Churban Bayis Sheni: An Eyewitness Account
By: Yosef Hakohen (37–100 CE) of Jerusalem and Rome
Many historical accounts by the well-known Jewish historian, Yosef ben Matisyahu Hakohen, also known as Josephus Flavius, are contained in a book called Yosipon.1Part of it was translated into English by Peter Morvyn in the 16th century, under the name “The Abbreviated English Jossipon.” This work, however, is merely an abbreviated version of Josephus’s original works Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War.
The excerpts presented here regarding the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash, are from the book, The Jewish War (book VI, chapters 2–4). The time period covered in these accounts begins on the seventeenth of Tamuz, when the korban tamid ceased to be offered and continued for a duration of three weeks until the Beis Hamikdash was burned by the Roman legions.
Several translations have been combined,2Translations in English by William Whiston and Henry St. John Thackeray. Hebrew translation, The Jewish War by Shmuel Chaggai. adapted, and modernized for ease of reading.
We set the scene, beginning with excerpts from Chapter 2.
Korban Tamid No More
17th Panemus [Tamuz]:
Titus regarded Josephus as a faithful advisor and a wise person. He also used Josephus as an intermediary to send messages to the Jews.
Titus now ordered the troops that were with him to raze the foundations of Antonia3The Antonia Fortress was a citadel built by Herod the Great and named for Herod’s patron Mark Antony, as a fortress whose chief function was to protect the Beis Hamikdash. wikipedia.org accessed 15/7/2020. and to prepare an easy ascent for the whole army.
He had Josephus brought to him. He had been informed that precisely on that day—it was the seventeenth of Panemus [Tamuz],4Josephus wrote his books in two versions: a Hebrew version for the Jews, which did not survive, and a Greek version for the Greeks, which we have today. This article uses translations of parts of the Greek version, and thus are referred to by their Greek names. Panemus is the Macedonian month, and was called Tamuz by the Babylonians/Persians, a name later adopted by our forefathers. Both the Macedonian and Babylonian calendars were luni-solar.—the sacrifice known as the korban tamid [daily sacrifice], had ceased to be offered to G-d, (for lack of men to offer it,) and the people were terribly despondent because of this.
Titus sent Josephus to Yochanan5Yochanan is referred to in the English translations as John. with the same message as before: ‘If he was obsessed with a desire for battle, he was free to come out of the city, with as many men as he pleased, and fight. In that way, there would be no danger of destroying either the city or the Beis Hamikdash.’ Titus’ message was his desire that Yochanan should no longer defile the Beis Hamikdash, nor sin against G-d. Yochanan was given permission from Titus to perform the sacrificial services, which had been annulled, with the help of any Jews as he might select.
Josephus, standing, so that his words could reach the ears not only of Yochanan but also of the multitude, delivered Titus’ message in Hebrew, with earnest appeals to them, ‘to spare their own city, to prevent the flames that were already licking the Beis Hamikdash, and to offer their usual sacrifices to G-d therein.’
His words were received by the people in dejection and silence. The tyrant [Yochanan], after heaping curses and insults upon Josephus, ended by saying that he would never fear that the city would be conquered since the city was under G-d’s rule.
Further on, Josephus continues:
Meanwhile, the rest of the Roman army, within seven days, had overthrown the foundations of the stronghold of Antonia. A broad slope leading to the Beis Hamikdash had been prepared by the enemy.
The Harsh Grip of The Biryonim
Who was Yochanan? Yochanan was one of the biryonim [zealots].
Uprisings against Roman rule were encouraged by the biryonim. In their desire for all-out war, the biryonim killed those who promoted the idea of surrender to the Romans.
Chazal recorded an example of the tyrannical control that the biryonim had over Jerusalem at the time of the Churban. The biryonim had imposed an internal siege on Jerusalem. No Jew was permitted to go in or out of the city:6Gittin 56a, based on the Steinsaltz translation.
