The Greatness of the Second Temple
By J. Kahan
During the time that the Temples stood in ancient Israel, the Temple was a central point during the Jewish Holy days.
Yet there were certain important distinctions between the first Temple and the second. Let us understand these differences and their relevance to us.
In regards to the second Temple, the Talmud relates: "Greater is the honor of this (the second Temple) from the first." (Baba Batra 3)
In what respect was the second Temple greater than the first?
The Talmud relates that one sage said: "The building!", meaning that the first Temple was only 30 cubits (50 feet) high, whereas the second Temple was 100 cubits high (150 feet high). Another sage exclaimed: "The years!", meaning that the first Temple stood for 410 years, whereas the second Temple stood for 420 years.
Now we must understand, can we really judge the greatness of the Temples, the dwelling place of G-d, in terms of their height or in terms of the years that they existed? The essential function of the Temple was to be the dwelling place of spirituality! Its greatness has to be measured by the expression of G-dliness and holiness that was to be experienced there.
Even more so, for if we consider the expression of G-dliness and holiness that was in the Temple, just the opposite is apparent. The second Temple was on a lower level than the first. The second Temple lacked five important possessions that reflected the revelation of the Holy presence of G-d: the Holy Ark, the fire which descended from heaven to consume the sacrifices, the Holy Presence of G-d Himself, the Spiritual envelopment of the visitor, and the Holy Breast plate of the High Priest which was able to answer questions.
Therefore how is it even possible for the sages of the Talmud to suggest that the second Temple is greater than the first because of some mere physical advantage such as an additional 70 cubits in height or an extra ten years of existence?
We must understand that the advantage that the second Temple had over the first (even though it lacked the five important attributes that the first Temple had) was an advantage which can be measured in the yardstick of spirituality.
Two Manners in which G-dliness is Manifest
The purpose of the Temple was to provide a place for the dwelling place of the presence of the G-d, as it is written: "Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midsts."
It is known from the mystical writings that the first Temple was in the merit of and a reflection of the attributes of our patriarch, Abraham. The second Temple was in the merit of and a reflection of the attributes of his son, the patriarch, Isaac. The third Temple, which will be built soon, will be in the merit and in the character of our third and final patriarch, Jacob.
When we say that the Temples reflected the attributes of Abraham and Isaac, we are referring to the two possible manners in which the Divine presence could be revealed. When it is said that the first Temple was a reflection of the character of Abraham, what is meant is that the divine presence was expressed through the divine character of "chesed", kindness with out limitation. This was the focal character of Abraham whose life was dedicated to the spread of the knowledge of G-d to even the lowest inhabitants in the world.
The other manifestation of the divine presence was through the character of Isaac, that of "gevurah", of strength and restraint. This was the chief character of Isaac, who is best know for allowing himself to be bound up as a perfect sacrifice to G-d, (although through divine intervention his being slaughtered was averted). This was the chief manifestation of the divine presence in the second Temple.
Obviously, each of these characteristics has an advantage that the other lacks. Therefore we can understand that each Temple had a distinct advantage in one manner over the other.
The difference between the character of Abraham, kindness, and the character of Isaac, strength and restraint, is basically a difference in what is termed "descending from above" as opposed to "ascending from below". The attribute of Abraham, kindness, is considered in the mystical tradition as "descending from above", like water which trickles down from above and seeks the lowest level. This is the opposite of the character of Isaac, restraint, which is considered as "ascending from below", like the fiery flame that seeks to jump up.
The divine presence of G-d in this world could be in one of two forms: or it could descend from above, through G-d's own desires, or it could come through the purification that the world itself has achieved through its own work. In the first manner it is considered as "descending from above", and illuminating a world that is not a proper vessel for the revelation of G-dliness. The second manner is a direct result of the hard work and effort that the world below has made through its own hard efforts to become purified and therefore becoming a vessel that is fitting to contain divine revelation.
Two Types of Students
Chassidut provides a deeper explanation through a "mushal", simile, of two different levels of students who are learning from their teacher. One type of student is one who listens carefully to the words of his master, understanding and memorizing them exactly as his teacher explains the matter to him. He grows to become a very knowledgeable person.
All that this student knows, he knows from the lessons of his teacher; he has listened and memorized his master's words. He himself is not capable of original thought, therefore if he comes across a topic that his teacher has not taught him, he can not properly understand it.
The second type of student is one whose teacher has invested with him the ability of creative thought. His mind has become elated and more sophisticated and capable of deep understanding of topics to which he had no prior knowledge.
