The Kingdom of Judah

Unlike the kings of the Ten Tribes, who were all wicked, the 20 Davidic monarchs who ruled after Solomon ranged from extremely righteous individuals, such as Hezekiah and Jotham, to such grossly wicked personalities as Manasseh and Jehoiakim. Although spiritual standards were higher in Judah than in the Ten Tribes, due to the presence of the Bais Hamikdash, idolatry eroded society and was a major factor in the destruction of the Temple.The Kingdom of Judah lasted 454 years (2884-3338), 133 years longer than the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes. Prominent Judean kings and queens include:

Rehoboam

His misguided policies caused the split of the kingdom.

Asa

Ruled 41 righteous years, destroyed idols, brought prosperity.

Jehoshaphat

A very righteous king who committed a fatal error when he took Ahab’s daughter, Athaliah, for his son Jehoram.

Athaliah

She exterminated the entire royal family except for the infant Joash, who was hidden in the Temple. Ruled as queen for six years and was fanatically idolatrous. She was slain in a coup engineered by the Kohen Gadol, the high priest,who anointed Joash and placed him on the throne.

Joash

A tragic figure, he started off as a righteous king and oversaw the repair of the Temple; later, however, he imagined himself to be divine and died a wicked man. When the prophet Zechariah rebuked him in the Bais Hamikdash, Joash ordered his men to kill the prophet. The murder was an enormous national crime and had terrible ramifications later in Jewish history.

Uzziah

A righteous king, he made a tragic mistake in thinking that the king could officiate in the Bais Hamikdash. As Uzziah approached the Altar to burn incense, he was stricken with tzoraas, a skin condition that renders one ritually impure. In accordance with Torah law, Uzziah was banished outside Jerusalem and abdicated the throne in favor of his son Jotham.

Jotham

Considered by the Talmud to be one of the greatest people of all time, he is the exemplar of the son who honors his father. Upon assuming the throne during Uzziah’s lifetime, Jotham demonstrated respect for his father by issuing all royal proclamations in Uzziah’s name as long as the man lived.

Hezekiah

The greatest of the Judean kings since David, he did what no other king was able to: eliminate the individual bamos. Spreading Torah knowledge throughout the land, until even young children knew the complicated laws of ritual purity, Hezekiah’s engineers bored the Siloam Tunnel through solid rock to assure Jerusalem a water supply. During his reign the Ten Tribes were exiled, and a few years later the Assyrian king Sennacherib captured much of Judah and surrounded Jerusalem. Upon the advice of the prophet Isaiah, Hezekiah refused to surrender – and in a single night the entire Assyrian army of nearly 200,000 men was struck dead by G‑d. Sennacherib, virtually the sole survivor, returned home and was assassinated by his sons. (While Bible critics have ridiculed this story, excavations of Assyrian ruins have confirmed it.)

Idolatry

Throughout Tanach, the Jewish people are taken to task for the sin of idolatry. Despite the stern admonitions, the overwhelming majority of the Ten Tribes — and certainly Judah — did not worship idols. Even those who did were also Torah-observant Jews in all other respects. Ahab, for example, the idolatrous king of the Ten Tribes, kept a kosher kitchen. Currently, by contrast, it is almost impossible to find an average religious Jew walking into a church to celebrate Mass. However, in the times of the First Temple, even great scholars were subject to the extraordinary temptation of idolatry. At that time, too, people felt no contradiction in their behavior: they could pray the afternoon Mincha service to G‑d, take out a statuette during the customary short break between Mincha and the evening Maariv service, bow to it, and then return to synagogue for Maariv! How could they do so? So that people could be tested in their faith, G‑d permitted idols seeming powers. Therefore, as the spiritual level of the Jewish people declined after the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash, and idolatry would be too great a temptation for the average person to resist, G‑d removed the inclination toward it. Nevertheless, idolatry was only removed from Jews who have some connection with Judaism; those who grow up with no Jewish background can fall prey to it. Sadly, today there are many Jews who are caught up in Christian, Hindu, or other pagan cults.