Abba Sikra was the leader of the biryonim of Jerusalem, the son of the sister of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai sent a message to him: “Come to me in secret.” When he came, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked him, “Until when will you do this and kill everyone through starvation?” Abba Sikra said to him, “What can I do? It is out of my control. If I say something [in opposition] to them, they will kill me.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him, “Help me plan a way by which I can leave the city. Maybe through this, there will be some small salvation.”
Abba Sikra said to him: “This is what you should do, Pretend to be sick and have everyone come and ask about your welfare, so that word will spread about your ailing condition. Then bring something putrid and place it near you, so that people will say that you have died and are decomposing. Then, have your students enter to bring you to burial. Let no one else come in so that the zealots will not notice that you are still light in weight, as the zealots know that a living person is lighter than a dead person.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai did as Abba Sikra suggested. Rabbi Eliezer entered from one side and Rabbi Yehoshua from the other side and took him out. They reached the city gate. The guards, who were part of the biryonim faction, wanted to pierce him with their swords in order to ascertain that he was actually dead, as was the common practice. Abba Sikra said to them, “The Romans will say, ‘They pierce even their leader.’” The guards then wanted at least to push him hard to see whether he was still alive, in which case he would shout from the pushing, but Abba Sikra said to them, “They will say, ‘They push even their teacher.’” The guards then opened the gate and he was taken out.
Rabban Yochanan went to the Roman camp outside the wall of Jerusalem, to meet Vespasian [Aspasianus] the Roman military commander.
At the end of their conversation, Vespasian told Rabban Yochanan, “You may make a request and I will grant it to you.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him, “Give me Yavne and its Sages and do not destroy it, spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and do not kill them as if they were rebels, and lastly give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”
Immediately after that secret meeting, Vespasian returned to Rome. We can get an idea of when the meeting took place. He had become the Emperor of Rome. He then sent back to Jerusalem his military commander, his son Titus HaRasha, who eventualy destroyed the Beis Hamikdash.
This story gives us a glimpse of life for the Jews of Jerusalem under the oppressive influence of the biryonim, and the strife within Jewish society. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai felt that he had to do something to build the future, in the eventuality of Jerusalem being taken. However, his fellow Jews, the biryonim, were steadfastly opposed to that. Seeking a more flexible stance, he approached the enemy himself, Vespasian. In their stubbornness, the Jewish biryonim refused to let anybody ask those requests of the enemy! Yet, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received all that he requested from the enemy.
We now move to Chapter 4 of Josephus’ book.
Attack against the Wall
8th Lous [Av]:
Two of the legions had completed their work [to construct the slope]. On the eighth day of the month Lous [Av], Titus ordered the battering rams should be set up opposite the western edifice of the outer court of the Beis Hamikdash. Before these were brought, the strongest of all the other siege-engines had battered the wall nonstop for six days, without making any impression on it. The stones were massive and connected strongly and resisted all the efforts of attack by the new battering rams as well.
Another party of Romans endeavored to undermine the foundations of the northern gate, and by great exertions succeeded in extricating the front layer of stones. But the gate was still supported by the inner stones, and it stood firm.
By now, the Romans gave up hope of further attempts to break the wall by using engines and crowbars. They brought ladders to the porticoes.7The Hebrew translation uses the word סטיו, which is “a roofed structure, with a row of columns along it as was common in Greek and Roman buildings.” The English versions all use the word ‘portico’ which is a porch or an entryway. This refers to the inner thick wall structure surrounding Har HaBayis. The Jews did not prevent them from doing this. Then, as soon as the Romans mounted, the Jews fell upon them with great force and fought them. They thrust down some of the Romans and threw them headlong backward. Others, they slew. They cut down with their swords many [of the attackers] as they were climbing down the ladders before they could shield themselves. They pushed some of the ladders from above and dashed them to the ground, while the ladders were full of armed men, not, however, without suffering considerable slaughter to the Jews themselves.
