“Has the time come for this house to be destroyed?”
There is a pervasive sense of loss throughout the Talmud, with the references to the destruction of the second Temple, which was the golden house that united the Jewish people from its mount in Jerusalem. Today’s Daf Yomi provides an even deeper sense of loss through the brief but profound moments before the first Temple – Solomon’s Temple — was forever lost.
The Temple had thirteen gates, including four in the north of the courtyard, four in the south, three in the east and two in the west. The gates are worth mentioning because of their wonderful names and significance. They included The Upper Gate; the Gate of Kindling; The Gate of the Firstborn; The Gate of Water; The Gate of Jeconiah; The Gate of the Offering; The Gate of Women; The Gate of Song; The Gate of Nicanor and two wickets; and two unnamed gates.
The Gate of Jeconiah was the northern exit through which the short-lived King Jeconiah went through when he was exiled to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE. He was the son and successor of King Jehoiakim before he was dethroned after just three months. Nebuchadnezzar looted the Temple – which represented the first great loss to our ancestors – and deported the Jews to Babylonia. We read yesterday that it is possible that the Ark containing the intact and broken Ten Commandment tablets was hidden at this time out of fear that it might not be returned to Jerusalem if it were carried to Babylonia.
The loss of the first Temple is viewed in today’s Daf Yomi reading as a “fulfillment of prophecy and strengthened Judaic religious beliefs.” In its wake was the hope that the Temple would be rebuilt one day – and it was – although it was also destroyed again, which represented the second great loss. The strengthening of religious beliefs came about through first the oral passing down of the great religious texts and later, the written transcription. Although after the destruction of the Second Temple our ancestors lost a physical center of worship, they had the Torah and Talmud which offered fortification to every generation afterwards with the body of Jewish learning.
Jeconiah was approached by the Great Sanhedrin – the great court of Jerusalem – that inquired: “Has the time come for this House to be destroyed? Is that the purpose for which you have arrived?” Jeconiah, who seemed to accept that the time had come, prepared himself to be taken into captivity by climbing to the top of the Temple with the golden keys to its sanctuary. He addressed God directly and offered up the keys to the heavens. It was a tragic moment when the crowned King of Judea was about to admit spiritual defeat and return the keys to the Temple from where they had come.
A miracle happened when Jeconiah threw the keys up to the sky: they never returned to earth. We are told that someone had witnessed a hand reaching down and grabbing the keys from Jeconiah. And how gut-wrenching to consider that the keys were so readily snatched back. When the certain townspeople came to observe what happened, “they went up to the top of their roofs and fell and died.” They did not die from the sword or battle, but from “falling from the rooftops” – perhaps out of desperation for what was about to be lost.
The sense of loss associated with losing two Temples – a loss upon loss – cuts deeply into the narrative of our ancestors, who went on to flourish in communities around the world, despite future tragedies that would befall them. The image of the gentry of the town falling from their roofs when they saw the keys to their treasured sanctuary snatched away, is one of the most profound moments in the readings of this Daf Yomi cycle to date. And to know what other horrors would transpire, including the destruction of the second Temple, is almost too much to bear.
But still, even with all the loss, there is the sanctuary that was created through the written scripture, that would live on to shelter many future generations.