Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Vespasian and the Western Wall

I've spent the past week and a half stressing out, intensely, about this semester. My stress has largely been in regards to my Talmud class, a subject which I'm well informed on the outer limits of, but of which I have spent little time in the middle. I arrived home today exhausted after spending five hours looking at archives and compiling information on various states and their populations. I ate dinner, and took a nap. I woke up, still tired, stressed out, grumpy, frustrated. I purchased a coffee, came back to my room, and dove in to papers by scholars about reading rabbinics as history, whether the Talmuds contain hardcore, one-place and one-time history, or whether people read them wrong. Perhaps, as it says, the stories tell us more about the people than about the events. Who knows. The papers were sort of dry, sort of uninteresting, very much of the ego-stroking quality. In other words, very dense materials. I decided to put aside some of the academic papers for a packet on Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and the episode involving his interactions with Vespasian (or Titus?) and the inevitable arrival of the rabbi in Yavneh, which became the hotbed of rabbinic activity in a post-Destruction of the Temple period, where the Oral Torah became what we know of it today.

But, I'll blog about the episode -- and the four different accounts from BT Gittin 56b, Lamentations Rabbah 1:31, and two versions from The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan -- at another time, because it's incredibly fascinating the subtle and obvious differences between the accounts and how the rabbi approached Vespasian, how Jerusalem fell, how the rabbi and his followers ended up in Yavneh, and the tales therein. But what I wanted to blog about quickly, before I throw myself into bed, is a take on why the Western Wall still stands to this day. It's pretty interesting. This portion comes from Lamentations Rabbah after Vespasian had subdued the city. At this time, he
assigned the destruction of the four ramparts to the four generals, and the western gate was allotted to Pangar. Now it had been decreed by Heaven that this should never be destroyed because the Shechina abode in the west. The others demolished their sections but he did not demolish his. Vespasian sent for him and asked, "Why did you not destroy your section?" He replied, "By your life, I acted so for the honour of the kingdom; for if I had demolished it, nobody would [in time come] know what it was you destroyed; but when people look [at the western wall], they exclaim, "Perceive the might of Vespasian from what he destroyed!" He said to him, "Enough, you have spoken well, but since you disobeyed my command, you shall ascend to the roof and throw yourself down. If you live, you will live; and if you die, you will die." He ascended, threw himself down and died.
An interesting take on why we still have HaKotel HaMa'aravi today, no? There are a few other morsels worth noting, which you can find at this Kotel website. Oh, and for good measure, the photo credit goes to me!

On that note, I'm heading to bed. Midrash will float about my head as I hopefully fall fast asleep. Tomorrow? I get the chance to delve into the topic in class.