The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis

The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis

The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis

The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis


When the rabbis composed the Mishnah in the late second or early third century C.E., the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed for more then a century. Why, then, do the Temple and its ritual feature so prominently in the Mishnah? Against the view that the rabbis were reacting directly to the destruction and asserting that nothing had changed, Naftali S. Cohn argues that the memory of the Temple served a political function for the rabbis in their own time. They described the Temple and its ritual in a unique way that helped to establish their authority within the context of Roman dominance.

At the time the Mishnah was created, the rabbis were not the only ones talking extensively about the Temple: other Judaeans (including followers of Jesus), Christians, and even Roman emperors produced texts and other cultural artifacts centered on the Jerusalem Temple. Looking back at the procedures of Temple ritual, the rabbis created in the Mishnah a past and a Temple in their own image, which lent legitimacy to their claim to be the only authentic purveyors of Jewish tradition and the traditional Jewish way of life. Seizing on the Temple, they sought to establish and consolidate their own position of importance within the complex social and religious landscape of Jewish society in Roman Palestine.


When Roman military forces conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70, life changed for Judaeans living in the province of Judaea. Aside from the direct consequences of war—the extensive casualties, the imperial appropriation of property, and the greater Roman political domination—Judaeans, or Israelites in rabbinic sources, must have also felt the absence of the Temple. Many Judaeans had regularly visited the Temple in order to participate in its ritual. But now there was no Temple, and the people could no longer make pilgrimage to perform the Temple’s rituals. Priests, whose authority was tied to the Temple, had been powerful figures, but now their power base was gone. In the aftermath of the war of 66–70 CE and the subsequent revolt of 133–35 CE, the structure of Judaean society necessarily changed.

By the late second and early third century, when members of the early rabbinic group created the Mishnah, the Temple had been destroyed for over a century. There was no one still alive who had directly experienced the destruction and concomitant change in ritual life. More than a century after the destruction of the Temple, the normal rhythms of life must have long since resumed for members of the people of Israel living in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. Post-destruction forms of ritual life had by now taken hold, and the new shape of society had become entrenched.

Despite the passage of time and the disconnection from the physical Temple and its rituals, the early rabbis gave special prominence to Temple ritual when creating the Mishnah. The Temple and its ritual are indeed one of the Mishnah’s main topics. Of the six “orders” (that is, large sections, composed of “tractates”) of the Mishnah, almost the entire order of Ḳodashim (“sacred of-

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