THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Re’eh – פרשת ראה
August 31, 2019 – ל אב תשעט
This essay is dedicated with gratitude to Drs. Lillian & Gary Chubak.
The Temple Outside of Jerusalem
In Deuteronomy, Israel is ordered to conduct its sacrificial cult at one central shrine. “Watch yourself lest you offer up your burnt offerings in any place you see. Rather, in the place that the Lord will choose, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer up your burnt offerings and there you shall do all that I charge you (12:13-14).” This commandment is a key element in the Pentateuch’s agenda of steering Israel away from Canaanite worship practices. The pre-Israelite inhabitants of the Promised Land favored local sites and, in the pithy words of Robert Alter, “dangerously seductive natural settings.”
Centralization of Israelite worship was a wise decision, benefiting society both politically and religiously. By transforming the governmental center into a spiritual hub, it strengthened the political unity of a nation ever on the precipice of fracturing along tribal lines. Centralization of worship also helped guarantee the survival of doctrinal orthodoxy. Multiple cultic venues scattered throughout the country were liable to become centers of syncretic or fully heathen worship, as was the case with Micah’s idol (Judges 18:31). A single national cultic center in the Judean heartland would be much more likely to preserve the pristine worship of Hashem -- alone.
Regarding the permissibility of using private altars, rabbinic halakhah divides Israelite history into these six periods:
1) Before the wilderness Tabernacle was built, sacrifices were permitted to be offered anywhere. In Genesis, ante- and post-Diluvians, and all three Patriarchs, set up altars and monuments in a variety of locations. 2) So long as the wilderness Tabernacle stood in the wilderness, it was the sole lawful venue for sacrificial worship. 3) However, while the Tabernacle was stationed at Gilgal during the fourteen years of conquest and settlement under Joshua, private altars were permitted. 4) While the Tabernacle stood at Shiloh (for 369 years, according to rabbinic chronology), private altars were forbidden; all cultic worship was required to take place at the Tabernacle. 5) After the destruction of Shiloh, and before the building of the Holy Temple, the Tabernacle was temporarily located (for 57 years, according to rabbinic chronology) at Nob and later at Gibeon. During that time, private altars were, once again, permitted. 6) After Solomon built the First Temple (c. 970 BCE), sacrifices became permanently forbidden anywhere except on Mount Moriah (Mishnah Zevahim 14:4-8).
The exegetical basis for this legal oscillation over time is Deuteronomy 12:9: “For you have not come as yet to the haven and the estate that the Lord your God is about to give to you.” Only when the sacrificial cult is in a permanent or semi-permanent location does the prohibition on private altars take effect. The “haven” is considered a reference to Shiloh; the “estate” is deemed to mean Jerusalem (Zevahim 119a). This rabbinic exposition is, however, far from a reading of the text that is compelled by its wording. Indeed, that wording is ambiguous, since the phrase אל המנוחה ואל הנחלה could be understood to mean “to the abiding estate” – that is, as referring not to two different places, but only to one.
The Bible in any case explicitly records that sacrificial worship at “High Places,” or local altars, was a widespread phenomenon during the First Temple period. Even those Judahite kings who otherwise did what was righteous in the eyes of the Lord failed to destroy the High Places: Jehoshaphat (I Kings 22:44), Jehoash (II Kings 12:4), Amaziah (14:4), Azariah (15:4), Jotham (15:35). King Hezekiah was the first to attempt to eradicate the High Places as part of a wider religious reform (18:4). King Josiah pursued that goal even more vigorously. Following Hilkiah’s discovery of a Torah scroll in the Temple (622 BCE), the Deuteronomic centralization of worship became Josiah’s primary focus (23:8-20).
During the Second Temple period [515 BCE – 70 CE], the problem of High Places in Judah was no longer an issue. There were, however, full-fledged temples that existed outside of Jerusalem. For example, the Jewish military colony at Elephantine, a Nile River island in southern Egypt, had its own temple. We cannot date with certainty when that temple was built. One suggestion is that it was a reaction to Manasseh’s introduction of idolatry into, and hence his profanation of, the Jerusalem Temple. If so, the Elephantine temple would predate Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms. Others suggest that it was built in response to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE. The Jewish colonists were loyal to the Achaemenid Dynasty. So long as Persia ruled Egypt, the Jews of Elephantine were free to observe their cultic rites. When the native Egyptians overthrew their Persian overlords in 410 BCE, those rebels also destroyed the Jewish temple that they had long viewed as a religious affront.
The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem did not look kindly upon the existence of competition in Upper Egypt. The Passover Papyrus records a message sent in the late fifth century BCE from Jerusalem to Elephantine in the hopes of influencing religious practice there to conform to that of normative Judaism as practiced in the Holy Land. The missive was part of a broader effort by the leadership of Eretz Yisrael to extend its dominance over the entire Jewish diaspora. As could be expected, Elephantine Jewry was rebuffed when it petitioned the Judean authorities for help rebuilding its temple.
