Parashat Be-Har Be-Huqotai: Ramban and the Period of the Second Temple
Chapter 26 of Leviticus contains the Tochahah, the warning by God to the children of Israel that if they don’t follow the laws of the Torah disaster will strike.
But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My norms, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you- consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues (Leviticus 26:14-17).
Deuteronomy 28 also contains tochahah: an example of which is the following:
All these curses shall befall you; they shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are wiped out, because you did not heed the L-RD your God and keep the commandments and laws that he enjoined upon you. They shall serve as signs and proofs against you and your offspring for all time. Because you would not serve the L-RD your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve- in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything- the enemies whom the L-RD will let loose against you. He will put an iron yoke upon your neck until He has wiped you out (Deuteronomy 38:45-48).
Ramban, in his Commentary on the Torah, famously understands that whereas the Leviticus tochahah refers to the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, the Deuteronomy tochahah refers to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Here I wish to focus on as interesting motif that appears several times in the Ramban: the (comparative) diminution of the importance of the period of the 2nd Temple when viewed under the specter of the history of the Jewish people in toto. This position is reflected in a number of ways in his works of Ramban.
In his debate with Pablo Christiani, Ramban responded to Pablo’s interpretation of Genesis 49: 10 (The scepter shall not depart from Judah). Whereas Pablo read Judah as referring to the Jewish people as a whole, and therefore, in his view, claimed that after Shilo=Moshiach had arrived, the chosenness of the Jewish people had been terminated, Ramban responded that the word Judah referred precisely and specifically first to the tribe (which must be distinguished from the other tribes of Israel) and then to the kingdom (which as well must be distinguished from the Kingdom of Northern Israel) of Judah. It did not refer to the Israelite people as a whole. The point of the biblical verse was that when there would be a king of the Israelite people, the ruler must arise from the specific tribe of Judah. He then writes:
The proof for my words is that already many years before (hayu yamim rabbim kodem) Jesus the kingdom fell from Judah, but not from Israel; and for several years the kingdom ceased for Israel and Judah. For seventy years, during the time of the Babylonian exile, there was neither a kingdom of Israel nor a kingdom of Judah. And during the Second Temple there was no king in Judah, just Zerubavel (who was a descendant of Yehoyachin, the king of Judah) and his sons [ruled] for several years. And they stood after that for (approximately) 380 years until the destruction, when the priests ruled through the Hasmoneans and their servants.
(See Kitvei Ha-Ramban, ed. C. Chavel [Jerusalem, 1963], vol. I, p. 304. The most recent discussion of the debate that I have seen is Nina Caputo, Nahmanides in Medieval Catalonia: History, Community and Messianism [Notre Dame, Indiana, 2007], in which the debate concerning Genesis 49:10 is discussed on pp. 121-23.)
“Just Zerubavel” indicates that that period in time is not so important anyway, and does not contradict his main assertion.
Furthermore, in Sefer Ha-Geulah, (Kitvei Ha-Ramban I, pp. 267ff.) Ramban makes the point that although the prophets who lived at the time of the First Temple predicted a future redemption of the Israelites after the destruction of the Temple , the promises of “consolation after destruction” that they proclaimed were not fulfilled with the rebuilding of the Second Temple after the destruction of the First Temple. In this context he reiterates his view that the tochahah of Parashat Be-Huqotai refers to the destruction of the First Temple and provides proofs for his assertion from these verses. One of the verses states that after the destruction (and until the redemption), God would no longer “smell” the “sweet savor” of the sacrifices. Ramban interprets this as referring to the miracle that occurred during the time of the First Temple: namely, that a miraculous fire would devour the sacrifices. But this miracle did not occur during the time of the Second Temple, as Hazal tell us (Yoma 21b)! Consequently, the nehamah, the consolation from the destruction of the First Temple has still not occurred!
Ramban emphasizes the fact that after Sannecherib had exiled the ten tribes toward the close of the First Temple period, they did not return in the beginning of the Second Temple period. This itself, in his view, constitutes a refutation of the notion that the 2nd Temple period was in any way fulfillment of the prophesies of consolation. Although Ezra came with some Jews back to Israel, only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin came with him (besides some priests and Levites). Ramban understands that any Jews from other tribes (such as Ephraim, Manasseh and Shimon) who were extant at the beginning of the 2nd Temple period had already gathered in the areas belonging to Judah before the destruction of the first Temple!
Ramban asks an intriguing question: If one assumes that Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, who had conquered Babylonia, had dominion of the entire near East, and he allowed the Jews to return to Israel, why did the Jews who were descendants of the people exiled by Sannecherib not return? (Ramban’s view, of course, is predicated upon the assumption that the Halakha follows the view that the Ten Tribes will indeed return, a point debated in the Gemara in Massekhet Sanhederin.) He gives two fascinating answers.
First, he suggests that perhaps Cyrus only possessed dominion over lands (and consequently, over the peoples) that had originally belonged to the kingdom of Judah, and that were conquered by the Babylonians, and that which he subsequently conquered. He did not possesses dominion over the lands (and peoples) of the ten tribes.
If one would insist that Cyrus had dominion over the ten tribes as well, Ramban continues, one can alternatively suggest that the ten tribes did not want to return to Israel, for they did not want to hasten the redemption before its time. For they knew that the seventy year period of exile was the period decreed for the exile of Babylonian exile, and not for the grand exile that would culminate in the grand redemption of the entire children of Israel. (Kitvei ha-Ramban, I, p. 274).
Ramban strongly polemicizes against the 11th century R. Moshe ha-Kohen Gikatilla, a Spanish exegete who had claimed that various prophecies recorded in Isaiah referred not to the ultimate redemption, but earlier events, such as the reign of Hezekiah, (Kitvei ha-Ramban, I, pp. 275ff.). Ramban reiterates that neither Hezekiah nor the period of the 2nd Temple would be the object of such prophecies. The wonderful time predicted by the prophets of Israel, he claims, has still not arrived.
Interestingly, although Rashi, in his response to Christian interpretations of various biblical verses (e.g., in Psalms) did at times respond that the verses refer to the 2nd Temple period, as Avraham Grossman and others have noted, Ramban for his part steadfastly refused to go down that path. It seems to me that this is because Ramban felt that by doing so, one could “win the battle but lose the war.” Although an individual Christian explanation of a specific verse could immediately be refuted by claiming that it refers not to Jesus, indeed, not to the true Moshiach either, but to the redemption of the Second Temple period, if one consistently does so one could fall into a different trap. That is, according to this view, the entire set of prophecies and promises of the glorious culmination of Jewish history would then seem to be fulfilled with the establishment of the 2nd Temple. But, as we all know, the 2nd Temple was unfortunately destroyed! Do the nevi’im have nothing to say, God forbid, about Jewish history after the destruction of the 2nd Temple? This blasphemous charge was exactly the one that the Christians had leveled against the Jews! In their view, Jewish history was over. That was why the Ramban polemicizes so strongly against R. Moshe Ha-Kohen Gikatilla. We believe that the promises of the prophets regarding the ultimate ge’ulah are still waiting to be fulfilled, and with God’s help, will be fulfilled in the future. This is the ultimate message that lies behind the Ramban’s division of the two parshiyyot of tochahah into (respectively) the destruction of the First Temple and the rebuilding of the 2nd Temple) and the destruction of the 2nd Temple and the ultimate ge’ulah, the future rebuilding of the Third Temple.