Bamos

A constant criticism in Tanach, even of the righteous kings of Judah, was that they did not uproot the practice of offering sacrifices to G‑d on private altars outside the Temple. While still forbidden, this sin stands as a testament to the great spirituality of those generations. Today, of all the sins a person has a desire to commit, offering sacrifices on bamos must rank near the bottom. In those days, however, people felt a palpable closeness and awareness of G‑d’s presence and wanted to have a strong, personal connection with the Divine. These spiritual giants felt that they were capable of achieving this at any time and in any place, and so did not feel that the Bais Hamikdash,with its hierarchy of priests, was necessary to commune with G‑d. Here, the people made the tragic mistake of letting their emotions, no matter how noble, rule them; they did not realize that closeness to G‑d must be achieved on His terms and with His rules, and not any other way.

Prophecy

For 1,000 years, from 2448-3448, prophecy was highly prevalent among the Jewish people. During this time, there were more than one million prophets, both men and women; nevertheless, only prophecies necessary for all time were recorded, 48 men and seven women. A person could only become a prophet if he or she was of great intellectual stature and was recognized by his or her generation as being extremely righteous. To this end, the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court comprised of the 71 greatest Torah scholars of the Jewish people, subjected persons who claimed to have had prophetic revelations to a rigorous examination process. In accordance with Torah law, charlatans were executed, thus preventing many impostors from arising.

Once a prophet was certified as true, all his words had to be heeded. If it was necessary, the prophet was even permitted to suspend a Torah law temporarily, with the exception of idolatry. In a contest with the Baal priests to prove them wrong, Elijah, for example, offered a sacrifice outside the Temple.

All told, a prophet’s main function was to make the people aware of their faults and the future consequences of their actions. He also anointed kings and prophetically advised monarchs on such matters as going to war and forging alliances. In addition, the prophets played a major role in transmitting Torah from generation to generation. This aspect, however, was due to being the leading Torah scholars of the Sanhedrin and not specifically because they were prophets, for a prophet was not permitted to decide Torah law through prophecy.

Manasseh

Although King Hezekiah raised the spiritual level of the Jewish people to its highest degree since the days of David, his wicked son Manasseh undid all his work. His disastrous reign of 55 years introduced paganism on a national level and created a mass movement to imitate the surrounding nations’ idolatrous ways. (Previously, idol worship was only on an individual basis.) Manasseh also ruthlessly suppressed any dissent, and even executed the great prophet Isaiah, perhaps his harshest critic. Although Manasseh repented later in life, the damage he caused was irreversible. His son Amon followed him, and during his short, two-year rule actually outdid his father in wickedness. To demonstrate his contempt for G‑d, Amon burned Torah scrolls and placed an idol in the Kodesh HaKodoshim, the holiest part of the Bais Hamikdash.

Josiah

This highly righteous monarch represented the last hope to save both the kingdom and the Temple from Divine wrath. During his 31-year reign, Josiah almost single-handedly forestalled the destruction. Initiating a national teshuva (repentance) movement, and nearly eradicating idol worship in his kingdom, Josiah also made badly needed repairs in the Bais Hamikdash and purified it from all vestiges of idolatry. At the end, realizing that destruction was imminent, Josiah also hid the Holy Ark and several other sacred objects to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Along with the prophet Jeremiah, Josiah brought back remnants of the Ten Tribes from their exile in the East.

Finally, Josiah’s tragic death was a calamity of such major proportions that it is commemorated for all time in the special Tisha B’Av service, the Kinnos. In order to attack Assyria, Pharaoh Necho, the king of Egypt, requested Josiah’s permission to allow Egyptian troops safe passage across the land of Israel. Because G‑d had promised the Jewish people that when they do His will, “A sword will not pass through your land” (Leviticus 26:6), implying that even a force not intent upon invasion would not enter Eretz Israel, Josiah refused. Josiah was convinced that the people were righteous, and had even sent detectives all over the land to eradicate idols. Nevertheless, some people employed ingenious methods to conceal them – a fact which Josiah did not know. The Prophet Jeremiah did, understanding also that the Jewish people were not on the lofty spiritual level Josiah imagined them to be. As such, Jeremiah advised Josiah to allow the Egyptians to pass through. Unfortunately, Josiah did not heed Jeremiah’s advice and forcibly attempted to prevent the Egyptians from crossing Israel. The king was killed in battle, and with his death the last opportunity to stop the destruction evaporated. Josiah died in 3316, 22 years before the Temple’s destruction.

