There are few things more exasperating than a building project that goes beyond its promised deadline. Until the work is completed, the older facilities remain inaccessible, but the new improved version is not yet ready for use. When the renovations are to a family home, the prolongation is likely to cause serious interruptions to the patterns of domestic life. Situations of this sort have existed for as long as human dwellings could fall into disrepair, or could be perceived as inadequate and outmoded.
If these kinds of irritations accompany modest kitchen repairs, imagine the massive scale of annoyance that could be generated by a major overhaul of the House of God!
Such was the prospect that faced the Jewish populace when King Herod the Great announced his intention to replace the second Jerusalem Temple with a more magnificent structure.
According to the main chronicler of that era, Josephus Flavius, the tyrant's chief motives for this undertaking stemmed from his desire to ensure that his glory would be remembered and esteemed by future generations. This, I suppose, is a common pattern among absolutist rulers like Herod who maintain their rule by trampling ruthlessly on the backs of their subjects. The world's treasures of monumental architecture would be severely impoverished were it not for those dictators' concerns for posterity.
Although not always sympathetic to Herod, in this case the talmudic tradition offers a more favourable interpretation of what impelled the king to renovate the Jerusalem Temple. The rabbis saw it an act of atonement for his cold-blooded killings of members of the Jewish religious leadership, a policy that he came to regret, realizing afterwards that it had been based on mistaken premises. Herod's counselor suggested to him that this would be a fitting way to make amends for his crimes: "Just as you extinguished the 'light of the world' [that is, the Torah and its sages]‚--now go and take care of the other 'light of the world' [the Temple]."
As the story is told by Josephus, Herod's subjects were not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of a new and improved Temple. Clearly, they loved their holy sanctuary and took great pride in its splendor; so their vacillation must have been directed not at the renovation itself, but at the person of the builder. At this stage of his reign, Herod had already erected a remarkable number of superb edifices throughout the Land of Israel. Not all of these served purposes that were consistent with traditional Jewish values; and all of the projects were accomplished at immense costs in money and labour, onerous costs that were borne by the ordinary Jewish populace. It is therefore understandable why the people were not enthusiastically supportive of the king's current plan.
What was called for, then, was an elaborate propaganda campaign that would appeal to popular sentiments. The arguments that Herod presented (after the custom of the ancient historians, Josephus compressed them into a single speech) included a reminder of how proud the Jews must be of his previous building projects, which were, after all, constructed not for the king's glory, but with a view to benefiting the nation! Herod went on to remind everyone of the improvements that had taken place in the the national economy under his leadership; and he appealed to their guilt for the disgraceful smallness of the current Temple structure, whose dimensions had been stunted by the Persian emperors under whose auspices it had been built in the days of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubabel.
In this connection, Herod was able to turn to his advantage one of the features of his policy that had incited immense distrust and loathing among his Jewish subjects: his close friendship with the despised Romans. The failure of previous Jewish r»gimes to build a suitable Temple could now be blamed on their bad relations with the imperial powers under whom they lived. It was only Herod's amicable ties with the Roman superpower that at last opened a window of opportunity to properly honour the Almighty in a structure worthy of its sacred purpose.
According to the Talmud, Herod was not so certain that the Roman authorities would allow him to rebuild the Temple. On the advice of the sage Baba ben Buta, he dispatched an envoy on a prolonged mission to Rome, proceeding apace with the building project in Jerusalem. By the time the envoy returned with a negative reply from the capital, the Romans were faced with a fait accompli; Herod was censured, but his new Temple could not be removed. This is a strategy that has been emulated by centuries of building contractors who were unable to obtain permits in the standard legal way.
Whether or not the Judeans were convinced by Herod's arguments about the desirability of renovating the Temple, there were more practical concerns that bothered them about the scheme: How would they conduct their worship while the renovations were going on? And what would happen if, after the old structure was torn down, the project exceeded its budget and they found themselves without adequate resources to bring the ambitious project to completion?
According to Josephus, the king responded to these concerns by pledging that he would not begin the demolition of the old Temple until all the requisite resources and materials were completely in place. He made good on that pledge, assembling a full contingent of building materials, equipment, and qualified craftsmen. The actual work did not commence until all that groundwork had been laid. This included the quarrying, fashioning and transporting of those immense "Herodian" stone blocks, the training of ten thousand artisans, including a thousand priests who could do the physical work on holy ground, and the provision of more than a thousand wagons to carry the stones to the summit of the Temple Mount.
The talmudic sages nevertheless voiced some misgivings about how consent could ever have been given to destroy the old structure before the replacement was finished. According to rabbinic law, it is forbidden to demolish an old synagogue until the new one is ready for use. Should this not have applied even more to the cherished Temple!
As possible justifications, the rabbis suggested that a royal edict constitutes a more reliable commitment than a promise by your average building contractor, and can be regarded as an unshakable guarantee that the commitment will be fulfilled. Or alternatively, they suggested, perhaps the older structure was already in such a state of disrepair that it was about to collapse on its own if not replaced immediately.
Josephus writes that, once all these preparatory measures had been duly taken, the reconstruction was completed in a year and a half. This presumably refers to the sanctuary itself. Evidently, the full range of related improvements in Jerusalem was still going on decades later, when rebellion broke out against Rome in the 60's C.E.
Perhaps this provides the context for a passage in the Mishnah (Eduyyot 8:6) that describes how the sacrificial services were conducted in the Temple when there were no solid walls to separate the domains: "I have heard that when they were erecting the Temple, they made curtains for the Temple and curtains for the Temple court." These curtains served as temporary partitions until the new walls were completed.
And it never hurts to have good weather while a major construction project is underway. Josephus reports a tradition to the effect that throughout the period of the building of Herod's Temple, no rain ever fell during the day, but only at night, allowing the work to proceed without interruptions. This remarkable circumstance was also recorded in the Midrash as an illustration of the verse (Leviticus 26:3): "I will give you your rains in their season": "In the days of Herod it used to happened that rain would fall only at night, and then in the morning the sun shined and the wind blew and dried out the earth. Then the labourers went forth to their work, assured that their work was acceptable to Heaven."
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