The first student, whose knowledge is considered as "descending from above" is based entirely on what his teacher (the aspect of "above") has given to him. The second type of student is considered as one who "ascends from below". He is a changed person in that he possesses the ability to understand deeply and the knowledge that he gains is truly 'his', since through his own intellect he understood the matter and hence acquired this knowledge. His intellect has changed, become deeper and more capable.
The difference between learning in the manner of "descending from above" versus "ascending from below" is that in the first method the student does not change. He is not elevated to another level; rather he remains in his original level. He may become an extremely knowledgeable person, but this great knowledge bank does not turn him into a creative thinker, but rather it is as if the knowledge of the teacher has become his knowledge. That creative ability of the master to delve deeply into various subjects still remains the property of the teacher and not of the student. He has not changed, nor is he elevated; the proof being his inability to use reasoning in a creative manner.
In the mode of learning of "ascending from below", the student changes. He becomes a different person. His intellect becomes loftier and the level of his mind is elevated and approaches the level of the teacher. Therefore he is able to think creatively in order to bring forth original ideas with his own mind. In this aspect, there is a great advantage to the method of "ascending from below".
However, from a different vantage point, there is a definite disadvantage to the method of "ascending from below" in relation to the method of "descending from above". True, the student who may represent the method of "descending from above" approach is not a creative thinker, and only has the knowledge that he has gleaned from his master, yet his amassment of knowledge is far greater and deeper than that of the second student - even though he is unable to reach creative and deep conclusions with his own mind.
The reason is that the second student, with all of his advantages, is still only a student and has not reached the lofty level of his teacher. All of his creative solutions are like nothing in comparison to that of the knowledge of his master. Therefore the student who does not have the ability for creative thinking, yet has expended his efforts in understanding and memorizing the teachings of his teacher has amassed a storehouse of knowledge of incredible depth that can not be compared to by the second type of student.
Therefore the answer to the question of who is the better type of student must be answered in relation to the point of view focusing on either the level of the student himself or on the level of the knowledge itself. From the aspect of the student himself, it is obvious that the second type of student is preferable since he has developed his mind which makes him a loftier person - even changing into a different person. But if we are to judge from the level of sheer knowledge known, we must conclude that the advantage belongs to the first student who has expended his time absorbing the lessons from his teacher. He is a veritable storehouse of information.
The above will explain the teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers regarding Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanus and Rabbi Elazar ben Aruch. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said " if all of the sages of Israel were on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Horkanus was on the other side, he would tip the scale against all of them (and that included Rabbi Elazar ben Aruch together with the other sages).
Yet, it was also said in his name (Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai) that if all of the Jewish sages were in one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Horkanus together with them, and Elazar ben Aruch on the other side of the balance, then he would tilt the scale in his direction. The rabbis explain that there is no contradiction, meaning that both statements have merit. Each of the two sages mentioned had qualities which were capable of tilting the scale in their favor.
The explanation is as we have stated above. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanus was described as a "cistern which never loses a drop of water". So great was his memory and storehouse of the teachings of his master, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, that his knowledge compared to the rest of the sages of Israel was so much greater that he would tilt the scales in his favor. He was the essence of "descending from above" in the most magnanimous manner.
Yet from the aspect of the student's abilities, Rabbi Elazar ben Aruch was greater. He was considered a "geyser that bust forth", a student that possessed a creative mind that could tackle the greatest difficulties and bring forth creative solutions. From this aspect he was greater than all the other sages together. He was the manifestation of "ascending from below".
The Advantages in the Two Modes of Revelation
In view of the simile we may begin to understand the difference between the two revelations of G-dliness as expressed in "descending from above" as opposed to "ascending from below".
There is a certain manner in the revelation of G-dliness in the world when the G-dly influence descends from above. The world is neither purified nor elevated. The G-dliness which descends down upon the world is not dependent upon the actions of the inhabitants of the world. This is the aspect of "descending from above". The level of G-dliness is very great to the point that it can be felt in even the lowest physical manner in this lowly world.
There is a different manner of revelation of G-dliness which emanates from the purification and elevation of the world. The world feels this revelation of G-dliness because it has become purer and more sanctified. The world itself has changed and has become more lofty; therefore it merited a revelation of G-dliness.
In the subject of the Temples, as in the simile of the students, there are two aspects: There is the level of the G-liness that is being reveled in the world, and for certain the supernal infinite light that G-d Himself reveals (meaning the supernal light which "descends from above") is the greatest light that can be revealed. This divine light that G-d reveals is not dependent in any respect to the level of the limited world down below. This is similar to the first student's knowledge of the teacher's lessons compared to the second student's mere ability to engage in creative thought.
