Bar Kokhba Coin FrontExcerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

If anything is remarkable in the events and developments we have been surveying here, it is the resilience of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel in the face of the catastrophic outcome of the revolt. Despite the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, and the near devastation of the land, including the agrarian basis of the economy, it was not long before Jews were again flourishing in Palestine. Although the tendencies toward liberty and independence were strong, and to a great extent messianic in motivation, the traditional Jewish sense of pragmatism reigned supreme, even in the face of defeat and desperation. The Jews and their civilization adapted to the new circumstances and tried to live normally under the Romans in a restored and rebuilt land. Yet their messianic hopes would not die and ultimately reemerged in the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 C.E.) only a few generations later.

It is important that the spiritual consequences of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple be put into proper perspective. As was the case in the era leading up to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., most Jews apparently had thought that the Temple was impregnable. They saw it as a sign of God’s presence and accessibility among them and could not believe that the sanctuary might at any time fall and be taken from them. Its destruction must have precipitated a major spiritual crisis. Indeed, in view of the tragedy’s magnitude, the sources from the early tannaitic period are extremely reticent about the destruction, just as Jewry was reticent for the first thirty years after the Holocaust in modern Europe. The silence in Late Antiquity stemmed from several factors. Among them were a lack of preparation for a tragedy of such dimensions, as well as an inability to accept the inevitable traditional explanation for all such suffering—that it was due to the transgressions of the people. It is often stated that there was no reaction at all, but this is not true; it was merely delayed. Numerous midrashim later refer to the tragedy and there are many areas in which halakhah, Jewish law, adapted itself to the new circumstances. Further, a reaction is also observable in pseudepigraphical works like 2 Baruch (preserved in Syriac), which bemoans the destruction.

In the rabbinic tradition, it is in the area of halakhah that expressions of fundamental thought processes occur. For this reason, although there are few direct references to the impact of the destruction in tannaitic sources, many changes occurred in the area of Jewish law and practice. In some cases, Temple-oriented rituals were transferred to the home or synagogue. In other instances, it had to be decided how to deal with rituals that simply had no place but the Temple. The problem was so complicated that there is evidence of uncertainty and transition at first. By the mid-second century, however, many of these questions had been decided, although some were not settled until the time of Rabbi Judah the Prince, with the editing of the Mishnah at the beginning of the third century.

The problem of how to observe holidays and festive occasions in the absence of a Temple must have existed even before the destruction. Many Jews in the Diaspora and even in the Land of Israel did not journey to Jerusalem for festivals like Passover but still celebrated them to the extent possible. Their ritual practices provided some precedent for the transformations that had to take place once the Temple was destroyed. In the case of Passover, since the paschal sacrifice was no longer possible, the ritual was transformed into a festive Seder meal to take place in the home. For Sukkot (Tabernacles) the requirement to dwell in a booth (sukkah) still applied, but the procession with lulav and etrog (palm branch and citron), originally conducted outside of the Temple on the first day of the festival only, became a week-long ritual (omitted on the Sabbath, however) as a replacement for the Temple observance. Moreover, the procession with the willow branches, a mainstay of the ritual in the Temple, was now transferred to the emerging synagogue, where instead of the willow branches, the lulav and etrog were carried, a practice still central to the celebration of Sukkot.

The problem presented by the priestly dues and tithes, the offerings the people contributed for the support of the priests and the Levites, was most complex. For a short period the people still set aside the full dues and tithes, but left them unused. Later, symbolic amounts were set aside. This compromise was meant to ensure the sanctity of the land and its produce by not consuming that which could rightly be used only for holy purposes, now that it could no longer be eaten in the manner required by the law. According to tannaitic sources, some Jews in this period, believing that the destruction meant that the spiritual connection between Israel and its God had been permanently interrupted, engaged in mourning practices of various kinds, such as abstention from wine and meat and the elimination of joy from wedding festivities. The tannaim were opposed to such excesses. By and large they succeeded in taming these tendencies, but some circles maintained such practices until well into the Middle Ages, and the Karaite movement eventually inherited them.

The tannaim succeeded in suppressing such behavior because they provided a ritual for commemorating and mourning the Temple which, like the rabbinic rituals for mourning after the death of a loved one, were designed to allow the mourner to live with the loss and move back to normal life. The fast-day cycle of the tenth of Tevet, the seventeenth of Tammuz, the ninth of Av, and the Fast of Gedaliah served the rabbis as an opportunity to commemorate the losses of both the First and the Second Temples. These days were already observed as remembrances of the destruction of the First Temple, and it was natural to add the tragedy of the Second Temple to the commemoration. In tannaitic times the liturgy, laws, and regulations of the fast-days were fixed. These rituals gave the tannaim a means of expressing grief for the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of its sacrificial service within the context of the ritual calendar of Rabbinic Judaism.