Devarim: Words of Destruction
When we speak about the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, we generally use the term Churban HaBayit (literally, “the destruction of the House”). However, the word churban is not the only Hebrew word that means “destruction”. In fact, the Torah itself, when warning that sin can ultimately cause the destruction of the Temple, uses a different word. In that context G-d warns: “I will give your cities over to destruction (charbah) and I will destroy (vehashimotyi, derived from the noun shemamah) your Temples” (Leviticus 26:31). In this very passage we encounter two seemingly synonymous words for destruction: churban and shemamah. We will first seek to differentiate between the exact meanings of these two words, and then show how both of these terms aptly describe the destruction of the Holy Temples.
Malbim explains that the word churban is commonly applied to the destruction of an urban zone, while the word shemamah is a general term which refers to the utter desolation of the land. He also argues that shemamah denotes a more severe state of destruction than the word churban does.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) takes a different approach. He explains that the word churban denotes that which is not inherently damaged, but can be termed “destroyed” simply as the result of a disconnection between itself and an outside element that it requires in order to flourish. For example, a “ghost town” which remains completely intact, but is nonetheless abandoned, can be considered a churban. This is because the town itself is not damaged in any way, yet its lack of population precludes it from being considered a thriving settlement. It is effectively destroyed, while displaying no outward signs of destruction. By the same token, an especially dry and arid land is called a charbah because its infertility is not due to a problem in the land itself, but results from its inability to receive outside water (e.g., if rainfall is a rarity).
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that the word shemamah specifically refers to a plainly visible form of destruction. When a land or edifice is physically destroyed it is described as shamem, because one who sees it will note its obvious state of destruction. Radak (in Sefer haShorashim) writes that the root word of shemamah sometimes refers to “destruction” and sometimes refers to “astonishment” (e.g., a person who is taken aback by something is described as mishtomem). However, Rabbi Meckleneberg links these shared meanings of the same root by explaining that when one encounters something that is utterly destroyed he stands dumbfounded and stupefied at the very sight of that which he has beholden. In short, shemamah is destruction in the eye of the beholder.
Just as the neshamah (soul) of a person serves as his lifeline to the Upper Realms, so did the Holy Temple on Earth connect to a corresponding Holy Temple in the Heavens, which served as its life-line. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) asserts (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4) that the Jewish sinners whose misdeeds brought about the destruction of the Holy Temple were far worse villains than the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the Roman emperor Titus who, respectively, destroyed the First and Second Temples. He expounds on this assertion by explaining that the grievous sinners of the Temples’ times defiled the Heavenly Temple, thereby disconnecting the physical buildings of the Earthly Temples from their Heavenly counterparts. The direct result of this disconnection was that the foreign armies of Nebuchadnezzar and Titus were able to successfully come and destroy the Earthly Temples.
Following this approach, we may posit that the term Churban HaBayit does not refer to the physical destruction of the Holy Temple, but refers to its spiritual disconnection that resulted from sin. On the other hand, when the Torah refers to the shemamah of the Temples, this does refer to the physical destruction of the buildings — the sight of which should serve as a deterrent from future sin. When we mourn the Churban HaBayit we do not simply mourn the demolition of the building which housed the Temple; we mourn the spiritual decline which allowed for that destruction to occur.
Interestingly, Ibn Ezra writes that sometimes the Hebrew word shahm does not always mean “there” as it usually does, but could be related to the word shemamah to refer to destruction/desolation. Rabbi Meckleneberg cites a poignant example of such usage: Psalms 137:1 is a prophetic lamentation of how the Jews were destined to react to the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem and their subsequent exile to Babylonia. That famous verse reads: “On the rivers of Babylon, there (shahm) we sat, and we also cried”. In this context the word shahm seems entirely superfluous. They could have simply said, “On the rivers of Babylon, we sat.” Why did they add the word shahm? Rabbi Meckleneberg explains that the word shahm in this context is not meant as a geographical pronoun of their location (“there”), since such a location marker would be unnecessary. Rather, it refers to the exiled Jews’ state of existence. They were outwardly living in a desperate state of desolation and despondency as they disheartenedly sat and cried on the rivers of Babylon.