The Romans had brought their flags8In war, soldiers were trained to follow the flag. It helped the soldier to identify their comrades or enemies. It’s a sign of pride for the soldiers, reminding them of who they were fighting for. and fought fiercely to keep them. They saw losing the flags as a terrible omen, and an awful disgrace. Yet, eventually, these ensigns were taken by the Jews, who overcame all the soldiers who had scaled the walls.
When Titus saw that his endeavor to spare a foreign temple, led only to the injury and slaughter of his troops, he issued orders to set the gates on fire….
The Roman troops set fire to the gates. The silver that was coating the gates, melted all around and carried the flames to the wood. The flames spread all over and caught the porticoes. When the Jews saw the fire around them, their spirits sunk. Their mental and physical energy melted away. In utter astonishment, no one attempted to either protect himself or to extinguish the flames. As if paralyzed, they stood and looked on. Even though they were so dismayed by what was already burning, they did not have the sense to do something about what was left intact.
To them, it was as if the Beis Hamikdash itself was already going up in flames. They turned all their fury to the Romans.
The fire continued burning throughout the day and the following night. The reason for this was that the Romans could not set fire to the whole range of the porticoes at once, but they did so part by part.
9th Lous [Av]:
On the following day, after giving orders to a division of his army to extinguish the fire and make a road to the gates to facilitate the ascent of the legions, Titus called together his generals. Six of chief staff-officers were assembled, namely, Tiberius Alexander, the prefect of all the forces; Sextus Cerealius, Larcius Lepidus, and Titus Phrygius, the respective commanders of the fifth, tenth, and fifteenth legions; Fronto Haterius, prefect of the two legions from Alexandria; and Marcus Antonius Julianus, procurator of Judea.
Once the procurators and tribunes were collected, Titus raised the subject of the Beis Hamikdash. Some were of the opinion that the law of war should be enforced [to demolish the Beis Hamikdash], since the Jews would never cease rebelling while the Beis Hamikdash remained as their focus and for their congregating. Others advised that if the Jews abandoned it and placed no weapons whatsoever within it, it should be saved, but that if they mounted it for purposes of warfare, it should be burnt. Their reasoning was that it would no longer be ‘a temple’, but ‘a fortress’. If the Jews would do that, then the sinfulness of burning it would not be chargeable to the Romans, but to those who forced them to take such measures. Titus, however, declared that even were the Jews to mount it and fight therefrom, he would not wreak vengeance on inanimate objects instead of men. In any case, he did not want to burn down such a magnificent building. That would be a loss for the Romans. If the Beis Hamikdash remained, it would be an ornament to the Roman Empire.
Fronto, Alexander, and Cerealius were encouraged by Titus’ pronouncement. They agreed to move over to his view. Titus dissolved the assembly. He directed the officers to allow the troops to rest so that they would be reinvigorated when it was time to act. He gave orders to select men from the troops to open a road through the ruins and extinguish the fire.
Throughout that day, fatigue and fear overtook the fighting spirit of the Jews. However, on the following day, with renewed strength and courage, they burst out through the eastern gate. Around the second hour of the day, they fell upon the guards of the outer court of the Beis Hamikdash. The Romans stubbornly met the attack, forming a screen in front with their shields like a wall, to close up their ranks. They could hold out for long, being no match for the number and fury of their assailants.
Titus, who was watching the scene from Antonia, anticipated that his soldiers would not manage alone. He sent his best cavalry to their assistance. The Jews could not withstand their onset. When the first person fell, they made an immediate general retreat. When the Romans retired, the Jews returned to attack. Whenever the Romans turned around to attack, the Jews retreated and fled. This pattern continued until about the fifth hour of the day, the Jews were overpowered and shut up in the inner court of the Beis Hamikdash.
