The Israel Koschitzky
Virtual Beit Midrash
Special Holiday Shiur
"Shall Kohen and
Prophet be Slain in the Sanctuary?"
By Rav Moshe Taragin
Translated by Kaeren Fish
In addition to the Midrash Rabba on the Five
Books of the Torah, the Sages also compiled midrashim on each of
the five Megillot. What is common to Megillat Eikha, Megillat
Ruth and Megillat Esther is that the respective "Midrash
Rabba" of each is accompanied by an introductory section.
Each of these introductions provides background to the events
described in the Megilla itself and to the Sages' lessons on it.
The introduction to Megillat Eikha is much longer than that of
the other megillot (34 chapters); the enormity of the tragic
destruction and the complete national collapse apparently
demanded greater study and analysis. The question, "Why did
it happen," with regard to Megillat Eikha, is a complicated
one and requires extensive elaboration.
Among all the stories of the destruction of the
Mikdash brought in the Introduction to Eikha Rabbati, only one
appears twice. This is the story of the murder of the prophet
Zekharia in the Mikdash by his fellow Jews, and Nevuzaradan's
revenge in the form of a massacre of certain groups (the
Sanhedrin, young men, young kohanim, etc.). This story has become
one of the central narratives related to Tisha be-Av, and a
special song of lamentation is devoted to it.
What is so special about this story, and why is
it so dominant in the midrashim and in the prayers of Tisha be-Av?
After all, Zekharia prophesied mainly about the redemption and
the return to Jerusalem; he said nothing about the imminent
destruction and exile! The connection between him and the tragedy
of Tisha be-Av is quite indirect; why, then, is his murder
presented as such a fundamental and important event?
The readiness of the thugs of the time to
murder a prophet in the Mikdash itself points to a complete
collapse of society and of the spiritual and national hierarchy.
This terrible crime represents a total disintegration of the
authority of the prophets and the kohanim. If our Sages warn,
"Woe to the generation that judges its judges," what
would they say about a generation that assassinates its leaders
and spills their blood before God?
In addition, the fact that he was killed in the
courtyard of the Temple reflects a lack of spiritual sensitivity
on the most basic level. Chazal express this lack of sensitivity
in the continuation of the Midrash:
"Rabbi Yudan asked Rabbi Acha: Where
did the Israelites kill Zekharia - in the women's section or
in the Israelites' section? He answered him: Neither in the
women's section nor in the Israelites' section, but in the
kohanim's section." (Introduction to Eikha Rabbati,
This shocking story, then, highlights a most
wretched spiritual and national state. But there are apparently
other messages contained in the story, justifying its strong
emphasis by Chazal. In chapter 23 of the Introduction, we find
the continuation of this story: the killing of the Sanhedrin, the
young men, virgins, and eighty thousand young kohanim, to avenge
the death of Zekharia. There can be no doubt that within this
story there is a most fundamental message concerning the
destruction of the Mikdash.
At the beginning of chapter 1 of Eikha Rabbati,
"R. Yehuda said: The word 'eikha' is
always used as a term of rebuke, as it says (Yirmiyahu 8:8),
'How (eikha) can you say: We are wise, and the Torah of God
is with us?'"
According to R. Yehuda, Yirmiyahu's intention
in using the word "eikha" was not only to bemoan the
state of affairs that he witnessed ("eikha" being a
term of lamentation, in accordance with R. Nechemia's opinion),
but also to continue with his mission as the rebuker of Am
Yisrael. In general, the function of the prophet is to rebuke the
nation, to expose its negative traits and to help the people
improve their behavior. As the Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Teshuva 4:2):
"Thus, all the prophets rebuked Israel so that they would
Beyond the task of the prophet in a regular
situation, there is special significance to the rebuke of
Yirmiyahu specifically within the context of the destruction of
the Temple. The Sages pinpoint several sins that were themselves
the cause of the destruction (sexual immorality, murder, idolatry,
disregard for the Torah, etc.). But aside from these specific
sins, Chazal regarded the nation's refusal to accept rebuke from
the prophets in general, and to obey the warnings of Yirmiyahu in
particular, as a fundamental factor leading to the great tragedy.
In chapter 12 of the Introduction, R. Chagai -
quoting R. Yitzchak - interprets the verses, "They mocked
the messengers of God" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 36:16) and "They
sang songs with an evil heart" (Mishlei 25:20), as referring
to the laughter of the sinners in response to the rebuke by God's
messengers, the prophets.
"R. Chagai said, in the name of R.
Yitzchak: These verses refer to the fact that the scoffers of
the generation would mutter with their mouths and hint with
their eyes and point with their fingers, saying: The vision
that he [the prophet] is seeing refers to the End of Days; he
is prophesying about a distant time.
Therefore, the Holy One said to them: By
your lives; 'in your days, O rebellious house' (Yechezkel 12:25)
[will the prophecies of destruction come true]."
The people would ignore the prophets of God and
wave off their warnings with stubbornness and a complacency born
of illusion. They convinced themselves that God would not destroy
His own Temple, and that all the prophecies concerning
destruction referred to the End of Days. They wished to continue
making merry and living their worry-free lives, rejecting out of
hand the concept of reward and punishment.
In another section (Introduction, chapter 24),
we find a different reason for the rejection of the rebuke:
"R. Yochanan taught: 'The burden of
the valley of vision' (Yishayahu 22:1)
for they cast
the words of the seers to the earth. 'What, then, has
happened to you, that you have gone up altogether to the
rooftops' (ibid.) that you have removed yourself to a
high place. R. Levi taught: These were they of vulgar spirit."