Jehoiakim

He was the worst of all the kings of Judah. During his reign, Babylon, (Iraq) after overthrowing Assyria, became the dominant power in the Middle East. In 3319, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Eretz Israel,allowing Jehoiakim nominal independence while in reality making him a vassal. When Jehoiakim chafed under Babylonian rule and rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar executed him in 3327 and installed Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin on the throne.

Jehoiachin

While he ruled only three months, nevertheless Jehoiachin presided over a major event in Jewish history. Eleven years before Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple, he took Jehoiachin into Babylonian exile, along with 1,000 of the era’s greatest Torah scholars. This momentous event, known as golus hacheresh vehamasger, the exile of the "artisans and gatekeepers," (II Kings 24:14) and explained in the Talmud as a reference to outstanding Torah scholars, was a Divine blessing in disguise. Because these scholars were well-treated in Babylon, they were able to set up a thriving Jewish community, with the infrastructure necessary to lessen the traumatic adjustment of the later exiles. Indeed, Babylon became a major Torah center for the next 1,500 years. As such, this first wave of exiles took along earth from Eretz Israeland used it to build a special holy synagogue — Bei Kenishta D’Shaf Veyasiv -- to recapture some of the Holy Land’s sanctity.

Zedekiah

This tragic figure was the last king of Judah. Although he was personally righteous, he did not try to challenge the powerful, wicked noblemen, and as a result the first Bais Hamikdash was destroyed during his reign. On the 10th of Teves 3336, two and a half years before the destruction, the Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem and besieged it. This tragic event is marked today by the fast of the 10th of Teves. In Jewish law, this fast day alone shares a special status with Yom Kippur in that it is never postponed. (Fasting is generally forbidden on the Sabbath.) According to the calendar, the 10th of Teves cannot fall on the Sabbath; however, if it could, the Jewish people would still fast. However, the 10th of Teves is the only fast that can occur on Friday, and unlike other fast days, the fast is observed. Why of all fasts does this have such special significance? In general, the beginning of a tragedy is considered particularly severe.

The Destruction of the First Temple

On the 9th of Tammuz, 3338 (17 Tammuz, according to another opinion), Nebuchadnezzar’s legions breached the wall of Jerusalem. One month later, on the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, the Babylonian army burned the Bais Hamikdash. Zedekiah’s sons were killed in front of him, and he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon. Nebuzaradan, the chief executioner of Babylon, slaughtered myriads of Jews in the Bais Hamikdash as revenge for the murder of the Prophet Zechariah many years before. Although the Jews were treated well once they arrived in Babylon, they suffered terribly until they arrived. While traveling the dismal road of exile, the Jews were cruelly tormented by the Arabs, who fed them salty fish and then gave the thirst-crazed Jews empty, air-filled canteens, causing many of them to die. Many of the horrific events of this period are recorded in the Midrash and the Kinnos.

Scripture is replete with references to the churban, the destruction. The book of Lamentations, Eichah, composed by the prophet Jeremiah and read on the night of Tisha B’Av, graphically describes the travails of the Jewish people. Psalm 137 expresses the anguish of the Levites when ordered to play the Temple’s sacred music for King Nebuchadnezzar: “How can we sing the songs of G‑d on foreign soil? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget {its strength.}” In great sorrow, they cut off their thumbs so as to be unable to entertain the heathen king with Divine sacrificial tunes. The Haftarah of the second day of Rosh HaShanah contains the famous verse, “Rachel weeps for her children, for they are no more,” along with the Divine promise that “the children will return to their borders.” At traditional Jewish weddings, the groom puts ashes on his forehead, and a glass is broken under the chupah, the wedding canopy,to fulfill the verse, “If I do not lift Jerusalem above all my joy.”

Gedaliah

After destroying the Bais Hamikdash and exiling many Jews, Nebuchadnezzar allowed a small farming element to remain in Eretz Israel.Gedaliah, a righteous man, was appointed governor over them, and a Babylonian garrison maintained order. When informed of a plot to unseat him, Gedaliah ignored it, not taking steps to protect himself. This inaction, criticized by the sages, resulted in tragedy. On the second day of Tishrei, Jews assassinated Gedaliah. In retaliation, Nebuchadnezzar drove the rest of the Jews to Babylon and Eretz Israelwas desolate for 52 years. The Fast of Gedaliah commemorates this tragic event. (Although Gedaliah was killed on the second of Tishrei, that day is Rosh HaShanah, so the fast is pushed to the third day of Tishrei.)