A Day of Destruction
10th Lous [Av]:
Titus withdrew to Antonia. He decided that the following day, at dawn, he would attack with his whole force, and take over the Beis Hamikdash. Already long ago, G-d had sentenced that House to be burned in fire. Behold, the years had rolled on, and the date was the same day on which the first House had been burnt by the king of Babylon.
The flames, however, owed their origin and cause to G-d’s own people.
Upon the withdrawal of Titus, the rebels, after a brief respite, again attacked the Romans. There was a clash between the Jewish guards of the Beis Hamikdash, and the troops who were sent to extinguish the fire in the inner court. The Romans put the Jews to flight and pursued them right up to the Beis Hamikdash.
All of a sudden, one of the soldiers did a terrible deed. He had not been ordered to do it by his superiors. Apparently, he was not concerned by doing such an appalling deed. It was as if he was stimulated by a supernatural force. He broke off a burning torch from material that was in flames. Hoisted up by one of his comrades, he flung the fiery missile through a low golden door that led to a passage to the rooms surrounding the Beis Hamikdash on the northern side.
As the flames went upward, the Jews let out a cry, as distressing as befitting the tragedy. They ran together to prevent what was happening, lost to all thought of self-preservation, with all the strength that they could muster. They couldn’t believe that they were seeing the tragedy, that the Holy House that they had guarded so perilously, was vanishing.
Meanwhile, Titus was resting in his tent after the last battle. A messenger came running in to Titus with the latest developments. Titus hurriedly got up, and without any further preparations, ran to the Beis Hamikdash to have the fire stopped. All his commanders followed him, and in their train came the restless legionaries of several legions. There were a great tumult and noise. The confusion was only to be expected when such a large army moved in a disorderly manner.
Titus, both by voice and hand, signaled to the combatants to extinguish the fire! But they did not hear his shouts, that were drowned in the louder commotion which filled their ears. There was virtually no chance that the soldiers would heed his hand signals either. They were fully occupied either by actual fighting or their own passionate fury. The legionaries were hotheaded, and when they joined the fray, neither exhortation nor threat could restrain them. Each person’s own passion was his commander at that time.
As they were crowding into the Beis Hamikdash, many soldiers were trampled by one another.
Stumbling on the still-hot and smoldering ruins of the porticoes, many other soldiers suffered the same miserable fate of those whom they had vanquished.
When they drew nearer to the Sanctuary, they pretended to not even hear Titus’s orders to the contrary. Instead, they shouted to those in front of them to throw in the firebrands and set the Beis Hamikdash on fire. The Jews, for their part, were in too much distress to try and put out the fire. People lay everywhere, slain, and beaten. In all directions, the scene was one of carnage and flight.
Most of the slain were civilians, weak and unarmed people. Each person was butchered where he was trapped. Around the altar, a pile of corpses accumulated. A stream of blood flowed down the steps of the Beis Hamikdash. The bodies of the victims who were killed at the top slid down and fell to the bottom of the steps.
Titus was completely unable to restrain the enthusiastic fury of his frenzied soldiers. He saw that the fire was proceeding more and more. He decided to enter with his generals into the actual building. He saw the ulam of the Beis Hamikdash and all that it contained. What he saw did not fall short of what he had heard about the Beis Hamikdash and the pride it brought to the Jews. In fact, it far exceeded the famed reports that had spread among foreigners.
The flames had not yet penetrated to the interior of the Beis Hamikdash, but were consuming the leshachos [chambers] surrounding it. Titus correctly assessed that it might still be possible to save the main structure. He rushed out and personally tried to persuade the soldiers to put out the fire. Titus commanded Liberalius, a centurion of his bodyguard of lancers, to restrain by force anyone who disobeyed his orders. But the soldiers were overwhelmed by their own rage, their hatred of the Jews, and a lust for battle, that completely surpassed their respect for Titus and their fear of the officer who was trying to stop them.
The hope of plunder also caused many to continue fighting, as they believed that the interior of the Beis Hamikdash was full of money, especially as they had seen that all the surroundings were made of gold.