In contrast to the scoffers of the time who,
upon hearing the rebuke, would "sing songs with an evil
heart," there were people of vulgar spirit who were
unwilling and unable to examine their shortcomings and to accept
help from the prophet. People who were living successful lives
and had built houses filled with all kinds of good things were
incapable of accepting advice from dusty, wandering moralizers.
They went up to the rooftops, fortified themselves within their
personal success, and cast the words of the prophets to the
ground. Unfortunately, there are people who reject rebuke because
they are caught up in the ecstasy of life; they have no interest
in someone who speaks about responsibility, idealism and self-sacrifice.
On the other hand, there are others who are so completely sure of
themselves and confident in their achievements that they have
nothing but scorn for people of spirit, and ignore the spiritual
challenges that such people present to them.
For this reason Yirmiyahu begins his
lamentation with the word, "eikha" - to mourn for the
destruction, which came about mostly because of the nation's
inability to listen to the prophets and their messages. Every
individual always has the ability to repent, thereby avoiding
punishment and destruction. But the moment he shuts himself off
and blocks his ears, the road to repentance is closed. As the
Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Teshuva 4:2):
"[There are] things that block the
ways of repentance before those who engage in them
people include] one who hates rebuke, for he leaves himself
no path to repent. For rebuke brings about repentance, since
when a person is told his sins and is reproached, he repents
Therefore every Jewish community must have a great and wise
elder, who has been God-fearing since his youth, and who is
beloved by them, to rebuke the masses and to bring them to
penitence. But one who hates rebuke will not come to the
rebuker and will not hear his words, and so he will continue
cohis sins, which appear good in his eyes."
After the fact, with Jerusalem in ruins and
foxes running about upon the Temple Mount, perhaps the survivors
will finally internalize Yirmiyahu's rebuke and arrive at the
declaration, "Let us search our deeds and examine them, and
let us return to God" (Eikha 3:40).
From this perspective, we can understand why
Chazal focused on the story of Zekharia's murder. Zekharia was
killed because he attempted to rebuke a rebellious nation. The
easiest way to silence the voice of this "annoying" and
"irritating" prophet was to get rid of him. The same
midrash (Introduction, chapter 5) recounts:
"What they did with his blood was not
what is done with the blood of a ram, nor with the blood of a
deer. For concerning the blood of a deer and the blood of a
ram, we are told: 'Its blood shall be poured out, and it
shall be covered with the dust' (Vayikra 17:13). But here we
are told: 'For the blood within him was upon the barren rock,
for those who killed him did not pour it upon the earth, to
cover it with dust' (Yechezkel 24:7)."
This vulgar disdain, leaving the blood of the
prophet exposed upon the stones of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, expresses
more than just a lack of humanistic feeling. His murderers wished
to rid themselves of him, to silence this disturbing messenger as
quickly as possible. They simply abandoned God's prophet and his
heavy moralizing; they were incapable of tending to his body and
his blood; they wanted to sever themselves altogether from this
The midrash (Introduction, chapter 23)
describes how the evil Nevuzaradan inquired after this blood,
which was boiling in the courtyard of the Mikdash, and threatened
the people that he would comb their flesh from upon them if they
refused to explain the phenomenon:
"They said to him: What shall we tell
you? There was a prophet who would rebuke us, so we rose upon
him and killed him, but his blood has not been still for
several years already."
The people of the generation murdered their
source of morality and truth, who was interfering with their
lives and causing them discomfort. But the voice of the blood of
the prophet continued to call out, until Nevuzaradan silenced it
by killing masses of Jews.
In light of this explanation, we can understand
why Nevuzaradan's reaction, and the end of the story, are of such
importance. The midrash (Introduction, chapter 23) continues to
narrate what happened when the blood was stilled:
"At that moment, Nevuzaradan thought
about repenting. He said, 'If this is what happens when one
soul is killed, then what will be with a person who killed so
many!' He ran away, sent farewell gifts and converted."
In this story we see a complete contrast
between Nevuzaradan and the hard-hearted nation. For many years
they had ignored their prophets and rejected their rebuke, but
this gentile - Nevuzaradan - saw the bubbling blood of the
prophet and quickly confessed his sins and returned to the path
of goodness. What all the nation of Israel had failed to achieve
for years, this cruel officer achieved in a single day. The
Midrash presents the story of Nevuzaradan in order to teach
Israel a lesson about man's ability to admit to the truth and to
return to God.
"Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: 'Woe
to the filthy, polluted city of oppression (ha-ir ha-yona)' (Tzefania
3:1) [Why is it called] 'ha-ir ha-yona'? They should
have learned from the city of Yona, Ninveh. One single
prophet I sent to Ninveh and they repented; how many prophets
did I send to Israel, in Jerusalem?
Since they did not
listen, they were exiled, and when they were exiled,
Yirmiyahu began to lament over them: 'How the city dwells
alone.'" (Introduction, chapter 31)
According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, this
verse refers to the stubbornness of Am Yisrael and their refusal
to accept rebuke, in contrast to the city of Ninveh, which serves
as a model of man's ability to listen and to change his ways.
This is also the message of the story of Nevuzaradan, who avenged
the blood of a prophet murdered for daring to rebuke a stubborn
nation, and who eventually "rebuked" himself and
brought himself back to the path of life.
This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit
Midrash, the premier source of online courses on
Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all
Make Jewish learning part of
your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved
to Yeshivat Har Etzion
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433