Second Temple

The historical importance and practical history of rebuilding ancient Judaism's sacred center.


The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The Historical Significance of Restoration

From the point of view of Judaism as a religion, there can be no doubt of the historical importance of the restoration of the sacrificial ritual in approximately 520 B.C.E. Written soon after the destruction of the First Temple, the Book of Ezekiel held up the dream of a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, including an enlarged Temple complex, in which sacrifice would be offered to an even higher standard of priestly sanctity and ritual purity than that required in the levitical codes of the Torah.

The restoration allowed Israel to continue its ancestral worship of God in the ways prescribed by its ancient literature. More importantly, it established the biblical sacrificial system as the dominant pattern of worship for the entire Second Temple period. Some groups, like the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls, withdrew from participation in sacrifices, but the ritual of the Temple was seen by the majority of the Jewish people as the most efficacious manner by which to reach God and secure his favor

Planning the Second Temple

The original structure of the Second Temple, before it was refurbished by the Hasmoneans, and later, more extensively by Herod, was built, as already mentioned, at the decree of Cyrus [Cyrus II the Great, King of Persia]. Indeed, vessels from the First Temple, recovered by the Persians from the Babylonians whom they had conquered, were returned to the Jews to facilitate and encourage the rebuilding of the Temple.

Many Jews living outside the Land of Israel contributed financially to the project. A start was made in the time of Sheshbazzar [governor after 538 B.C.E.], but the disturbances made continuation of the work impossible. Zerubbabel [Sheshbazzar’s nephew, who followed him as governor c. 522 B.C.E.] completed the project. He began by erecting a temporary altar on which to offer sacrifices. Since this act seemingly contradicted the requirements of pentateuchal law, the rabbis later termed it an emergency measure.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.

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