Occasionally the daf we are learning matches up perfectly with the time of year or with current events. Such is the case this week. We have just begun the period of bein hametzarim, the three weeks in the summer when we commemorate the destruction of the Temples, a period that culminates with the mournful day of Tisha B’Av. Just in time, the Gemara begins the series of pages that contain what we call Aggadot haHurban, the legends of the destruction (Gittin 55-58). This is one of the few sections of Gemara that one is allowed to study on Tisha b’Av. Because Torah study brings joy, we should not engage in it on a fast day. However, these stories bring no joy and just encourage the mourning and sadness of the day. The incredible illustrated movie about the Great Revolt that was released a few years ago, “Legend of Destruction” (directed by Gidi Dar) is partly based on these tales.
It is worth noting that the Gemara, while it contains many types of literature (laws, Torah commentary, personal stories, medical advice, astrology and much more), is rarely a history book. Considering the traumatic and turbulent times during which early Rabbinic literature was compiled, including two major revolts against the Roman Empire, the destruction of the Temple and exile from Jerusalem, it is surprising how little history is set down. One would expect the Gemara to be replete with Aggadot haHurban, but it isn’t. This message, that Torah is what endures and that is what we must focus on, is a powerful one and an idea that has sustained the Jewish people through our long and troubled history. However, sometimes we wish that the rabbis had been less circumspect and told us more about the past. Here our curiosity can be morbidly satisfied.
Arch of Titus in Rome
Hunter Wright, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Even here, there is not a conventional history telling. The Gemara jumps from the stories of the Great Revolt to the fate of Titus the general who destroyed Jerusalem, to Betar the headquarters of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and back to the destruction of the First Temple. Other stories are told without a specific timeframe. There are certain themes running throughout: martyrdom and pure faith on the one hand, pettiness and self-destruction on the other. Unfortunately, these contradictory themes are still with us in contemporary Jewish history.
Let us make some order in the confusion. The First Temple stood from the time of King Solomon (about 950 BCE) to its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The horrific story about Nevuzaradan and the blood of the prophet Zechariah (Gittin 57b) is set during that time. The Second Temple was rebuilt in the Persian period, starting about 520 BCE, and reached its apogee in the last hundred years of its existence, with the rebuilding under Herod in the late first century BCE. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE after the terrible battles and sieges of the Great Revolt. These are the stories about Kamza and Bar Kamza, burning the storehouses of Jerusalem and most famously, about Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai escaping the city (Gittin 55-56). Less than sixty-five years later, we have the third and final major revolt, the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which lasted from 132-135 CE (although there are historians who say it began much earlier). These are the stories about Betar, Bar Kokhba’s headquarters (Gittin 58).
Of these three major events, the one we know most about is the Great Revolt, There is a very simple reason for this and its name is Josephus, or Joseph ben Mattityahu. Josephus was a Kohen, born in Jerusalem, who was an eyewitness to the major events of the Revolt and the destruction. He was a general on the Jewish side who eventually saw the hopelessness of the Jewish situation and went over to the Romans. But most importantly for posterity, he wrote a monumental work called The Jewish War which explained in great detail the events of the war, what led up to it, and its aftermath. We have no such history for the Bar Kokhba revolt and certainly not for the destruction of the First Temple. While Josephus is not always considered reliable, he has been shown to tell the truth most of the time. He provides us with a linear history that allows us to reconstruct the events of the time.
An ancient sculpture that might be Josephus
Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the most important part of the many stories that fill our pages are the final words of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to the general Vespasian. After sneaking out of the besieged city of Jerusalem and gaining the Roman leader’s trust, the rabbi is asked what he would like to be granted. His answer was:
“Give me Yavne and its Sages, and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.” (Gittin 56b)
Rabbi Akiva was disappointed in Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s answer – why didn’t he ask for Jerusalem to be spared? The logical answer, which the Gemara gives, is that that would have been too much. Better to ask for something smaller than to risk losing everything.
But what if Vespasian would have spared Jerusalem this time? Who is to say that the Jews would not have destroyed themselves all over again on a different occasion? Rabban Yochanan’s request was meant to change the pattern of history. If the Jewish people are not succeeding through sovereignty and a Temple, perhaps we need to move in a different direction, with Rabbinic and not priestly or military leadership, without the temptations of corruption that the Temple provided. Maybe Rabban Yochanan’s answer was the only way to break out of the Aggadot haHurban and to allow Judaism to continue on the path to redemption.
Professor Yosef H. Yerushalmi writes about Jews and history in his book Zakhor. He explains that the Bible is full of history, and God is presented as the Master of history, the One who we owe our allegiance to because He took us out of Egypt. However, by the time we get to the Talmud, things are different. “The rabbis seem to play with time as with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will,” (Zakhor p. 17). They believed fervently in the events of the past – the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah and more – and in the eventual future of messianic redemption. They knew that God acts in the world, and yet the details of contemporary history were less important for them. Everything fits into a pattern, there are no new enemies, only repeats of the same evil. Our job is to remain loyal to God, to believe in redemption, and to act to redeem ourselves. Individual historical events are not necessarily significant and do not need to be remembered as such, rather they are part of the larger picture of the Jewish relationship to God. These Aggadot haHurban fit that mode – they are at once timeless and timely. They tell us what happened but only to point a moral – don’t humiliate others, don’t fight with each other so much that you bring starvation to your people, remember what is truly important – compassion, Torah learning and teaching.
May our Torah study bring us closer to a true understanding of Jewish history and to the final redemption.
Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (1850 painting by David Roberts)
David Roberts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons