The Second Temple in Jerusalem

Over the years, various improvements were added to the Temple complex, so that by the eve of the Hellenistic reform, it had been expanded and refurbished, and had become a significant depository for the funds of both Palestinian and Diaspora Jews. Moreover, the Temple’s position on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem gave it great strategic value. The entire hill, the Temple Mount, was occupied by the Temple precincts, although the mountain itself was no doubt somewhat smaller than the present-day structure, which was built by King Herod. Antiochus III confirmed the Jewish law that non-Jews could enter only the outermost area of the Temple Mount. People afflicted with ritual impurities were excluded from the Temple precincts.

The Temple structure was by now a complex of chambers devoted to specific purposes. Besides the courts of women, Israelites, and priests, and the Temple building itself, including the Holy of Holies, there were dressing rooms, storage areas, and other designated rooms. A stage was used for the priestly blessing and for the levitical songs which were part of the daily rituals. A large altar as well as special preparation areas made possible the sacrifice of animals in accord with pentateuchal legislation. The incense altar and the menorah were positioned in the priests’ courtyard. Beautiful decorations adorned the Temple.

The officiants, both priests and Levites, were divided into twenty-four groups, called courses, each of which served for a week, rotating throughout the year. Each course was headed by one of its members and was, in turn, divided into subgroups. The priests sacrificed and offered the animals; the Levites assisted them and, in particular, sang psalms while the ritual took place. The laws of the Torah were strictly applied in order to guarantee the purity and sanctity of the priests, who were descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The specialized vestments described in the Pentateuch were worn, and the ages of service were determined by the interpretation of the relevant biblical passages. Indeed, in most matters, the Torah and its exegesis were the authority on which decisions about sacrificial and priestly law were made…

The Temple was much more than just a religious and cultic institution during the third and second centuries B.C.E. It served as the governmental center of the Jews to the extent to which the Jewish community operated as an autonomous unit within the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. The high priest and his assistants, over time, accumulated considerable temporal and financial power and controlled the internal affairs of the Judean populace. When, later on, Hellenizers attained the priesthood and attempted to turn the Temple into a Hellenistic cult center, they were therefore challenging not only the religious tradition, but also the very nature of the Jewish nation. When inexorable historical forces led, by the end of the first century C.E., to the destruction of the Temple and the abandonment of sacrifice as a primary religious activity, a new page would be turned in the history of Judaism.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

Click here for more on The Jerusalem Temple and the Priesthood.

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