Even more than seven hundred years after the destruction of the Temple, the sages could report the following teaching and mean it: “Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman: Before the Temple was built, the world stood on a throne with only two legs; when the Temple was built, the world stood firm.” (Tanhuma Terumah 9)
It was Solomon who built the First Temple, and who proclaimed in God’s name at its inauguration: “Since the day that I brought forth My people, Israel out of Egypt, I have not chosen a town from all the tribes of Israel to build a house for My name to be there… ‘[but now I (Solomon)] have set a place for the Ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord, that He made with our fathers, when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (8:16; 21) It is clear to see from Solomon’s words that the dedication of the Temple was second in religious significance only to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. (Y. Keil, Melakhim, Daat Mikra, p. 193)
When did this monumental event occur? At the beginning of 1 Kings chapter 8, we were told this ceremony coincided with the “feast – (hag)” in the seventh month (Tishrei), then known as the month of Etanim. (8:2) At the end of this chapter, which serves as the special haftarah for Shmini Atzeret, the grand nature of the festivities is described: “So Solomon and all of Israel with him – a great assemblage, from Lebo-hamat to the Wadi of Egypt – observed the Feast (hag) at that time before the Lord our God, seven days and again seven days, fourteen days in all. On the eighth, he let the people go….” (65-66) It is obvious from the context of this verse that the “hag” being talked about here is Sukkot and the eighth day when Solomon sent the people off, Shmini Atzeret. (This explains the assignment of this haftarah to Shmini Atzeret.) The association of the second seven days with Sukkot is strengthened by a parallel tradition found in the book of Chronicles: “they observed the dedication of the altar for seven days and the Feast seven days” (2 Chronicles 7:9)
This posed a problem for the rabbinic tradition. If the second seven days of celebration coincided with Sukkot, then the first seven days included Yom Kippur. (See Rashi and Rabbi David Kimche) In other words, the dedication of the Temple was apparently so monumental that it offset the observance of Yom Kippur.
The Talmud sought to clarify the implications of this “happening”: “Said Rabbi Parnah said Rabbi Yohanan: ‘That year Israel did not observe Yom Kippur, and the people were worried and said: [perhaps because we have transgressed and not observed Yom Kippur,] we are deserving of destruction? A heavenly voice pronounced: All of you merit life in the world to come. How do we know this? They argued: If in the Sanctuary [in the desert] which was not permanent, an individual’s sacrifices offered at its inauguration were permitted, even on Shabbat even though it meant doing things on Shabbat which normally have warranted death, how much more so would it be permitted to make communal offerings for the Temple, whose sanctity is forever, when the punishment for transgressing Yom Kippur is only karet (premature death)! So, what were the people so worried about? They thought this understanding referred only to offerings to God, but what about their eating and drinking on Yom Kippur? Shouldn’t they have made their offerings without partaking of food and drink? [The Talmud replied:] There is no joyous celebration without eating and drinking. (adapted from Moed Katan 9a)
This rather complicated discussion serves as an example of a situation where two important values conflict. How is one to determine what to do? In such situations, the conflict must be assessed and a determination must be made over which value takes precedent. In Solomon’s day, the dedication of the Temple, the nation’s sacred center, took precedent even over the fast of Yom Kippur. In our day, we are also faced with such a dilemma. During these “Corona” days, when we are faced by a plague of global proportions, we, too, must decide whether “Pikuah nefesh – the saving of lives” takes precedent over our normal routines, both sacred and profane. The Jewish tradition has already answered this question for us. We must side with preserving life. Anything less, would be not only foolhardy but a transgression as well.