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On the Territory Held by the Returnees from the Babylonian Captivity, and the Continuation of the Second Tempe Era

March 11, 2014

Some years ago, I was speaking with Rabbi Elboim about his efforts in promoting awareness of Temple-related issues, and I asked him how he would respond to those who claim that there is no currently operative commandment/obligation upon the Jewish community to rebuild the Temple – a claim made by many rabbis today, inlcuding R’ Schachter. He responded, “even if that were the case, who says that we cannot put back the Second Temple as it was?” He was on to an important idea.


The Talmud discusses the the extent of the territory in the Land of Israel that was resettled after the Babylonian captivity. The various details were collected by Maimonides in the first chapter of Terumoth, because it is a matter of halacha that the sanctity of the land, i.e. whether or not a given area is subject to the commandments contingent upon the Land, depends upon its having been resettled by “the returnees from Babylon,” as the original sanctity of the Land was removed upon the Babylonian conquest. The Land was originally sanctified through conquest, and thus its sanctity was removed by foreign conquest. Rabbi Soloveichik expanded on Maimonides’s explanation, saying that that which was settled by the returnees was sanctified through hazaqa, possession, and thus was for perpetuity. (The commentaries struggle with how this mechanism works.) The Gemara concludes that certain areas indeed were never resettled, and thus those areas are technically not “holy’ to the extent that the laws of, e.g., tithes, do not apply thereto. The best example brought is the area of Beth Sh’an, which, although being surrounded by territoreis completely within sanctified Israel, which stayed gentile during the time of the Judges and even until David, and was determined to have not been ever resettled by the Jews. Yet, today, Beth Sh’an is a completely Israeli city, with a vast Jewish majority and many synagogues.

A fundamental facet of talmudic methodology is knowing who said what, and when. (How many Gemaras begin by seeking to determine which tanna is the author, and whose earlier opinions are reflected in baraithoth recoded later? Countless). I have a hunch that the issue as discussed by the Gemara, circa mid fourth century to early fifth century in Babylon, reflects what was then the contemporary reality: that the Palestinian Jewish community under the Byzantines was drastically dwindling, and was considered as losing relevance. (Think about the necessity of disbanding the Sanhedrin and promulgation of the fixed calendar which occurred at that time.)

We pointed out earlier that even as late as Reish Lakish’s time, he was still blaming the failure of the second commonwealth on the lack of Babylonian aliyah, although the Temple had been built many centuries previously, and had already been destroyed almost 200 years before his own passing. He held diaspora Jewry accountable because he believed that however dire the national(ist) situation, it could still be remedied by massive aliyah.

I believe that when the sages of Babylon discussed the territories that had been resettled, they did not only look at what was accomplished that first year when the Jews started to rebuild the Temple (circa 530 BCE) nor did they just look at the first few centuries after that, when more waves of returnees arrived, like those that came with Ezra and Nehemia well after the Temple was completed. (Despite the fact that everyone knows it for a fact, Ezra did not build the Second Temple, nor did he have any part in its construction.) Rather, they were looking at the entire eight and a half centuries from the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple until the disbanding of the Sanhedrin, when the Jewish community of Israel was nearly destroyed. Any territory that had been resettled up until the time of the Gemara was considered as part of the resettlement, and indeed anything that would be resettled in the future would also be included in the Land’s sanctity, except that in their days it was largely just a dream. The upshot of this argument is that any areas that are part of the modern State of Israel and settled with Jews, like Beth Sh’an and Eilat, are considered holy to the extent that the commandments concerning the Land apply to them. I can not find the exact source in my limited library and puny memory, but Rabbi Soloveichik expanded on that theme, saying that the areas held on to by the founders of the State on the ground, the outnumbered Jewish militias who made the ultimate sacrifices to hold on to as much territory as possible, thus sanctifying the Land to an even greater extent. Although he was speaking esoterically, I would argue that the claim could even be made by the letter of the halacha.


