Mikdash to Midrash

“This Sefer Torah should not leave your mouth, and you should delve into it day and night, in order that you will observe all that is written in it, so that you will be prosperous in your path and be successful (Yehoshua 1:8).” Hashem issued this charge to Yehoshua during the first moments of his career as the leader of the Bnei Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael were about to embark on a massive conquest of the Land of Canaan and their success in the ensuing battles was to be contingent upon their Torah observance and not on prayers, sacrifices, or communication with Hashem through prophecy. It would appear that the Torah, which was just recently compiled by Moshe, was about to take a central role within the Bnei Yisrael. However, never again in Sefer Yehoshua is the Sefer Torah mentioned; never again is there a suggestion from the text that Yehoshua consulted the Torah for strength and courage. Rather, communication with Hashem through the prophets, prayers for repentance, and sacrifices through the Kohanim – the world of the Mikdash – are the sources of the Bnei Yisrael’s success in battle.

The Torah, which is so central to our service nowadays, is not emphasized again within Tanakh until the late books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Around the year 450 BCE,[i] after the Jews were allowed to return to Judea by Cyrus, Ezra and Nehemiah arose as prominent leaders of religious rebirth. A major component of these books deals with the initial rebuilding of the Second Temple, the re-instituting of the service of the Kohanim and the Levi’im, and the revitalizing of the Jewish nation. The text makes a point of saying that the Kohanim knew their service in accordance with how it is written in the Torah of Moshe.[ii] Due to the crippled state of the Jewish nation, the decline of prophecy, and the general downtrend in Temple lifestyle, religious service to Hashem would not have been possible if not for the Torah. In order for the services to continue, the Kohanim either needed to learn for themselves or be taught the laws of the sacrifices from the Torah; therefore, the sacred text was seen as an instruction manual for the sacrificial service in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. As such, the natural leader for this synthesis between the Mikdash and an apparent emphasis on Torah study would be a Kohen who was proficient in the Torah in its entirety and could teach others how to serve in the Beit Ha-Mikdash correctly.

From the lineage of Aharon Ha-Kohen and a scribe of the Torah of Moshe, Ezra embodied the best of both the world of Mikdash and the world of Torah in order to lead the Jewish people within both realms.[iii] In accordance with the mission of the Kohanim to “teach [Hashem’s] laws to Yaakov, and [Hashem’s] Torah to Yisrael,”[iv] Ezra prepared to expound upon the Torah, to observe the commandments, and to teach the Jews all of the laws.[v] Famously, Ezra read the whole Torah before the Jews in Jerusalem in order that the whole nation should understand the text.[vi] The pesukim tell us explicitly that the Jewish people did not know about the holiday of Sukkot, which they immediately took action to keep by mobilizing the construction of Sukkot.[vii] During the time of Ezra, many, if not all, mitsvot seemed to be completely forgotten and the Torah was the only remnant of commandments long lost. The early years of the Second Temple not only marked a time when the Torah became central to the service in the Mikdash, but a time when the Torah became central to the continuation of all mitsvot; thus the law-book needed to be studied.

As history moves toward the Hellenistic period, the Kohanim appear to be more knowledgeable in their service of the Mikdash. After the Hasmonean Revolt against the Seleucids around the year 134 BCE, the Jews split into two main sects, the Pharisees and the Sadducees who were led by the Sages and the Kohanim respectively.[viii] For our purposes, there are two main distinctions to be made between these two sects: First, the Pharisees took part in the synagogue and Beit Midrash movement,[ix] whereas the Sadducees remained attached to the Mikdash model of religious life.[x] And second, the Pharisees were concerned with interpreting the Torah based on Oral Tradition, while the Sadducees were devoted to a surface reading of the text.[xi] This divide between the two sects is prominently seen through examples of Halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai – laws given to Moshe from Sinai, which the Pharisees held authoritative and the Sadducees did not.[xii] The Sadducees viewed the Torah as a tool to be utilized for enhancing the service of Hashem through the Mikdash. The Pharisees, on the other hand, championed a new emphasis on delving into the text and expounding the laws in the Beit Midrash. Each side only followed one aspect of Ezra’s legacy – the Kohen or the Scribe, but neither side was interested in unifying and utilizing the strengths of both approaches to Judaism.[xiii]

