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The Factions of the Second Temple Era

The Factions of the Second Temple Era

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It was an era of great political upheaval internally, with an ongoing struggle for supremacy amongst different groups of Jews. The Jewish factions crystallized into four sects:

  1. The Pharisees were the led by the rabbis and Sanhedrin (rabbinical supreme court). The word "Pharisees" comes from the Hebrew word perushim, "separatists." There are various views as to the etymology of this word. One explanation is that they separated themselves from the follies and pleasure of the world. Another is that they were careful to maintain ritual purity, and separated themselves from those who did not strictly observe these laws.
  2. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah and the leadership of the rabbis. Many of them were rich priests and they took control of the priesthood, sometimes buying their way into the office of High Priest. Those who wanted to befriend the Romans were mostly Sadducees.
  3. The Zealots were passionate nationalists who broke away from the Pharisees because they wanted to fight the Romans at all costs, while the Pharisees hesitated. (Although the Pharisees too wanted to be free of Roman rule, they thought it wiser to pursue peace. They feared the Roman reprisals to a no-holds-barred revolt would destroy the nation.)
  4. The Sicarii were against any form of government altogether. "Sicarii" literally means "dagger-men." They resorted to stealth and terrorism to achieve their objectives. They would carry small daggers under their cloaks and stab their enemies – Romans or Roman sympathizers, often wealthy Jews and elites associated with the priesthood – and then blend into the crowd. (In contrast, the Zealots aimed their violence against Romans.)

While the First Temple was destroyed due to idol worship, illicit relationships and murder, our Sages attribute the destruction of the Second Temple to the baseless hatred that prevailed among the Jews. If the Jews had been united, they would have merited G‑d's protection. They would have withstood the Romans. It was the factionalism among Jews that ultimately brought about the destruction of the Second Temple.

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Alter Barcelona February 15, 2017

What about the jews in the rest of the roman empire? Were they mostly in which one of the sects? Reply

Jack Cousins Warrior August 14, 2016

What about essenes? Spanned all classes. Reply

Anonymous January 6, 2014

Pharisee vs Sadducee and origins Thank you for the fascinating insight Rabbi Brownstein.
Some of the traditional priests in christianity do still have rituals and customs that seem to originate in Judaism , so perhaps some Saducee influence was there. But on the other hand, I wonder if the christian doctrine of the messiah and the after life , and the deifying of the original founder of the christian movement which came into place before the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash was completely opposed to Sadducee beliefs? It is also fascinating that within the Jewish nation there would be doctrines that are so diametrically opposed to one another, i.e. Pharisee Vs Sadducee doctrines. Did this difference mainly develop during or after the Babylonian exile , or when high priesthood ceased to be based on lineage? I sense that there was different origins of Sadducee - Pharisee halacha. Many Thanks. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org December 23, 2013

Re: Factions I wonder if it's correct to say that the Pharisees in particular got a lot of flak. It seems that there was a general problem of the different factions getting along with each other and keeping on the same page. The primary factions that were in conflict were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Essenes are mentioned by Josephus, but not in rabbinic sources, and may have been lumped in with the Sadducees who rejected the Oral Torah. After the Temple's destruction we don't hear about the Sadducees anymore. Some may have joined the rabbinic community, others may have become Christian. Sometimes Christians are referred to as Sadducees due to their rejection of rabbinic teachings as well. Initially the Jews in Israel were led by Ezra and his successors until Antiginos of Socho, some of whose students broke away and formed the Sadducee sect. Reply

Juda December 19, 2013

Re: factions Perhaps it is for the same reason that traditional Jews, who are the spiritual descendants of the Pharisees, get so much 'flack' today....for some reason their very existence seems to irk certain groups....

As for descendants of the Sadducee's, the kararites followed in the footsteps of the Sadducee', while there are some who claim to be their descendants, for the most part nowadays they really are what one would call neo-karaites... Reply

Anonymous December 12, 2013

Factions Why did the Pharisees get a lot of flack (or so it seems) at the time? Was the criticisms coming mainly from the Essenes or the Saducees?
And are there any known surviving descendants of the Saducees?
I am also curious as to what Judaism was like before these factions appeared. Reply

Martin Bonner Everett, WA, USA October 30, 2013

Xtianity The reason Christianity isn't listed is seen in his first paragraph. It is clearly stated that these political factions were struggling for supremacy. Christianity at this period cannot be labeled a political faction even though they had differences with the four groups described. Reply

juda July 9, 2013

Re: factions I can only speculate, but I imagine that the author was including those that were in or around Jerusalem and involved with the politics of the time during the destruction. It would seem that the Essenes were for the most part not in Jerusalem at that time. But yeah, its a good question. Reply

Judge Howard I Lipsey July 7, 2013

Factions Why weren't the Essenes included among the Factions? Reply

Scott Edelman Sayreville, NJ April 23, 2012

Xtianity Wouldn't Xtianity be included as a 5th faction? JC's hatred of the Pharisees was clear. I have learned that it was his followers who also had a hand in dividing Judaism and eventually bringing the Roman persecution.

Thanks! Reply