What made the Second Temple what it was was the lack of success in bringing out the Redemption and the return of God’s presence. However, the Jews, once upon the time, still sought to bring it about. Rabbi Elboim was saying that we should still try to do what we can to bring things back to that state. We should at least try.

What of the claim that we would need a prophet to order the the building of the Temple? Is this not a specific rule laid down by our sages? The answer is that according to the Miamonidean school of thought, (which is also apprently shared by many of hazal, geonim, and rishonim) the answer was yes, before the first Temple was to be built, but after that, there is a constant communal obligation to either maintain the Temple or rebuild it as it was. In the Guide, Maimonides explains that the necessity of following this procedure with regards to the initial building of the Temple was to avoid dissension and confusion. The prophet’s job was less about declaring that the time had come and more about showing where to build the Temple, but once that has been a matter of undisputed public knowledge, there is no reason to wait for a prophet to order the Temple’s reconstruction. This explains why, when King David had decided on his own to build the Temple, the prophet initially approved of his idea, and then had to receive specific instructions from God to delay the building the Temple. Had there been a rule that the prophet is given the word when to build the Temple, either David, if aware of the rule, would have waited for the prophet’s instigation, or if he had been unaware, then the prophet should have initially responded that the command has to come from on high. (See II Samuel 7, which is usually the Haftorah for Shemini, but not this year.)

This is similar to the rule that a king may not be appointed except by a prophet and the Sanhedrin. Although that would seemingly be the case for any king in history and the future, Maimonides proceeds to explain that because David and his house have already received divine approval and proper appointment, we could rightfully appoint one of his heirs as our king without the approval of a modern prophet. (See Laws of Kings, chapter 1)

This explains why Maimonides codifies the laws of of the Temple without noting that a prophet’s approval is necessary to rebuild it: The Temple has alresady been approved of and built; we just have to put it back the way it was. This also explains why throughout Jewish History and until the modern era, the Jews sought to raise up the glory of the Temple whenever they had the chance. The Maccabbees, the sages who guided Herod, Rabbi Akiva, and those who sought to build the Temple during the reign of Julian the Apostate, and many others did not wait for a divine  command to commence their work.


This was the mistake of the returnees from Babylon: they had been given permission by  King Cyrus to rebuild the Temple, but they did not commit themselves. They were lax.

What happened? It says in the Book of Haggai:

1,1 In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, in the first day of the month, came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet unto Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, saying: 1,2 ‘Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying: This people say: The time is not come, the time that the LORD’S house should be built.’ 

The people had not built the Temple because they did not believe the time was right. After all, the gentile king had ordered it, not one of God’s prophets!

1,3 Then came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet, saying: 1,4 ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your cieled houses, while this house lieth waste? 1,5 Now therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. 1,6 Ye have sown much, and brought in little, ye eat, but ye have not enough, ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink, ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages for a bag with holes. 

God told them that their lack of material success was due to their religious failings.

1,7 Thus saith the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. 1,8 Go up to the hill-country, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the LORD1,9 Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the LORD of hosts. Because of My house that lieth waste, while ye run every man for his own house. 1,10 Therefore over you the heaven hath kept back, so that there is no dew, and the earth hath kept back her produce. 1,11 And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the ground bringeth forth, and upon men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labour of the hands.’ 

That is, they were mistaken in thinking that they needed a prophet to tell them what to do. They should have known all along that they were expected to have built the Temple already!

1,12 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, hearkened unto the voice of the LORD their God, and unto the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him; and the people did fear before the LORD. 1,13 Then spoke Haggai the LORD’S messenger in the LORD’S message unto the people, saying: ‘I am with you, saith the LORD.’ 1,14 And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and did work in the house of the LORD of hosts, their God.

The same still holds true today. The overly pious and humble dread having to perform this commandment, and seek all sorts of halachic excuses and justifications for avoiding this awesome commandment, although God made it eminently clear millena ago that he expects the community to take it upon themselves to to do it already.


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