He understood this from Baba Ben Buta, the sage whom he blinded but did not murder (Baba Batra Daf 3:-4). In a private conversation while Herod pretended he was someone else, he tempted Baba Ben Buta to speak freely against Herod. Baba Ben Buta however would not. After this conversation, Herod expresses regret at killing the sages as he understood that they too would have acted as Baba Ben Buta had. Baba ben Buta then advises Herod, quoting a number of verses that convey the same message. The first of which was the verse from Proverbs 6, 23: “For the mitzva is a lamp, and the Torah is light” You, Herod who extinguished the light of Torah by murdering the sages should now be involved in the light of the world, the Temple. Although Herod was concerned about the response from Rome, he followed Baba Ben Buta’s advice.
The Ben Yehoyadah explains that while Herod’s intentions in building the Mikdash were not pure, the people building the Mikdash worked לשם שמים. The work, the Ben Yehoyadah says, goes by the intent of the workers, therefore Hashem made a miracle for them and showed his pleasure in their activities by having the rain fall only at night. It shows that their work wasn’t tainted by Herod even though he paid the building costs.
While our daf focuses on the generation at the time, Baba Batra gives the full story of Herod’s lineage, his rise to power and his nefarious deeds. The Gemara there analyses the advice that Baba Ben Buta gave Herod. It then continues to describe the beauty of the Mikdash and how the reflection of the stone of blue, white, and green marble appeared like the waves of the sea. Attesting to the fact that one who had not seen the Beit HaMikdash that Herod built had never seen a beautiful building in his life.
These stories confront us with the complexity of Jewish history and the mingling of good and evil. It was not the most pious king who under his auspices that the Mikdash was built in a glorious way. It was Herod who engaged in murderous acts who is known for building the beautiful Mikdash. And it was not a righteous king that inspired a righteous generation. Instead it was a wise generation who did not follow in the footsteps of their king, and instead chose to walk in the ways of Hashem. And it is that generation who were fortunate to feel Hashem’s reward as they went to build the Beit HaMikdash each day.