But if the measurement is of the level of the world - how much G-dliness has actually permeated into the world - then there is a distinct advantage to the second aspect, "ascending from below". Here the world itself has become more pure and has risen above its previous level. The world has united with this G-dliness because the world has become a vessel worthy of the supernal G-dly light. Therefore, even though this supernal G-dly light is much less than that mentioned above, never-the-less, it permeates and unites with the world in a much greater manner than the light which is generated from above.
Comparing the Manners of Service of the Patriarchs
In view of all which we have mentioned above, the special "direction" of service employed by our patriarch, Abraham, is in a manner of "descending from above"; whereas the special "direction" of our patriarch, Isaac, is in a manner of "ascending from below". This is apparent from these following two stories which are told in the Torah.
About Abraham, the Torah relates that "..he called there by the name of G-d, the Ruler of the world". The Talmud tells us (Sotah 10) "…don't say 'he called' but rather 'he caused others to call' - it comes to teach us that Abraham caused others to call upon the name of the L-rd".
The Rambam (in the beginning of the laws of Idolatry) spends time describing the character of Abraham in spreading the recognition of G-d through out the nations of the world. In other Holy Books, it is explained that Abraham had a special gift for explanation. He was capable of explaining the lofty concepts of G-dliness even to the lowest level of people - even to the Arabs who would practice their idolatry by bowing down to the dust on their feet.
From this it is apparent that the mode of service of Abraham was "descending from above" down to the lowest. He did not change the essential nature of the people who listened to him, they remained coarse and physical, but through his great efforts he was able to implant with in them concepts of G-d. This type of work is similar to the type of learning of the first type of student. Even though he understood deep thoughts - the thoughts were not his own - but rather the thoughts were the thoughts of his teacher.
On Isaac it is related in the Torah that he spent time digging wells. Obviously the plain meaning of the Torah is not to be ignored; Isaac did dig wells. But in this there is a hint as to Isaac's spiritual service which is hinted to us through the portion dealing with his digging wells.
The digging of wells is not something that is done to fill with water from another source. The purpose of digging wells is to reveal the water which already exists there, except that it is concealed and covered by the earth. When the earth is removed, the water is revealed and begins to flow.
Therefore there is a hint to the type of service to G-d that Isaac did. Water alludes to the Torah, to G-dliness. When there exists a place that is dry, a place which is devoid of spiritualism and purity, there are two manners in which holiness can be brought down into it. It is possible to bring it from another place making it a saturated area. But if we do so, the water is not really connected and related to that place. Another manner is to dig deep and reveal the water that exists below the concealment, meaning the inherent holiness that is concealed. Or as the mystics say: to raise up the Holy Sparks which are concealed within. That was the work of Isaac.
Time and Place
We mentioned above that the first Temple corresponded to Abraham's manner of divine service. The dwelling of the Holy Presence of G-d was in a manner of "descending from above", therefore the divine light which was in abundance in the first Temple exceeded the supernal light that was revealed in the second Temple. Therefore the first Temple had the Holy Ark, the fire which descended from heaven to consume the sacrifices, the breastplate of the High Priest, etc. The level of divine revelation was infinitely greater, but it did not exist because of the service and purification of those down below.
In the second Temple, which corresponded to Isaac, the revelation of G-d's presence was in a manner of "ascending from below". This divine revelation was no where near as great as in the first Temple especially since the five important items mentioned above were missing. But in this second Temple, there was a service that depended on inner work and purification of the world itself in order to bring about a revelation. As a result of this, the divine light that was generated in the second Temple was infused in the world in a greater scale than was in the first Temple. In this aspect the second Temple was greater.
But actually it is only because of this reason that the G-dly influence was able to be so sublime as in the first Temple to which no comparable divine light could be brought down into the world through the workings of mere mortals. The world was not capable of assimilating, even after great purification, a great G-dly light such as the one in the first Temple. Therefore in the second Temple, a divine light of much less magnitude was available. But this light was capable of being assimilated into the world.
Now it is understood the words of the Talmud which state that the greatness is measured either in the "building" of in the "years". The "building" and "years" signify the concepts of time and space. These concepts are concepts that are bound inseparably with the total essence of the world since the Creator has passed from the infinite to the limits of space and time in which only worldly concepts are relevant.
Since the advantage of the second Temple was in the elevation of that which was "below"- this is the greatness which was expressed in the terms "building" and "year". In space and time exactly as the words mean, an elevation of the mundane into the holy.
It was not the height of the Temple or the number of years - in their very simple meaning - that gave expression to the greatness of the second Temple, but rather in the actual reality that express the level of "ascending from below" which resulted in the purification and elevation of the "below". That was the greatness of the second Temple.
from the October 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine