Talmudic pages

Yoma 9

Why was the Temple destroyed?

On today’s daf, the Gemara puts aside its discussion of Yom Kippur rituals and turns its attention to the Temples themselves, asking what was, for the rabbis, a huge and defining question: How could God allow the Jewish religious center, the divine dwelling place on earth, to be destroyed? The answers might surprise you.

Why was the First Temple destroyed? For three reasons: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed…

However, during the Second Temple period, people were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot and acts of kindness. So why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to baseless hatred. 

While historians might posit the destruction of the Temples had to do with the complex geopolitics of enormous empires, the rabbis had only one explanation for the destruction of God’s house: divine punishment for sin. During the First Temple period, they point to the cardinal sins: idol worship, illicit sexual activity, murder. All of these are prohibited without exception. But the Second Temple, the rabbis tells us, was destroyed for a different reason: baseless, wanton hatred and infighting within the Jewish community. 

This understanding leads the rabbis to equate the two:

The sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.

This idea that baseless hatred is equivalent to all of the cardinal sins at once — that it is enough to bring an end to God’s house — is radical. 

In fact, the rabbis wonder if baseless hatred is even worse than those other sins. The Gemara asks: Which generation is more (or less) meritorious? In the ensuing debate, the rabbis note that the First Temple had 18 high priests over a period of 400 years while the Second Temple had more than 300 in a similar time frame, so perhaps the stability of the high priesthood and length of tenure is a sign that the earlier generations were meritorious. On the other hand, during the Second Temple period (which overlapped the start of the rabbinic period) people studied Torah, performed mitzvot and engaged in acts of loving kindness — so perhaps those latter generations were superior.

Of note is the response of Rabbi Elazar: 

The sages asked Rabbi Elazar: Are the former (generations) greater or are the latter?

He said to them: Look to the Temple.

Some say the exchange was slightly different: He said to them: The Temple is your witness.

Rabbi Elazar suggests that the Temple itself can be used as evidence to determine the relative merits of the two generations. While both behaved so badly the Temple was destroyed, the first group merited redemption — the Temple was rebuilt. This is not the case for the generation of the Second Temple. Some two millennia later, that generation, torn asunder by blind hatred, from Rabbi Elazar’s perspective, has yet to be fully redeemed.

Read all of Yoma 9 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 20th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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