The Prophet Yirmiyahu had received a prophecy that the “exile” following the destruction of the First Temple would be relatively “short” (compared, in any case, to the approximate 2,000 year-long Exile we’re still in, but are, G-d willing, coming out of); namely, 70 years. Various Heads of Empires kept getting into trouble because of miscalculation of these years (Belshazar of “Bavel” and Achashverosh of “Poras,” for example).
Construction and Functioning
In any case, by the time came for the Exile to be over, the Jews found themselves now subject to one of the World Empires they would contend with and outlast, the Persian Empire. In order to be able to build, they now needed the permission of a foreign ruler, another step down in the autonomy of their decision-making process. However, G-d had been good to them and had caused the Purim story to happen that, aside from saving the Jewish People and having them renew their covenant with Him, also put in place a Persian Ruler, Coresh by name, from the family of Esther, who was favorable to the idea of re-building the Temple.
Of course, it was not only the permission of the Persians that the Jews needed to rebuild; they needed the permission of HaShem. However, it seems that the Jews had gotten too comfortable with their position in exile, and were not in a rush to return to Yerushalayim to rebuild the Temple. Therefore, HaShem said to Chaggai, one of the members of the group of twelve Prophets known collectively as the “Trei Asar;” he in particular being among the last prophets of Jewish history (along with Zechariah and Malachi (who was the last)).
“So says HaShem, the L-rd of Hosts. Pay attention to your ways. You have sown much, and brought in little. You eat, but you don’t have enough. You drink, but you are not filled with drink. You clothe yourselves, but you are not warm. And he that earns wages earns them for a bag with holes.”
“Thus says the L-rd of Hosts. Consider your ways. Go up to the hill country, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, says the L-rd. You looked for much, but I made it little; and when you brought it home, I blew upon it. Why? Said the L-rd of Hosts. Because of My house that lies waste, while you run every man for his own house….” (Chaggai 1:5-9) (One is almost ashamed for the Jewish People; but then again, there doesn’t seem to be a great rush of Jews towards “Eretz Yisrael” now either, when the time is right, and the need is great).
In any case, they eventually got the movement going and built, or rebuilt, the Temple. To do this, working under Nechemiah, they had to set an example for future Israeli Chalutzim, who worked with farming tools in one hand, and rifles slung on their backs (or something like that).
This was a time or renewal of Judaism under the leadership of Ezra HaSofer. He had to force many of the Jews to divorce their wives, because they were not religiously acceptable. It is said of Ezra that he was comparable to Moshe in his leadership ability.
The Greeks arrived with Alexander the Great around 333 B.C.E.; and although at the confrontation of Alexander and Shimon HaTzaddik, the Jews escaped “miraculously,” (Alexander had seen the image of Shimon in his dreams before major military campaigns and during them, he had led him to victory). But eventually assimilation became a major problem, and the “Mityavnim” desecrated the Temple. Until in 165 B.C.E., the Maccabim under Matityahu and Yehudah and his brothers, the Temple was rededicated.
Now Judaism really began to flourish. But soon the Romans arrived and the tremendous pressure against the Jews to abandon the Torah became great enough that the Torah she-b’al-peh, the Oral Law, had to be written down. And Tannaim, including the great Rabbi Akiva led this movement.
Apparently, during all this time (about 420 years, or more than 600 years (depending on which scholar one believes)), the Temple was standing and functioning, but with major flaws.
The Talmud tells us, and paints a picture of the society that it was not the moral fiber in terms of idolatry and sexual immorality or violence that brought down the Second Temple. Rather, it was a deep societal problem described as “sinat chinam,” causeless hatred one for the other, between levels of society and across levels of society, that became intolerable. The Talmud gives several specific examples of this self-destructive society in Masechet Gittin 55b-approximately 57b; one famous incident is known as the affair of Kamtza and Bar-Kamta
"Rabbi Yochanan said, 'What is the meaning of the verse in The Book of "Mishlei" (Proverbs 28) which reads, 'Fortunate is the one who is always fearful, but the one who is hard of heart will suffer misfortune?' It was because of 'Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza' that Yerushalayim was destroyed …"
"For there was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, 'Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,' but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead."
"The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, 'Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!' Bar-Kamtza said, 'Since I'm here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.' "
"The host responded, 'No!' "
" 'I will pay for half the cost of the feast.' "
" 'No!' "
" 'I will pay the entire cost of the feast!' "
" 'No!' And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!"
"Bar-Kamtza thought, 'Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I'll go now, and have a little feast-of-slander with the king."
"Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, 'The Jews have rebelled against you!' "
"The Caesar responded, 'Who said so?' "
"Bar-Kamtza said, 'Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.' "
"The Caesar sent (with Bar-Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal. Some say that it was a blemish on the upper lip; others say that it was a blemish in the eye (perhaps symbolizing the silence of the rabbis, or their witnessing of the event of his disgrace without protest); in any case, a place where for us it is a disqualifying blemish while for the Romans, it is not."
"The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, 'People will say, 'Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!' "
"The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar-Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to the Caesar! But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, 'People will say, 'One who makes blemishes in sacrifices is killed!' "
Rabbi Yochanan said, "The excessive carefulness of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land."
Additional significant events are recounted there in the Talmud, but these are enough to paint a picture of a group of Torah "scholars," the majority of whom had become corrupted such that the embarrassment of a human being was less important in their eyes than the offering of a sacrifice according to all the details of the Torah, and this was true in their eyes even when that would throw the whole nation into danger.
At the end of the section on the destruction of the Holy Temple, there is a statement by Rabbi Elazar, as follows, "Come and see what is the tremendous negative impact of embarrassing someone, for Hashem helped Bar-Kamtza and destroyed His House and burned His Palace."
The Talmud in Masechet Gittin paints another extremely bleak picture of destruction, as the Romans besiege and ultimately destroy Yerushalayim and its Holy Temple.
Yehudah held on to some independence and even mounted another significant revolt again, about 65 years later, that was led by Bar-Kochba, and that had the spiritual backing of Rabbi Akiva, who believed that Bar Kochba was in fact the Mashiach. Until Bar Kochba killed one of the Tannaim, whom he believed incorrectly had given the Romans crucial information. Then Rabbi Akiva realized that he had been wrong, or that Bar Kochba had lost a great opportunity, but in any case was not the Mashiach.
Rabbi Akiva himself was a member of an exclusive group of “Ten Martyrs,” who have been grouped together by Jewish History even though they were not contemporaries, but they were all killed by the same oppressor for the same reason: the learning and the teaching of Torah. The story of Rabbi Akiva’s execution, in brief, follows:
He died a martyr's death, having his skin flayed from his body, which he accepted with joy(!?), seeing it as the fulfillment of the command to love G-d with his whole life.
He could also look at utter devastation and see future glory, as the Talmud tells us in Makot, where he and three of his colleagues gazed at the ruin of the Temple, and they wept. As they wept, he laughed! And he explained, "Just as I see the tragedies foretold by the Prophets fully realized before my eyes, so I see in my mind's eye the future realization of the Prophecies of Redemption that have been foretold.