The Tragedy of the Idol

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

This coming weekend, we begin the period commonly known as the Three Weeks, the period of mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av. This period of time begins with the fast of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (this year it is pushed off a day due to Shabbos), a fast that holds a unique place amongst the other fast days of the year. On the one hand, this fast day is classified as a “minor” fast, meaning there are certain leniencies built into it that differentiate it from both Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. On the other hand, it is similar to Tisha B’Av in the extent of tragedies that occurred on the day, as well as it marking the true beginning of the end of the two Temples. One of the tragedies that occurred on this day accentuates the importance of this fast day, demonstrating to us how fragile the status of the Temple was prior to its eventual destruction. 

The Talmud speaks of five tragedies that took place on this day, one of them being the placement of an idol in the Temple. When the Talmud expands on this heinous act, we see a number of difficult issues emerge (Taanis 28b):

“AND PLACED AN IDOL IN THE TEMPLE. Whence do we know this? — For it is written, And from the time that the continual burnt-offering shall be taken away and the detestable thing that causeth appalment set up. Was there then only one detestable thing? Is it not written, And upon the wing of detestable things shall be that which causeth appalment? — Raba replied: There were two [idols] and one fell upon the other and broke its hand and upon it was found inscribed: You desired to destroy the Temple, but I have handed over your hand to Him.”

The eye naturally travels right to the obvious question – what exactly are we to make of one idol falling on another, breaking a hand, with inscriptions found on it??? However, in reality there are two other questions which, while more subtle, require an answer to even begin understanding the final part of this Midrashic piece. 

The first question involves an implication at the start of this explanation. As we mentioned, there were five distinct tragedies that took place on the seventeenth of Tammuz. Among those directly related to the destruction of the Temple, there was the breach of the walls and the stoppage of the daily offering (korban tamid). The verse cited above in the Talmud indicates a direct causal relationship between the stoppage of the daily offering and the placement of the idol in the Temple. If this indeed is the case, one would think the greater evil in these two events was the placement of the idol – after all, it is hard to conceive of the kohanim preforming the daily work on the Temple while an idol was present. In other words, what is the significance of the halt of the daily offering, in light of the idol being placed in the Temple? 

The second question is the type that is easily missed when first reading this piece. The Talmud emphasizes the fact that there were actually two idols, and not one, in the Temple. What exactly is the difference? One would think that the mere placement of an idol in the Temple is the problem. Why does adding one make any difference? 

Let's begin with the tragedies and the significant difference between them. With the discontinuation of the daily offerings, the Temple ceased to function. In a sense the Temple became an empty building. However, it still had the potential to function as the makom hashechina, the central "place" of God's presence.  It was in a state of limbo, lacking a positive direction but not yet shut down. The placement of an idol changed the entire character of the Temple. With an idol, it was no longer a matter of whether the Temple was functioning. The Temple cannot operate when an idol is present. It is a direct contradiction to the Temple to have an idol, a direct refutation to the very idea of God. The halt of the daily offerings meant the Temple ceased to function. But the placement of the idol meant the Temple could not function. This strengthens the question about the need for both, as causing the inability to function is certainly more severe than halting its operations. What then is the underlying significance of the end of the daily offering? This is where the fact that they are presented as discreet tragedies enters into the picture. The tragedy of the halt of the Temple service was something more important than simply “no more sacrifices”. This was an opportunity for the Jewish people to repent, to engage in teshuva, an indicator that the Temple was on the verge of destruction. The knowledge that the Temple was a shell should have been a catalyst for teshuva. Rather than the Temple become immediately defiled by the idol, there was a moment where its status still hung in the balance, the possibility of re-starting its function still existed. The tragedy is that the Jewish people wasted this opportunity. 

With this in mind, we can answer why in this case two idols are actually different than one. If someone, God forbid, places an Idol in a local synagogue, he would be sending a clear message--this is now a place of worship for a different god. The presence of an idol signifies a new direction of worship, as there is no idea of co-existence with God. In the situation of the Temple, there were two different objectives, and each "idol" reflected this. The first idol served to prevent any offerings from being brought to the Temple, as the Temple could not function with an idol present. The second signified a different goal--to introduce a new ideology into the Temple.  The Temple would no longer be the domain of the Jewish people, dedicated to serving God. Instead, it would now be considered to be the Temple of whatever new ideology was being introduced. Whether or not there were physically two idols is irrelevant. What we see from here is a qualitative difference in the idolatrous objectives of the enemies of the Jews. Therefore, the Talmud emphasizes the two idols. 

In truth, it makes sense why the enemies of the Jews would insist on placing the “second” idol into the Temple. All of the enemies of the Jewish people recognize there is something different about them, how their history does not follow the usual path of other civilizations and religions. The times of the Temple signified to the world the unique relationship God has with the Jewish people. The enemies of the Jews want to destroy the Jewish people, yet they also are aware of how the God of the Jewish people relates to them in this unique manner (regardless of it being a distorted view of God). One could ask, why not destroy the Temple and build a new house of worship for their god? By taking over their Temple, they could capture some of the “magic” of the Jews and use it towards their idolatrous objective. This is where one idol falling on the other can be explained. The broken idol signifies an incomplete idol, demonstrating that while the idol was still present, its purpose was not expressed in its entirety. The enemies of the Jews desired to combine the “benefits” of the Temple with their religious outlook, a fusion of different ideologies. While on paper this sounds like a plausible option, as to many people the difference between religions is really superficial, in truth such an outcome is impossible to achieve. The very notion of the ideology of the Jewish people, which revolves around the idea of a non-physical God removed from man’s comprehension, cannot somehow be fused with a man-centric belief system, the core of all idolatry. This is reflected in the “damaged” idol, the inability to truly accomplish this distorted objective (there is more to be said on this piece, but due to space constraints, we will leave it at this introduction).

To most Jews, the mere thought of an idol being placed in the Temple brings forth a sense of revulsion. However, this reaction is incomplete. As we see from the Talmud, there are some critical ideas we can take from the tragedy. As we begin this period of mourning, and we immerse ourselves in teshuva and fasting this coming weekend, we should reflect back on the significance of the tragedy of placing the idol in the Temple, bringing us to a greater understanding of the destruction of the Temple. May we merit to see it built in our days. n