It is easy to understand the opinion of the Sadducees since the Mikdash had always been the prominent center of Jewish life, but why did the Pharisees affiliate with the Beit Midrash movement and the centrality of the Torah, a feeling without true precedent in Jewish history?[xiv] During their time, the high priesthood was bought from the ruling foreign power of the time (i.e. the Greeks or the Romans), which inevitably lead to corruption, abuse of power, and a pollution of the Mikdash. Therefore, the Pharisees looked to be a part of a countermovement, that of the Beit Midrash, to replace the Mikdash until its restoration back to its full glory[xv]. While the Mikdash was a place of sacrifices and rituals, the Beit Midrash was a place of prayer and Torah study.[xvi] Midrash replaces Mikdash and Tefilla replaces Korbanot. When the rituals were contaminated by the corrupt Kohanim and the destruction of the Temple loomed in the air, the Pharisees sought to push forward the Beit Midrash as the institution for the preservation of Judaism. And when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, it was Yavneh – the first official Beit Midrash – where the Sages kept Judaism flourishing,[xvii] and this was accomplished in part by modeling the Beit Midrash after the Mikdash itself.

The Pharisees and the Tannaim that followed them developed two main methods of legitimizing the Beit Midrash.[xviii] The first method claimed that the Beit Midrash is really a Mikdash Me’at – a smaller version of the Temple.[xix] The second method claimed that the physical Beit Midrash is parallel to a spiritual Beit Midrash in heaven.[xx] These two methods were meant to make the Beit Midrash more accepted, but they went about doing so in different ways. The first method established the authority of the Beit Midrash upon the grounds of a Mikdash; since the Mikdash was always the center of Jewish life, the Beit Midrash was meant to be the natural off-shoot following the destruction of the Mikdash. On the other hand, the second method established the authority of the Beit Midrash upon the grounds of heaven; the Mikdash was the original resting place for Hashem’s presence, but, now that the Mikdash was destroyed, the Beit Midrash became the new resting place for the shekhinah.

In fact, components of the Beit Midrash came to replace the services of the Mikdash. Berakhot 26b debates whether prayers were instituted based on the precedent of our forefathers or based on the sacrifices in the Temple; while the Talmud concludes that there is a duality involving both in the prayer services, it is clear that prayers were seen as the new service in place of the sacrifices in the Mikdash. Furthermore, Reish Lakish says that if someone learns Torah, then it is as if he brought a grain-offering, sin-offering, and a guilt-offering.[xxi] Again, we see another example of how the Beit Midrash fulfilled the services of the Mikdash that were lost after the destruction.

As time moved farther away from the Mikdash, the Sages sought to demonstrate the true force of the Torah’s power. In opposition to Reish Lakish, Rava explains that whoever learns Torah does not need a grain-offering, sin-offering, and a guilt-offering.[xxii] Rava felt that the role of Torah study was inherently different from that of the Korbanot; while the Korbanot served to clear a person from sin after they acted wrongfully, Torah study prevented a person from sinning in the first place. According to Rava, it would appear that Torah study was a better system than Korbanot. In fact, as the Tannaim and the Amoraim became accustomed to the centrality of the Torah, Talmud Torah itself became fundamental and not just one component of many that comprised service of Hashem at that time.[xxiii] While Shimon HaTzadik, during the early period of the Second Temple, equated the pillars of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hassadim,[xxiv] the Tannaim and Amoraim started the shift to Torah as the most important pillar of Judaism. Rabbi Halafta explains that, whether there are ten people or just one person studying Torah, the shekhinah is present “in all places that [Hashem’s] name is mentioned” (Shemot 20:20).[xxv] The Sages tell us that it is up to every Jew to bring Torah study into their everyday lives in order that Hashem’s presence can dwell amongst them; this should be accomplished in the Beit Midrash, a place set aside for Torah study, but it can be done anywhere possible, even at our dinner tables.[xxvi]

