HISTORY: Second Temple Period-Return to Zion

HISTORY: Second Temple Period-Return to Zion

The Menorah on the Arch of Titus, Rome
Following a decree by the Persian King Cyrus (538 BCE), 50,000 Jews set out on the first return to the Land of Israel.


Persian and Hellenistic Periods (538-142 BCE)

Following a decree by the Persian King Cyrus, conqueror of the Babylonian empire (538 BCE), some 50,000 Jews set out on the first return to the Land of Israel, led by Zerubbabel, a descendant of the House of David. Less than a century later, the second return was led by Ezra the Scribe. Over the next four centuries, the Jews knew varying degrees of self-rule under Persian (538-333 BCE) and later Hellenistic (Ptolemaic and Seleucid) overlordship (332-142 BCE).

The repatriation of the Jews under Ezra's inspired leadership, construction of the Second Temple on the site of the First Temple, refortification of the walls of Jerusalem, and establishment of the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly) as the supreme religious and judicial body of the Jewish people marked the beginning of the Second Temple period. Within the confines of the Persian Empire, Judah was a nation whose leadership was entrusted to the high priest and council of elders in Jerusalem.

As part of the ancient world conquered by Alexander the Great of Greece (332 BCE), the Land remained a Jewish theocracy under Syrian-based Seleucid rulers. When the Jews were prohibited to practice Judaism and their Temple was desecrated as part of an effort to impose Greek-oriented culture and customs on the entire population, the Jews rose in revolt (166 BCE).

Ahasuerus-Xerxes, one of the great Persian kings, 
depicted in relief on the walls of a palace in Persepolis

Hasmonean Dynasty (142-63 BCE)

First led by Mattathias of the priestly Hasmonean family and then by his son Judah the Maccabee, the Jews subsequently entered Jerusalem and purified the Temple (164 BCE), events commemorated each year by the festival of Hannuka.

Following further Hasmonean victories (147 BCE), the Seleucids restored autonomy to Judea, as the Land of Israel was now called, and, with the collapse of the Seleucid kingdom (129 BCE), Jewish independence was achieved. Under the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted about 80 years, the kingdom regained boundaries not far short of Solomon’s realm, political consolidation under Jewish rule was attained and Jewish life flourished.

Roman Rule (63 BCE-313 CE)

When the Romans replaced the Seleucids as the great power in the region, they granted the Hasmonean king, Hyrcanus II, had limited authority under the Roman governor of Damascus. The Jews were hostile to the new regime, and the following years witnessed frequent insurrections. A last attempt to restore the former glory of the Hasmonean dynasty was made by Mattathias Antigonus, whose defeat and death brought Hasmonean rule to an end (40 BCE), and the Land became a province of the Roman Empire.

In 37 BCE Herod, a son-in-law of Hyrcanus II, was appointed King of Judea by the Romans. Granted almost unlimited autonomy in the country’s internal affairs, he became one of the most powerful monarchs in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. A great admirer of Greco-Roman culture, Herod launched a massive construction program, which included the cities of Caesarea and Sebaste and the fortresses at Herodium and Masada. He also remodeled the Temple into one of the most magnificent buildings of its time. But despite his many achievements, Herod failed to win the trust and support of his Jewish subjects.

Ten years after Herod’s death (4 BCE), Judea came under direct Roman administration. Growing anger against increased Roman suppression of Jewish life resulted in sporadic violence which escalated into a full-scale revolt in 66 CE. Superior Roman forces led by Titus were finally victorious, razing Jerusalem to the ground (70 CE) and defeating the last Jewish outpost at Masada (73 CE).

The total destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple was catastrophic for the Jewish people. According to the contemporary historian Josephus Flavius, hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in the siege of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country, and many thousands more were sold into slavery.

A last brief period of Jewish sovereignty followed the revolt of Shimon Bar Kochba (132 CE), during which Jerusalem and Judea were regained. However, given the overwhelming power of the Romans, the outcome was inevitable. Three years later, in conformity with Roman custom, Jerusalem was "plowed up with a yoke of oxen," Judea was renamed Palaestina and Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina.

Although the Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem burned to the ground, the Jews and Judaism survived the encounter with Rome. The supreme legislative and judicial body, the Sanhedrin (successor of the Knesset Hagedolah) was reconvened in Yavneh (70 CE), and later in Tiberias.

Without the unifying framework of a state and the Temple, the small remaining Jewish community gradually recovered, reinforced from time to time by returning exiles. Institutional and communal life was renewed, priests were replaced by rabbis and the synagogue became the focus of the Jewish communities, as evidenced by remnants of synagogues found at Capernaum, Korazin, Bar’am, Gamla, and elsewhere. Halakhah (Jewish religious law) served as the common bond among the Jews and was passed on from generation to generation.

Masada: Nearly 1,000 Jewish men, women and children, who had survived the destruction of Jerusalem, occupied and fortified King Herod's mountaintop palace complex of Masada near the Dead Sea, where they held out for three years against repeated Roman attempts to dislodge them. When the Romans finally scaled Masada and broke through its walls, they found that the defenders and their families had chosen to die by their own hands rather than be enslaved.

Halakhah is the body of law which has guided Jewish life all over the world since post-biblical times. It deals with the religious obligations of Jews, both in interpersonal relations and in ritual observances, and encompasses practically all aspects of human behavior - birth and marriage, joy and grief, agriculture and commerce, ethics and theology. Rooted in the Bible, halakhic authority is based on the Talmud, a body of Jewish law and lore (completed c. 400), which incorporates the Mishna, the first written compilation of the Oral Law (codified c.210),and the Gemara, an elaboration of the Mishna.

To provide practical guidance to the Halakhah, concise, systematic digests were authored by religious scholars beginning in the first and second centuries. Among the most authoritative of these codifications is the Shulhan Arukh, written by Joseph Caro in Safed (Tzfat) in the 16th century.

The Herodian Temple from the model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period (Courtesy: Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
 Coin inscribed IVDAEA CAPTA (Judea Captured) issued by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE
(Israel Antiquities Authority)
Tetradrachm of year 3 of the 2nd century Bar Kochba Revolt inscribed Simeon/for the Freedom of Jerusalem (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Menorah through the Ages

The Golden Menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum) was a major ritual object in King Solomon's Temple in ancient Jerusalem. Through the ages it has served as a symbol of Jewish heritage and tradition in countless places and in a variety of forms.

The Menorah on the Arch of Titus, Rome​

Menorah on a Hasmonean coin from the first century BCE
The Menorah on a Hasmonean coin from the first century BCE
(Israel Antiquities Authority)
Menorah on two plaster fragments from the first century CE
The Menorah on two plaster fragments from the first century CE, found in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem (Israel Exploration Society)
Menorah in the mosaic floor of a 5th-6th century synagogue in Jericho
The Menorah in the mosaic floor of a 5th - 6th century synagogue in Jericho
(Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Menorah near the Knesset by Benno Elkan
The Menorah near the Knesset, by Benno Elkan
(Israel Government Press Office - GPO / F. Cohen)

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