The Lessons of Jeroboam for Our Times

A few years ago, I was bothered by two questions, for which, thank God, I was recently able to find answers based on the primary sources, and to my satisfaction.

The first was, why did Jeroboam only create a festival to replace Tabernacles, and not also replacements for Passover and Pentecost?

Second, why did Jeroboam place his golden calves and their high places in Dan and Bethel, away from Shechem, Penuel, and Tirtza, the cities that served in succession as his capitals? Further, we see that all of the subsequent kings of the Ten Tribes continued with this policy, and even when the capital was moved to Samaria, the high places stayed in Dan and Bethel.

The answer to the first dawned on me before this Passover. Unlike Passover, it is hard to find what historical event is commemorated on the fifteenth of Tishrei. The Jewish people knew that the Exodus took place on the fifteenth of Nisan, and Jeroboam would not have been able to get away with celebrating the anniversary of the Exodus in Iyar. Further, there already was a minor Passover celebrated every year on the fourteenth of Iyar every year in Jerusalem. Pentecost, in turn was always celebrated 50 days after Passover and also commemorated the anniversary of a well-known historical event, making it  incorruptible, too. For Jeroboam, Tabernacles was the easiest target. Further, making the dedication of his high place in Bethel on his new Tabernacles (I KIngs 15:33) was a repudiation of the Jerusalem Temple, which Solomon dedicated on the actual Tabernacles.

The answer to the second question is based on what I wrote here regarding the inter-sanctuarial period of the hetter bamoth, and I recommend reading it before continuing.

We find in I Chronicles 16 that David had an interesting set up: At the official national sanctuary in Gibeon, he placed the Zadokite/Aaronite priests to do exactly as the Torah commands regarding the public sacrifices, but at his private high place, the tent in Jerusalem that temporarily housed the Ark of the Covenant, he set up his own service as he saw fit and was completely within his rights, and placed the Levites in charge. David, as is evident from the biblical sources, strove to emulate the Levites, those charged with singing the songs in the sanctuary, and they were his most prominent collaborators in composing the psalms. Asaf, Heiman, Jeduthun, and the sons of Korah were all Levites.

Therefore, when we look back in Jewish history, we see that since the construction of the Sanctuary at Shiloh, the city of the Sanctuary never served as a political capital, nor did any of the judges or prophets make the site of the Sanctuary their headquarters until the time of Eli, the High Priest who served as one of the last judges. When the time came to muster the nation for war, the people would gather in places like Gilgal and the Mitzpa. Othniel lived in the land of Judah, as did Ibzan. Deborah made her base far from Shilo, and so did Gideon, Jephtah, and Samson, and Samuel lived in the Rama. Saul likewise held court away from the Sanctuary. Eli was the exception, not the rule, and perhaps it even led to his undoing, because his sons held both political and priestly power, and that led to their downfall.

Jeroboam therefore had what appeared to be a strong claim against Solomon for consolidating power by permanently placing the Sanctuary in his hereditary political capital. Jeroboam sought to appeal to the nation’s sense of tradition. He was restoring things to way they were and aught to be. His sanctuaries were rightly called bamoth, high places, because he denied the essential claim of Solomon’s party: The Temple of Jerusalem was neither uniquely holy nor eternally holy, and therefore sacrifice to God was valid elsewhere, and, following the practice of  the great prophets, judges, and kings before Solomon, Jeroboam made a separation between synagogue and state, and kept his preferred place of sacrificial service away from his court. Jeroboam’s other policies had this air of authenticity by appeal to the national memory of the old ways. He wasn’t reforming Judaism; he was turning back the clock to when the worship of God was not so strictly defined by Solomon and his supporters.

Now here is where the story relates to my previous article. Jeroboam played on the Jewish people’s sense of tradition. His reforms had to appear as conservative and traditional as possible, and the hetter bamoth was a central piece of his plan. By definition, he rejected the notion that there must be one altar dedicated to God. After all, he built two of them, and separated them as far from each other as he could.

Now, let us test this situation with the two main theories as to what mechanism allowed the hetter bamoth to return during the Nov/Gibeon era. If we assume like Maimonides and the Talmudic sources that I have brought to back his position, and we also assume that at least the knowledgeable ones among the Jews were aware of this halachic mechanism, then Jeroboam could possibly get away with announcing that the hetter had returned. Why? Because the rule was derived from exegesis: was a particular sanctuary “the resting place” or “the inheritance?” Jeroboam could have easily claimed that just like Solomon and his party had declared an issur bamoth upon the construction of the Temple, he, as the divinely ordained king, and his party, were now reversing the declaration, proclaiming that Solomon’s temple had been rejected because of Solomon’s sins, or that the Jerusalem Temple was another, temporary “resting place,” and that some other future Sanctuary was meant to be “the inheritance.” Just like it had been the prophet Samuel who had revealed to the people that the hetter bamoth returned with the destruction of Shiloh, Jeroboam, with the backing of Ahijah, the prophet from Shiloh no less, and who, according to one tradition, had personally witnessed the entire history of the Tabernacle and the sanctuaries, was showing the people that in his days the hetter had returned.