Following the slow step towards making Torah study central to Judaism, we can see how important the role of the Beit Midrash was in facilitating that growth. It is clear that there are two important roles that the Beit Midrash and Torah study are meant to take: On the one hand, the Beit Midrash functions as a Mikdash Me’at and Torah study functions as a replacement of the Korbanot that we can no longer bring; the Beit Midrash, in this role, links us to our sacred past, to the commands of the Torah that are estranged from us, and to the customs of our ancestors that we fulfill in a different capacity. On the other hand, the Beit Midrash and Torah study are new innovations where one can ask, “What new idea was learned in the Beit Midrash today?” and always expect an answer, for as a place of innovation, “it is impossible to leave the Beit Midrash without a new idea.”[xxvii]

Danny Abboudi is Junior at YU. He is majoring in ­­­­­sociology and minoring in economics. He is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i]     Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (3rd ed. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 15. All dates are taken from the timeline in this book.

[ii]    Ezra 3:2; 6:18.

[iii]   Ezra 7:1-6.

[iv]   Devarim 33:10.

[v]    Ezra 7:10.

[vi]   Nechemiah 8:8.

[vii]  Nechemiah 8:14-15.

[viii] Cohen, 154-157.

[ix]   Cohen, 109.

[x]    Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context, and Creativity (trans. Michael Prawer, vol. 1, Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers, 2010), 107.

[xi]   Megillat Taanit says that on the 4th of Tammuz we do not fast because the book of decrees was destroyed; the Scholion – the explanation on the Megillah – explains that this refers to the decrees of the Sadducees. Further, the Scholion records a discussion between a Sadducee and a Pharisee where the former claims that “an eye for an eye” should be taken literally, whereas the latter claims that it should be interpreted figuratively on the basis that the Oral Law tells us so.

[xii]  For example: In Mishnah Sukkah 4:9, R. Yehuda explains that there is a Mitsvah of Nisukh ha-Mayim – a water libation – on the altar in the Mikdash during the eight days of Sukkot. The Sages present were wary of the Kohen who performed this water libation because, as Rambam explains, sometimes the Kohen was a Sadducee and would not perform the water libation since it was a Halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai. Here we can see a clear example of the clash between the learning of the Midrash and the service of Mikdash.

[xiii] During the times of these two sects, it was common to see acts of aggression and violence against one another, as opposed to open lines of communication. Both were looking to keep Judaism strong, but they refused to work with one another. John Hyrcanus is a prime example of this aggression; originally a Pharisee supporter, John Hyrcanus ultimately becomes a follower of the Sadducee sect and is convinced by them to massacre many Pharisee leaders. On the other hand, Salome Alexandra bolsters the Pharisee sect and allows for their leaders to put many Sadducees to death.

[xiv] While Ezra seems to have emphasized exegesis of the Torah, he did so from the Mikdash. The Pharisees were advocating for something radical – moving out of the Mikdash and into a different institution of non-Jewish roots (synagogue is a Greek word meaning “House of Assembly,” or Beit Knesset in Hebrew).

[xv]  Cohen, 127.

[xvi] Cohen, 106.

[xvii]         Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context, and Creativity (trans. Ilana Kurshan, vol 2, Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers, 2011), 21.

[xviii]        We are going to assume, for our purposes, that the Beit Knesset and the Beit Midrash accomplished the same goal of replacing the Mikdash for the sake of preserving Judaism. In Yerushalmi Megillah3:1, the Talmud says that there were 480 Batei Knesset in Jerusalem before the Mikdash was destroyed and each one had a Beit Talmud and a Beit Sefer. From here we can assume that the Beit Midrash (a place of learning) was inherently part of the early Beit Knesset. We are not going to delve into the reasons why these two institutions were split up.

[xix] Megillah 29a.

[xx]  Midrash Tehillim Psalm 84.

[xxi] Menahot 110a.

[xxii]         Menahot 110a.

[xxiii]        This might explain why the Beit Knesset and the Beit Midrash split off. The Beit Knesset is an institution for service to Hashem, whereas the Beit Midrash is specifically singled out for Torah study.

[xxiv]        Avot 1:2.

[xxv]         Avot 3:6.

[xxvi]        Avot 3:4.

[xxvii]       Hagigah 3a.