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Jerusalem’s primacy and the Temple of Onias

June 28, 2011

Here’s a case where the Daf Yomi series (started and explained here) and learning about Jerusalem come together.

We finished the Menachot tractate today. This is the second tractate that deals in tremendous detail with the minutiae of the sacrifices in the Temple. Interestingly, the tractate ended with statements by a number of Amoraim (mostly Babylonian scholars who lived in the 3rd-5th centuries) about how the very study of the details of the sacrifices replaces the rituals themselves. (page 110a). On yesterday’s page (109) there was a halachic-historic discussion about the Temple of Onias, in Egypt. There is no doubt that such a Temple existed; according to Josephus, it was probably built in the 2nd century BCE (well, Josephus doesn’t use those dates, of course); it was destroyed by Vespasian three years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

(An early example, perhaps, of the line “I don’t hate Jews, only Zionists and anything that remotely reminds me of them”?)

The Talmud has a number of versions of how the Temple of Onias came to be built in the first place, all of which have to do with pride, sibling rivalry and squabbles over an inheritance; the Talmudic stories fits the same chronology as that of Josephus.

The reason the Talmud gets into the matter is a discussion about whether it is permissible, in any way, to make sacrifices in a temple which is not The Temple in Jerusalem. The general opinion seems to be not, even if the priests are all legitimate member of the Aharonic tribe. Before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem there were legitimate ways to do this; once the Temple in Jerusalem was built, sacrifices anywhere else are forbidden. Jerusalem is not a coincidental geographic location; it’s unique.

If I’m already here, the story that launches the discussion is poignant. It tells about Simon the Just, one of the most famous High Priests of the 2nd Temple era. The single most important job of the High Priest was to officiate on Yom Kippur; and the climax of that was when he entered the Holy of Holies: the only person to do so ever, and only on that one day. The Holy of Holies was famous worldwide for being empty: the home of God had nothing in it save Himself.

One year as he came out Simon told his aides that he was soon to die. How do you know, they asked.

“Every year when I go into the Holy of Holies, I’m accompanied by an old man, dressed all in white, who enters with me, and leaves with me. This year he was dressed in black, and though he entered with me, he didn’t leave with me”. A few weeks later, after the holiday of Sukkot, Simon the Just indeed died, and then his sons fought among themselves and Onias, the younger, went down to Egypt…

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