The Samaritans had their own Temple on Mount Gerizim, believing that it, not Jerusalem, was the site chosen by God at which to rest His presence. The Samaritan Temple likely was built in the late fourth century BCE, in the aftermath of Alexander’s destruction of Samaria and its resettlement as a Macedonian colony. The Samaritans’ temple stood for nearly two centuries; John Hyrcanus destroyed it during the Hasmonean war of expansion in 128 BCE.
The Temple of Onias at Leontopolis, in the eastern Nile Delta, was the last Jewish temple outside of Jerusalem. The story of its origins is recounted variously in Josephus, Maccabees, the Talmud, and the Egyptianpapyri. The stories are not fully consistent.
According to Josephus in his Wars of the Jews, the High Priest Onias III fled to Ptolemaic Egypt after losing an internal Jewish power struggle with the pro-Seleucid Tobiad camp (Wars 7:10:2-4). Ptolemy VI Philometor granted Onias a large tract of land in the Nomos of Heliopolis and the right to build a temple, in exchange for rallying Jewish support on behalf of Egypt in the war against Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria. Onias was angry with the Jerusalem leadership and sought to attract many Jews away from there and toward his Egyptian-Jewish temple.
The text speaks of Antiochus as still being alive and having already laid waste the Sanctuary. This would place the origins of the Temple of Onias sometime in the mid-160s BCE, though construction of the new temple was not completed until about fifteen years later.
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus offers a different version of events. Onias III died of natural causes. His son, Onias IV, was still an infant and was not yet ready to ascend to the High Priesthood. Instead, OniasIII’
s brother Jason was installed. A few years later, another brother, Menelaus, secured the position of High Priest for himself by offering a massive bribe to the Seleucid leadership (Antiquities 12:5:1). Menelaus was a radical Hellenizer whose policies led to the Maccabean rebellion. Antiochus V Eupator killed Menelaus in 162 BCE for having caused so much trouble for the kingdom. When the king installed the non-Oniad Alcimus as High Priest, Onias IV realized that his family had lost its hold on ecclesiastical power in the Holy Land. He fled to Egypt in the hopes of restoring the family dynasty at a new worship site (12:9:7).
Josephus’ account in Antiquities is flawed. II Maccabees tells a very different story. Onias III was ousted from power when his brother Jason purchased the High Priesthood from Antiochus. Menelaus, who was not related to the Onaid family and might not even have been of priestly descent, succeeded Jason by offering the king an even larger bribe. Menelaus ordered the assassination of Onias III, which was carried out by Andronicus in the asylum at Daphne (4:34).
The continuation of the story as recorded in Antiquities (13:3:1-2) is largely accurate and supported by papyrus documents. Onias (not necessarily Onias IV, who was supposedly still an adolescent, but someone from that family with that same given name), seeking eternal fame, petitioned Ptolemy VI Philometor and Cleopatra for the right to build a Jewish temple in Egypt. To legitimize his request, Onias made note of the great military service he had done for Egypt. He further claimed that the growing Jewish community needed a central sanctuary in Egypt. Onias requested that the Temple be built on the ruins of the pagan shrine of Bubastis. Philometor was troubled by a request that appeared to conflict with several Judaic teachings.
Onias convinced Philometor of the rectitude of building a Jewish temple in Egypt by citing a centuries old prophecy: “In that day there shall be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the LORD of hosts; one shall be called Ir ha-Heres. In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord (Isaiah 19:18-19).” The plain rendering of Ir ha-Heres is “the city of destruction.” However, some recensions of the text read Ir ha-Cheres, meaning city of the sun, a reference to Heliopolis. Targum Jonathan, copied by Rashi, rendered the verse “the city of the sun, which will be destroyed in the future.” Konrad Iken, an eighteenth-century Bible scholar, suggested that Ir ha-Heres in Arabic connotes “city of lions,” or Leontopolis. The Septuagint reads, “City of Asedek,” or city of righteousness. The Septuagint was clearly trying to justify the existence of an Egyptian-Jewish temple by offering an intentionally misleading translation of the ancient prophecy.