However, if we were to assume that there was some known rule that the hetter bamoth automatically returns when the Ark is removed from the Sanctuary, a mechanism which would have allowed for a temporary hetter bamoth during the Shilonic period and did lead to a long-term hetter during the Nov/Gibeon era because the Ark was kept elsewhere, then Jeroboam had a problem. The people would have clear reason to reject his bamoth, because Solomon had the Ark in the Jerusalem Temple. As long as the ark stood in a sanctuary, bamoth were forbidden, unless Jeroboam could come up with a surprisingly novel and yet superficially not-unprecedented reason for his institutions.

A running theme of the book of Kings is that since the building of the Temple, the Jewish people continued to offer sacrifice outside of the the Temple. Indeed, the worship on the bamoth was THE sin of the era of the kings. In the Northern Kingdom, the bamoth were official government policy, passed off as basic halacha, and even in the Kingdom of Judah, the prophets fault every generation up until Hezekiah’s for not abandoning their high places. It must have been that the people believed that the mechanism which had permitted in former times and (mistakenly) in their own times was one unrelated to the location of the Ark of the Covenant. 

Jeroboam, through his policies, repudiated five facets of b’hira, divine selection:

By establishing high places in Dan and Bethel, he repudiated the divine selection of Jerusalem and the Temple as the resting place of God’s presence.

By fashioning golden calves, he repudiated the divine selection of the modes of worship as described in Moses’s law.

By attempting to prevent innocent Israelites from displaying loyalty to the Davidc monarch, who was still technically legitimate even though Jeroboam was declared king of some of Israel by a prophet, he repudiated the divine selection of David’s house as the leaders of the Jewish people.

By allowing any who wanted to to initiate themselves into the priesthood, he repudiated the divine selection of the Levites and Priests as the sole officiants in God’s house.

And by doing all of these in tandem,  he repudiated the divine selection of the land of Israel, which, as Maimonides alludes to by quoting extensively (in the Laws of the Temple, chapter 7) from the Mishna in Keilim 7 describing the ten levels of sanctity within the land of Israel, culminating with that of the Holy of Holies, derives its sanctity from the Temple. (R’ Herschel Schachter has made this point numerous times.)


In Israel’s eyes, Jeroboam was not an innovator, and had “tradition” on his side.

Indeed, all of his mistakes are alluded to in the Torah, and they were all made in some form or another by the generation of the Exodus:

The Ma’pilim sought to invade the land of Israel without Moses and the Ark of God accompanying them, which meant that God’s presence was not among them.

The Jewish people made a golden calf when they sought an alien manner of serving God.

Jewish leaders, like the spies and Korah’s party, led insurrections against Moses, the divinely appointed leader.

Korah’s party challenged the divine selection of the Levites and Priests.

Ultimately, we find that a number of tribes officially opted to stay beyond the promised land, and Moses rebuked them for having a destructive and evil culture, one that would bring ruin on the rest of the people. Similarly, Ahijah the Shilonite, who had appointed Jeroboam, announced that because of Jeroboam, “the Lord will smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water; and He will root up Israel out of this good land, which He gave to their fathers, and will scatter them beyond the River.”

Every king of Israel is thereafter judged by the Jeroboam-standard, and found guilty. All, until Hosea, continued in this policy, and all therefore “did evil in God’s eyes.” Even Jehu and his dynasty are thus faulted, even though scripture has (sometimes veiled) words of praise for each of them. In ancient Israel, the worship on bamoth was the act that deep down all knew to be wrong, but was part and  parcel of their way of life, much in the way certain prohibitions have become ingrained in our societies.

We thus need to ask ourselves a difficult question today, when our modes of worship are also distant, both physically and ideologically, from the Temple: What would the prophets say about a succession of Israeli prime ministers, all of whom have explicitly adopted a policy of preventing Jewish worship, especially that of sacrificial worship, on the Temple Mount? Like the kings of Israel, they persist in their ways because it helps maintain their hold on political power, and view a change in the status quo as a threat to their hegemony.  Are they any better than the worthy kings of Israel, who may have been what we could call completely observant Jews, who stopped public Sabbath desecration and the consumption of non-kosher food, who would pray thrice daily and never go a day without tallith and t’fillin and prayer, but who were ultimately deemed failures because they continued in Jeroboam’s ways? And, what historical consequences will we suffer for our leaders’ policies?


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