Vayakhel-Pekuday: 70 CE: The Last High Priest of the Holy Temple


The Tale of the Last of the High Priests: 70 CE

I know the Tradition well, about how the great Roman General Vespasian came and laid siege to the Holy City of Jerusalem—when was it? In the year 66 Common Era, it was; I was a young man then; at least, younger than I am, now. The City had been built of brick, years before, until King Herod, the great builder, had come, and left it all of marble. And a good thing, too, for Vespasian was a besieger of great genius: he first had his engineers build a siege-wall, all around the great walls of Jerusalem, letting no man nor beast, nothing at all, in or out. Then, he hunkered down with his infantry, chief among them the 10th Legion, recalled all the way from Britain, crack troops to a man, and waited for plague and famine to do their work.

We Jews—the ones holed up in the City, that is—were too busy fighting one another to give the Romans a proper battle. There were Sadducees, whose worship was based in the Temple, you see, and they were all for surrendering; they said that, the sooner we did so, the better; Vespasian would be more inclined to look upon us with mercy. And a good many of the common folk, the Pharisees, those who favored Torah study, agreed with them: they could see that Romans had us beat as for men, weapons, war-making machinery, and experience.

But the more warlike crowd, the Zealots, and the hawks amongst them, the Sicarii, called so for their tactic of dispatching their enemies in a crowd by means of a long, sharp, sudden dagger-in-the-ribs, the sicarius, as the Romans called it, were all for fighting, and going down to Glorious Death—which several of us, Priests and Rabbis, did not favor at all, not at all.

“Better a living dog than a dead lion,” we preached, and believed it.
I heard tell that the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai went so far as to have his body smuggled out of the City in a coffin, pretending to be dead of the plague—that took nerve, I can tell you. I myself—I, Itamar ben Aaron, so named for being the great-great-great-grandson of the first Aaron the High Priest, could only think, “Now, how can I escape the City, which will certainly go down in ruins, and so to preserve life?” And so, I came up with a plan.

There were the catacombs—that is, tunnels, deep and dark they were, down under the Temple building itself, built originally to catch and drain any and all rain-water, since suchlike is rare, indeed, here in Jerusalem, and we have always needed as much water as possible, for the purpose of maintaining the Holy Service, washing the Holy Vessels, and suchlike.

And so, I betook myself into the tunnels—to preserve life, as I said. Not a moment too soon. I took three loaves of the showbread from off the table before the Holy Ark—it was meant for God, but I felt He would not begrudge it me, His chosen priest—and lifted up the cover-plate to the mouth of the tunnel, one night, when all were asleep, save the cries of the City Watchman, and the sighs of those dying of the plague—

And I disappeared, so I did, down down down into the tunnels—to preserve life, as I said; to preserve life….
I emerged on the far side of the Kidron Valley, and made haste to get as far from suffering Jerusalem as I could…somehow, I escaped the Destruction which Titus-son-of-Vespasian wrought. I had thought, originally, to wear my priestly garments, as a sort of charm to avoid being detained, but, in the end, all I kept was the tzitz, the golden plate that read, “Holy to God,” which I put into my leathern pouch, as a sort of talisman, a charm to fend off evil.

Beyond that time of my escape, I had thought that an alarm might go out through the country wide, of Roman authorities seeking me, as a rebel and renegade, but I was able to pass along without being recognized; indeed, since my beard has grown longer, it has come in almost completely white. I notice also that strangers come up to me, asking for my blessing, and I share it with them, wholeheartedly. These people include Jews, but also Greeks, Romans, and other pagans, which surprises me. It is odd, but I feel comfortable, somehow, being able to give some comfort to all these people in this time of difficulties and war.

Since that time, I have wandered far afield; I rest by day, giving my blessings, and travel by night, following the stars; they have not led me astray.

Where is a High Priest to go, who has no Holy House of God to maintain? God Himself has not forsaken me; I am able, thusfar, to eat dates from the trees and grapes from the arbor. I do not know what tomorrow may bring, but I do trust in God.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God Who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

About the Author
David was born and raised on NYC's Lower East Side, and attended Hebrew Day School, Yeshiva Univ. HS, and Yeshiva Univ., where he learned English, Bible, and Jewish Education degrees. He attended the CUNY Graduate Center, and received both an MA and M.Phil. in English Literature, with a concentration in 17th Century, John Milton, and the Romantic Poets. David also received semicha/rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY. He has also attended the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, where he received a Certificate in Advanced Hebrew School Administration. David serves Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL; prior, he served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH. He is married, with two grown children and a Shih Tzu. He recently published a book of his Torah stories, "The Torah Book: New Stories of Bible People & God."