Those who have studied Daf Yomi for a while know that the Temple is a very persistent theme in the Talmud. But Tractate Shekalim presents the most sustained and detailed descriptions of the ins and outs of Temple life of anything we have encountered thus far. Everything from the complexities of funding this giant operation, to myriad job descriptions of Temple functionaries, to the layout of the Temple precincts have been under discussion in the course of this tractate.
A specter haunts all of these: by the time both Talmuds were written (the Jerusalem Talmud in the late 4th century and the Babylonian Talmud some 200 years later) the Temple itself lay firmly and stubbornly in the past. Destroyed in the year 70 C.E., the crushing defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt some 60 years later made clear that a return to Jerusalem with any sort of Jewish sovereignty, let alone to rebuild the Temple, was far more a dream expressed in prayer than a near-term reality. But that reality rarely intrudes into Tractate Shekalim.
Except today. Suggested, perhaps, by the mishnah’s mention of the Gate of Yechonya (named for the king of Judea who was taken into exile by the Babylonians), the Talmud tells a story about the final days of the First Temple. (Note: This is not the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E., but the first Temple, built by King Solomon, destroyed some five centuries earlier.) According to the rabbis, the destruction was no surprise:
You find that when Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonian king who destroyed the first Temple) came up here… the Sanhedrin (Jewish leadership) came out to greet him and asked him: Has the time come for this house (the Temple) to be destroyed?
This somewhat odd greeting matches, of course, the biblical view of what happened to the First Temple, a view echoing through the prophets of that period, like Jeremiah and First Isaiah: the people sinned, turned away from God, and were punished with destruction and exile. Indeed, driving this point home, the narrative switches to King Yehoyachin (another named for Yechonya) as he confronts the inevitable:
He took the keys to the Holy Temple and went up on the roof. He said before God: Master of the Universe! In the past we were faithful to you and your keys were given to us. Now that we are not faithful, your keys are returned to you.
The Talmud notes that either he threw the keys up and they disappeared, or a hand came from heaven to receive them. Either way, the message is clear: God’s protection of the Temple and its people has been withdrawn — disaster cannot be averted.
This devastating narrative is about the First Temple, but of course the rebuilt Temple that would eventually have a gate named for the final Judean king also lay in ruins by the time the Mishnah was written down, and had been that way for even longer when the sages of the Talmud began their work. If the presence of the second and even grander Temple was evidence that God’s favor had returned to Israel, the destruction of that Temple meant that God’s protection had seemingly been lost once again. The sages of our Talmud toiled with text before them in that broken world.
But they learned it still. They worried endlessly over the details of that lost place, concerning themselves with the curtains, the priests, the clothes, the money, the spaces holy and profane inside its gates. Perhaps they did this to ensure that someday, in the future, a new Temple could rise with the look, feel and funding of the old.
The sages of our tradition understood that in the absence of that central heartbeat of ancient Jewish religion, the learning itself would become the center, the force that pulled the people inward, rather than allowing the world to cast them further and further from each other. And we, learning Talmud today, find ourselves engaging with the incredible artifice of their remarkable achievement — an achievement that now, like the Temple of yesteryear, unites Jews and draws them closer to one another in the present day.
Read all of Shekalim 17 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 7th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.