The Jews’ saddest day is the Ninth of Av, which this year is Tuesday. During a fast as long and stringent as Yom Kippur, the children of Israel chant dirges mourning their alienation from God. Study of sacred texts, excepting certain theodicical and funereal writings, is forbidden, limiting the greatest intellectual expression of a Jew’s love of God. The day concludes eight prior days of mourning—those, in turn, embedded in three weeks of solemn reflection. Wherefore this grief?
Principally, the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, and subsequent exiles from the land of Israel. This is our most abiding catastrophe. Mass death and religious decay are familiar features of Jewish history. Even as the former has, for now, ceased, the latter is embodied in a contemporary Jewry most of whose members disobey Jewish law. But a Jew may always return. This spiritual suicide is optional. Equally, physical destruction is compensable. Seventy-two years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Talmud study flourishes in Jerusalem and in New York. But we have no Temple. This lack is not yet made whole.
The Temple was the ancient site of Jewish sacrifice. Individuals, and Israel corporate, had obligations and opportunities to mark holidays, to ask forgiveness, and to express thanksgiving through Temple rites. God blessed all the tribe of Levi, and especially the priesthood descended from Aaron—brother of Moses and the first high priest—with the privilege of keeping and administering the Temple. The Jewish people supported their holy work with agricultural tithes and portions of their edible offerings.
The laws of Temple worship are fantastically complex. Many chapters of the Pentateuch are devoted to their enumeration, and a whole order of the Talmud to their explication. Priests wore special garb, maintained high spiritual purity—inside the Temple and, through restrictions on (for instance) marriage partners, outside it as well—and could be executed for certain infractions. There is a Jewish dictum that one who has studied the laws of the Temple is as one who has participated in their actual execution. Therefore many Jewish sages have for two thousand years studied the laws of the Temple with the same analytic rigor and fear of heaven that characterizes their study of laws practiced every day. Some of the most prestigious academies operating in Israel today, including the successors to the Brisk yeshiva, teach exclusively the tradition of Temple worship.
There is a saying in Brisk: fregt nischt fur vos, fregt vos—ask not for what, ask what. It is sufficient to know what the law is, so it may be followed, and to prescind from the reasons for the law’s having been given. We can refrain from futile inquiry into the mind of God, while still asking what part of the Jewish consciousness was so ruptured by the Temple’s destruction that we still plead for its restoration. What was the function of temple life in a complete Jewish life, that Jewish life without it is incomplete?
Temple life consecrated the fruit of material life outside the Temple. All good things come from the Lord, and the Temple enabled and obligated Jews to acknowledge their divine Sustainer by returning their best sustenance to Him. The first produce of each season was brought to Jerusalem. So were first-born lambs, kids, and calves, following the Lord’s instruction that the firsts of all birth belong especially to Him (first-born human sons are redeemed with monetary payment to priests, in a ritual still practiced today). The Paschal offering, a choice lamb commemorating those slaughtered before the Exodus, is one of the few positive commandments, omission of which earns excision from the Jewish people. Sin offerings are another category of sacrifice. They served to atone for intentional and accidental transgressions, including those against the Sabbath. A special set was brought by the high priest on Yom Kippur to expiate the sins of the Jewish people.
Temple ritual enabled Jews to redeem their physical existence, rather than denying it in romantic Gnosticism. God is radically incorporeal, but man was made in His image. Man’s physicality is the cost of representing an infinite and ineffable Being. It is also the source of many of his vices— lust, violence, greed. But these anarchic motives may be directed toward decent activities—marital procreation, protection of the weak, provision of material necessities. Human life requires all these. The opposite behaviors cause physical death, as surely as they constitute spiritual death. But even good behavior can be successful or unsuccessful. A diligent planter may reap no crop without the rain, and the most intimate couple may not be blessed with children. The Lord’s beneficence makes the difference, enabling man to create together with his own Creator. Temple ritual enabled fitting thanks for this privilege, and was therefore itself a blessing. It cannot be too often remarked that God has no need for our sacrifices. The Almighty could cultivate flora and fauna far beyond our poor power to plant fields or destroy them. Temple worship allowed the Jews to objectify their need for His grace in their daily lives.
The Book of Lamentations, which Jews chant in a mournful trop on the Ninth of Av, describes a Jerusalem conquered and ravaged. For their sacrilege, the Jews were punished with famine. Elders and priests scavenged, and in a verse of horrific and vile disorder, mothers consume their own thirsty children. The punishment appears strange. Shouldn’t the sin of rebellion against God be repaid with a deprivation of God’s Law, the greatest expression of His own particular love for the Jews? Far bitterer in fact is the double-infliction described. Those especially responsible for consecrating the physical world are reduced to a merely physical existence, disabled by their baseness from the high life of Temple worship. And those whose labor produced the fruits to be offered must, in order to sustain the life thanks for which the fruits are offered, pervert physical life, by destroying its continuity.
Temple worship is not, as the function of Temple worship evinces, and the Book read to commemorate its violent end reveals, an esoteric, mysterious, and robotic exercise. That is its exact opposite, and indeed the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both remonstrate with the Israelites for neglecting their inter-personal obligations while obsessing over rituals. In its highest expression, Temple life literally elevates man’s earthly projects. Man was commanded to go forth and conquer the world. Temple life sanctified the conquest’s booty, proving with every libation Jewish love for Creation.
Jews still thank God in blessing before they eat. But until the Temple is restored, we do not dine with God. Until our days are renewed as of old, physical life is redeemed through mere speech. When the Temple is rebuilt, speedily in our days, Jewish life will regain its exact point of contact with the God of the Jews, and all mankind.
Cole Aronson is a summer intern at First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?