The Talmud offers two version of how the Temple of Onias came to be built. 1) Rabbi Meir’s version: On his deathbed, Simon the Righteous instructed that his younger son Onias follow him as High Priest. The older son Shimi felt slighted and became extremely jealous of his brother. Shimi offered to teach Onias the proper performance of the rite of initiation. He had Onias don several feminine garments and stand in the middle of the Temple courtyard. Shimi then told his fellow priests that Onias had made a vow to dress in female attire on the day that he would ascend to the High Priesthood. The priests were infuriated. They chased afterOnias, who fled to Alexandria, where he established an altar in service of idolatry. 2) Rabbi Judah’s version: Onias initially declined the privilege of being High Priest. But he nonetheless became jealous of his brother Shimi. He intentionally misadvised Shimi on the matter of feminine attire. The priests wished to execute Shimi, but then he informed them of Onias’ trickery. As a result, the priests chased after Onias, who initially sought protection from the Syrian king. Onias later fled to Alexandria, where he established an altar in the service of God (Menahot 109b).
The Talmudic account is a legendary tale containing a mere peppercorn of historical truth. High Priestly succession was a serious religio-political issue, and certainly was not determined by an episode of unintended cross-dressing. Furthermore, the Temple of Onias was not established at Alexandria but at Leontopolis. The Tannaim clearly did not have accurate historical information on this subject. But the purpose of their retelling the story was not academic history. Their focus was instead on teaching the moral lesson that human beings are jealous by nature and always lust after power. [Rabbi Judah’s version does hint at a more accurate understanding of the facts. He noted that Onias ran to the king before fleeing to Egypt. This shows an awareness of how the Seleucid-Ptolemaic rivalry played a part in intra-Jewish politics.]
The Romans destroyed the Temple of Onias in 73/74 CE. Vespasian was concerned that the temple could serve as a nationalist rallying point for world Jewry. After his forces destroyed the rebel stronghold at Masada, he dispatched Lupus to shutter the Egyptian-Jewish shrine. Lupus died before finishing the task. Paulinus completed the job some months later (Wars 7:10:4). According to Josephus, the Temple of Onias stood for 343 years, though that number should properly read 243.
The sages debated the halakhic standing of the Temple of Onias, referred to as Bet Honyo. One school of thought considered the Egyptian-Jewish temple to be an idolatrous shrine. The Mishnah presumes, however, that Bet Honyo was not a place of idolatry (Mishnah Menahot 13:10), an opinion accepted by the Amoraim as well (Megillah 10a). Nonetheless, priests who officiated at the schismatic Bet Honyo were forbidden subsequently to officiate in Jerusalem (Tosefta Menahot 13:14). The sages found justification for this exclusionary policy in a verse describing Josiah’s reforms, “The priests of the high places came not up to the altar of the LORD in Jerusalem (II Kings 23:9).” The sages even concluded that Temple vessels used in the service at Bet Honyo could not thereafter be used in Jerusalem (Avodah Zarah 52b).
Rabbi Simon considered a vow to bring a sacrifice at Bet Honyo to lack legal standing. The sages advised that such a vow should be fulfilled in Jerusalem, but that if the sacrifice were offered at Bet Honyo the vow was technically fulfilled. The Amoraim were surprised by the opinion of the sages that seemed to confer a degree of cultic legitimacy on Bet Honyo. Rava explained that even the sages would not have recognized the offering brought at Bet Honyo as a true sacrifice. It would be regarded as no more than a donation made by a diaspora Jew who was too far from Jerusalem to offer a real Korban (Menahot 109a).
Irrespective of whether Rava’s forced interpretation of the Mishnah is correct, his comment touches upon a key historical point. The Temple at Leontopolis came into existence for a number of reasons. (a) The desecration and placement of an idol in the Holy Temple by Antiochus IV led some Jews to conclude that Mount Moriah was forever sullied and that a new place of worship was necessary. (b) Similarly, the replacement of the legitimate High Priestly line of Oniads with the corrupt quisling Alcimus led some Jews to reject the Jerusalem Temple and look to a scion of the Oniad dynasty for spiritual leadership elsewhere. (c) The personal ambition of Onias IV played no small role, as attested to by both Josephus and the Talmud. (d) As Rava suggested, the Jewish community of Egypt, quite distant from the cultic center in Jerusalem, needed its own place of worship. It should be noted, though, that Bet Honyo was never considered as sacred as the Holy Temple even in the eyes of Egyptian Jewry. Philo records the contributions and pilgrimages made by Alexandrian Jewry to the Jerusalem Temple; he never mentions Bet Honyo.
The Temple of Onias is a largely forgotten piece of Jewish history. But it teaches us an important lesson about life in the Diaspora. No matter where they reside, Jews consistently, and estimably, seek the opportunity to worship God in the most authentic way possible. Knowing that this can be done only in Zion, those of us who elect to remain in chutz la’aretz – because our extended families, on both sides, are here, or for numerous other reasons exerting a powerful and understandable pull upon us -- nevertheless struggle to reconcile that choice with our desire to serve God optimally. Part of that struggle is our awareness that, like the worship of the Jews over two thousand years ago at Bet Honyo, our prayers and other service to God lack an essential ingredient. That missing ingredient is place.