The Real Reason(s) The Second Temple Was Destroyed

Everyone is taught that the Second Temple was destroyed due to the sin of sinas chinam, baseless hatred of one another.1 This comes from a Gemara in Yoma (9b) which says as much explicitly. While it is not at all the goal of this essay to minimize this, I would like to draw attention to what seems to be a contradiction in the words of Chazal in regards to the churban. I think this a very worthwhile pursuit so that we might all be able to properly do teshuvah in all these crucial areas, and perhaps also come to a better sense of clarity about what the correct approach is in regards to the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Jerusalem Talmud

We begin with the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1) which mentions the same conclusion about the destruction of the Second Temple as does the Talmud Bavli — namely, that it was due to sinas chinam. However, the Yerushalmi also then quotes an individual opinion, that of R. Yochanan ben Torsa, that the destruction was due to the Jewish people having too high a love of money. Finally, the Yerushalmi concludes that the destruction of Bayis Sheini was due to the same things that Bayis Rishon was destroyed for: the “big three” cardinal sins of idol worship, illicit relations, and murder.

While one could suggest we somewhat disregard this Yerushalmi in favor of the “psak” of the Bavli on the matter, this Yerushalmi actually fits quite will with a different Gemara in the Bavli. In Bavli Sotah (47a) the Gemara states that there were two aspects of Judaism that ceased to be after the destruction of Bayis Sheini. The first was capital punishment — due to the high rate of murder — and the second was the sotah ritual — due to the high rate of adultery. Thus, it is clear that these two cardinal sins were not only prevalent at the time of Bayis Sheini, but were so prevalent that it caused their severe punishments to be done away with as it was simply too much for the nation to bear. Further, we find no mention in the Gemara of these sins having been a big issue during the time of Bayis Rishon. This would all seem to imply that murder and adultery were a bigger issue during the times of Bayis Sheini than they were during Bayis Rishon. Certainly, this fits with the Gemara in the Yerushalmi.2

The Destruction of Jerusalem

The Gemara in Shabbos (119b) lists a number of reasons why Jerusalem was destroyed, none of which are quoted in Yoma by either the Bavli nor Yerushalmi. It is further interesting to note that Bava Metziah (30b) mentions yet another reason for the destruction not included in either Shabbos nor Yoma. Explaining why Bava Metziah has a different account of things is beyond the scope of this essay, but we can at least offer a simple solution for why there is a discrepancy between Shabbos and Yoma: We can suggest that Shabbos discusses the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, while Yoma discusses the destruction of the Temple itself. It is certainly possible one could have been destroyed without the other, and, indeed, it was different sins that caused the ultimate destruction of each.

However, we find mentioned in Gittin (88a) that Eretz Yisrael was destroyed (during First Temple times) because seven batei dinim worshipped idols. We know, though, that idol worship was one of the sins that brought about the destruction of the First Temple itself, thus implying that when the Gemara speaks of the land being destroyed, it refers to the Temple itself. This would seem to undo our simple solution just proposed. Further, in Nedarim (81a) the Gemara explains that the land was destroyed because the Jewish people did not make a blessing before learning Torah. This obviously contradicts the Gemara in Gittin we just mentioned.3 There are also other statements of Chazal with varying reasons for the exile, each seemingly contradicting the other.4

If this all seems rather confusing, that’s because it is. And there seems to be no genuinely satisfying answer to the question of just what Chazal’s attitude was towards the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple. It is far less simple a matter than most people presume.

A Possible Solution

A solution which comes the closest is found in something of a controversial book, the Meor Einayim, written by R. Azaria dei Rossi. His sefer was condemned by Maharal, but is is quoted by other Achronim, so we will take the liberty to quote him here as well. He suggests (Vol. 3 Ch. 12) that Chazal, when confronted with a laxity in the nation’s observance of a particular law, would try by all means necessary to improve the situation and the behavior of the Jewish people. They would even try to scare the people into repenting — sometimes by listing the sin in question as the cause of something terrible, like the destruction of the Temple. This means that when Chazal list a certain sin as the cause of a particular punishment it is not necessarily true, but is stated rather to impress upon the Jewish nation the severity of the transgression. This could explain why we find a whole slew of “causes” for the destruction of the Second Temple.

Of course, none of this should minimize the severity of any of the sins in our eyes; on the contrary, by “exaggerating” the punishments Chazal were warning us that the sins are indeed most severe. May we take their lesson and try to improve any and all sin(s) that Chazal have listed in the above sources and thereby help bring about the final redemption.

1. Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim wrote an entire sefer based on this premise.

2. One cannot argue that the Gemara in Sotah is referring to the First Temple, as it clearly states that the one to stop the sotah ritual was R. Yochanan ben Zakai, the student of Hillel and the Nasi immediately after the Second Temple was destroyed.

3. And since the Gemara in Nedarim speaks of the Jewish people conversing with the Prophets — who were only around at the time of the First Temple — we cannot try to solve this contradiction by arguing that this Gemara was instead referring to the Second Temple.

4. See Rosh HaShanah (17a) or Mishnah Avos (5:9).

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