The Struggle for Jewish Identity after the Destruction of the Temple

How the Jewish community adapted their religious system after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.

The loss put Judaism at a crossroads. The destruction meant an end to the sacrificial system – a concept central to Jewish life and faith. This forced the Jewish community to adapt. Ephraim E. Urbach covered this in his great work, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Mr. Urbach “was a distinguished scholar of Judaism. He is best known for his landmark works on rabbinic thought, The Sages, and for research on the Tosafot. He was an unsuccessful candidate to be President of Israel in 1973.”1

Enclosed is his coverage on how the new Jewish identity had shifted from sacrifice to study and charity. The quote names a few important Rabbis. The most prominent name in this discussion is Yochanan ben Zakai . The New World Encyclopedia gives an outline of this important leader in Jewish history:

“Yochanan ben Zakai (Hebrew:יוחנן בן זכא , died 80-90 C.E.), also spelled Johanan b. Zakki, was an important rabbinical sage in the final days of the Second Temple era of Judaism and a key figure in the transition from Temple-centered to Rabbinical Judaism.

Already a well known teacher in Jerusalem before the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 C.E., Yochanan was smuggled out of the city during the rebellion and convinced the future emperor Vespasian to allow him to reestablish his academy at Jamnia. This institution became the leading center of Judaism after the Temple was destroyed. Under Yochanan’s influence, animal sacrifices were abandoned in favor of prayer as the primary means of atonement between man and God.”2

Here is a portion of Urbach’s explanation:

Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Vol 1. Pg. 611

. . . R. Isaac taught ‘Whoever occupies himself with the law of the sin-offering, and whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah is regarded as if he offered up a sin-offering, and whoever occupies himself with the law of the guilt-offering is regarded as though he offered up a guilt-offering.’ Rava came and said ‘Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt -offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt offering.’(4) The wording of Rava’s dictum ‘needs no’ etc. is more extreme than the dicta of his predecessors and their like, such as, ‘A Sage who sits and expounds (Torah) in public is accounted by Scripture as though he offered up fat and blood upon the altar,(5) for all these sayings contain the expression ‘as though (if)’. Even in the anonymous homily that states ‘When the Temple is not in existence, how shall you find atonement? Occupy yourselves with the words of the Torah, which are comparable to the sacrifices and they shall make atonement for you. . . ,(6) the study of the Torah serves only as a surrogate and replacement for atonement by the sacrifices. Even this concept is already the result of late development, for when the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai declared that acts of charity and benevolence were Israel’s atonement,(7) while others again looked upon fasts as substituting for and replacing sacrifices.(8) The supercession of fasting and the practice of benevolence as a means of expiation by the study of the Torah accords with the views of various Sages who chose the way of R. Simeon b. Yohai, rather than that of R. Judah b. Ill’ai.3

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Footnotes found in the above text.4

These footnotes are for those already familiar with Jewish thought and method or want to know more details about the above passage.

  • (4) T. B. Menahot 110a. See Sifre Deut. § 41: ‘ “And to serve Him” — this refers to study of the Torah. You say this refers to study of the Torah, but perhaps it means actual (sacrificial) service! When Scripture declares “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to serve it [לעבדה usually rendered ‘to till it’] and to keep it” (Gen ii 15) – but what service was there in the past, and what keeping was there to do in the past? — thus you learn: “to serve it” means study of the Torah, “and to keep it” means the observance of precepts; and just as the service of the altar is called “service”, even so is the study of the Torah called “service”.’ This exposition is difficult, for it is impossible to tell why ‘to serve it’ should connote study of the Torah and not the service of sacrifice (and thus it is actually interpreted in Gen. Rabba xvi, 5. p. 149: “To serve it and to keep it” refers to the sacrifices’: see ibid n. 2. With regard to the precepts observed by Adam see above, p. 320). The understandable homily that follows emphasizes this difficulty: ‘ “And to serve Him” — this means prayer. . . but perhaps it means non other than service? (Hence Scripture says) “With all your heart”. Is there then service in the heart? . . . just as the altar-service is called “service”, even so prayer is called “service”.’
  • (5) ’Avot de-R. Nathan iv, p. 18; see the notes ibid.
  • (6)Tanḥuma, Aḥare, 10; ed. Buber, ibid., xvi, 35a
  • (7) See my article ‘Megammot Datiyyot we-Ḥevratiyyot be-Torat ha-Sadaqa shel Ḥazal’, Zion, XVI, 1951, pp. 6 ff.
  • (8) See my article ’Asqezis we-Yissurim’, Sefer ha-Yovel le Yitzḥak Baer, pp. 54 – 56

Footnotes

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephraim_Urbach
  2. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Yochanan_ben_Zakai
  3. Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Vol 1. Pg. 611
  4. found in Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Vol 2. Pg. 967 -968

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