However, when Titus rushed out to restrain the troops, one of those who had entered the building thrust a firebrand in the darkness, into the hinges of the gate. At once a flame burst out from the interior of the Beis Hamikdash. Titus and his generals had to withdraw because of the fire. There was no one left to stop those outside from setting fire to the Beis Hamikdash. Thus, the Beis Hamikdash was set on fire, against Titus’ wishes.
Mourn deeply for the loss of the greatest work ever, the Beis Hamikdash. Never have we seen or heard of anything like it. We refer not only to its structure and its magnitude, but every part and detail, and the glory of its holiness.
One cannot help but marvel at the precision of the timing of the gezerah. It ‘waited’ to be fulfilled until the very same month and the very same day9Yirmiyah 52:12, see Taanis 29a. on which, in bygone times, the first Beis Hamikdash had been burned by the Babylonians.
Was the Second Beis Hamikdash Burned on the 9th or 10th of Av?
We began the article with the annulment of the korban tamid on the seventeenth of Tamuz. Panemus is the Greek equivalent of Tamuz, in the Hebrew calendar. The Romans used the Macedonian lunisolar10A calendar where the months are based on the lunar cycle, and are adjusted every 19 years to the solar cycle – a prime example is the Jewish calendar. calendar.
Chazal tell us:11Mishna, Taanis 4:6.
There were five events that happened to our ancestors on the seventeenth of Tammuz… The tablets were shattered, the tamid (daily) offering was canceled, the [walls] of the city were breached…
This is further proof that 17th Panemus coincides with 17th Tamuz.12Although, see Rashi, Daniel 8:14, that this incident happened at the time of the first Beis Hamikdash.
Josephus reported that the fire of the Beis Hamikdash itself started on 10th Lous. Lous, corresponds with the month of Av. Therefore 10th Lous would coincide with 10th Av. However, our tradition is that the fire started 9th Av, and we fast on 9th Av.
Josephus is using the Macedonian calendar because those of his books that we have today are the ones intended for the Greeks.
As an aside, although the Macedonian and the Hebrew calendars are both lunisolar, they are not completely synchronized, neither monthly nor daily. The reason for the monthly non-alignment could be due to various rules governing the addition of an extra month to the year to create a leap year. The reason for the daily non-alignment could be due to sightings at different locations, weather conditions, or different rules of when to begin the new month. It is possible that in the year of the Churban, Tamuz had 30 days, whilst Panemus only had 29 days, and therefore 10th Lous might very well have coincided with the 9th of Av.
On Which Day of the Week Did the Churban Bayis Sheni Occur?
Chazal tells us that the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash took place on a Sunday:13Arachin 12a.
Rava said, and some say it was Rav Ashi, who said: [How] can you understand that this song was recited over an offering? The Song of the Day for Sunday, which is when the baraysa says that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, is the psalm beginning with the verse: ‘A Psalm of David, the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof…’14Tehilim 24:1. And yet the verse that the baraysa says that the Levites were singing [at the time of the Churban was]: ‘And He brought upon them their own iniquity’15Tehilim, 94:23. in the song for Wednesday, not the song for Sunday. Rather, it was an ominous lamentation that came into their mouths, not a song recited over an offering.
Chazal, followed by the Rishonim, often cited passages in sefer Yosipon, indicating that he had a baseline veracity in their view. The reader must be aware, however, that the books of Josephus extant today are those he wrote in Greek for consumption by the Greeks. He undoubtedly altered various details in these works with his readership in mind. This led to obvious distortions of historical truth in the passages we cited above, such as his sympathetic portrayal of Titus haRasha.
On the other hand, our holy Rabbis, the Rishonim, Rashi, and the many others, quote Josephus many times, from the excerpts of his books that are brought down in sefer Yosipon. So, we see that our Rabbis accepted his narrative as being adequately reliable.