The Procurators

After deposing Herod's son Archelaus in 6 CE (3765), the Romans imposed direct rule on Eretz Israel through procurators. These officials were rapacious and corrupt, and as their behavior increasingly worsened they drove the Jews into revolt against Rome. Indeed, complete Roman callousness toward Jewish religious sensitivities over the years had exacerbated tensions between Romans and Jews to the breaking point. As but one example, Roman procurators confiscated the priestly garments of the Kohen Gadol, releasing them for Jewish use only on Yom Kippur. Pontius Pilate, one of the worst procurators, brought statues of the Roman emperor into Jerusalem, only removing them when thousands of protesting Jews prostrated themselves in front of Pilate’s residence, ready to be trampled by his soldiers if Pilate did not comply.

On festivals, when great masses of Jews came to sacrifice at the Bais Hamikdash, they were met by jeering Roman soldiers, who had been stationed in the Temple courtyard in defiance of Jewish law excluding gentiles from such holy areas. At one time, the insane Roman emperor Caligula decreed that a statue of himself be placed in the Bais Hamikdash – then strictly ordered his proconsul Petronius to enforce the edict. As Petronius approached, tens of thousands of Jews beseeched him to reconsider. Touched by the sight of so many people willing to die for their beliefs, Petronius recanted. The furious emperor instructed him to commit suicide; however, providentially Caligula died, and the noble Petronius was saved.

The procurators also provoked the people into open resistance, then using the rebellion as an excuse to further oppress so-called Jewish criminals. Driven to excess, Jewish murder and robbery became commonplace. To make matters even worse, a revived Sadducee movement bribed the avaricious procurators and gained control of both the Bais Hamikdash and the Sanhedrin.

The Spiritual Cause of the Destruction

The Talmud states that needless hatred among Jews led to the Churban Bayis Sheni, the destruction of the Second Temple. Civil war between the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus also divided Jews into different factions and led to Roman rule. Eventually, Jewish society was splintered by groups that hated each other — and even fought among themselves. Such strife tore apart Jewish cohesiveness, which, if it had existed, would have successfully resisted Roman infiltration into all areas of life.

At that time, extremist groups of Jews, known as Zealots, arose. Not only were they violently opposed to Roman rule, they also murdered Jews who disagreed with the Zealots’ views. In addition, Jewish criminals, known as sicarii, prowled the roads and extorted wealth from whomever they could. By 30 CE, 40 years before the churban, matters spiraled so out of control that the Sanhedrin stopped judging capital cases. Similarly, the Talmud relates that the signs of Divine favor so prevalent in the Bais Hamikdash during the time of Shimon HaTzadik were completely reversed. As but one example, the doors of the Sanctuary opened of their own accord, ominously symbolizing the future Roman entry to destroy the inner sanctum.

King Agrippas

Despite all the turmoil, a ray of hope still shone for the Jewish people. Herod's grandson Agrippas grew up in Rome, and was a childhood friend of the future Emperor Claudius. Upon assuming the throne, Claudius appointed Agrippas King of the Jews.

Despite his Roman upbringing, Agrippas, who ruled 41-44 CE, identified with the Jewish people and their sages. In addition, several of his actions showed his humility and earned him the love of the nation. On Shavuos, Agrippas brought his bikkurim (first fruits) to the Bais Hamikdash, humbly carrying them on his shoulder like an ordinary pilgrim. Once, when traveling, his retinue encountered a bridal procession at a crossroads, and Agrippas permitted it to precede him.

In the Bais Hamikdash once again on Sukkos, Agrippas read the Torah scroll, in fulfillment of the mitzvah that the Torah must be read by the king every seven years (hakhel). When he came to the verse that states a king must be appointed "from among your brothers," (Deuteronomy 17:15) which requires the monarch to be of Jewish descent, Agrippas broke out in tears, for he was of Edomite ancestry. The people mollified Agrippas by shouting, "You are our brother!" However, the Talmud severely criticizes the Jewish people for such flattery, for Torah law may not be distorted or falsified for any reason. Rather, the Jews present should have remained silent.

Tragically, Agrippas' benevolent reign lasted but a short time. Because the Greek residents of Caesarea were alarmed at his favorable treatment of their bitter enemies, the Jews, when Agrippas visited Caesarea he was poisoned. With his death passed the last chance to save the country and the Bais Hamikdash.

The Procurators Return

After Agrippas' death, the country returned to rule by the procurators. These officials were far worse than their predecessors, and the worst procurator of all was Florus, who came to power in 64 CE. His brutal policies were the direct cause of the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which began in 66 CE.

Florus’ attempts to goad the Jews into violent acts, which in turn would both invite severe Roman reprisals and cover up Florus’ own many indiscretions, succeeded. In Caesarea, riots broke out when Greeks attempted to prevent Jews from attending synagogue on the Sabbath. Florus refused to intervene, and when offered a sizable bribe by the Jews, took the money but did not come to their aid. On another occasion, when Jews responded to Greek mocking of their religion, he threw a number of Jews into prison. In Jerusalem, Florus attempted to rob the Temple treasury. Some youths walked about the city with charity boxes, calling out, "Charity for poor Florus!" An enraged Florus demanded that the leaders of the city hand over those who had insulted him. When the hapless Jews told him that they could not identify the perpetrators, Florus sent his soldiers on a rampage throughout Jerusalem, killing and crucifying 3,600 men, women, and children.

Attempting peace, the Jewish people marched respectfully toward Florus' troops. However, the soldiers refused to acknowledge the Jews’ motives, instead attacking them, and attempting to seize the Bais Hamikdash.The Jews then besieged the Roman soldiers, who left the city. This skirmish in Jerusalem, in the year 66 CE, marked the beginning of the war against Rome. Afterward, uprisings against Roman rule, encouraged by the Zealots, broke out throughout the land.

The Romans, shocked by Jewish intensity and the initial success of the revolt, saw it as a threat to their rule — not only in Eretz Israel,but also throughout the empire where news of the struggle was rapidly spreading. The Romans therefore felt that the incipient uprising must be crushed at all costs. As such, Jewish success in battle also proved fatal for many Jews living throughout the Roman Empire. Riots broke out in Alexandria, Damascus, and elsewhere, resulting in the butchery of countless thousands of Jews. For example, all the Jews of Caesarea were either massacred, expelled from the city, or sold into slavery.