In the last two weeks we have explored the messages of Chagai and Zechariah that were studied in the sixth annual Tanach Kollel conducted by the Torah Academy of Bergen County (this coming June 15-19 we will iy”h learn Sefer Iyov). We saw how both Chagai and Zechariah rallied and inspired the Jews of Eretz Yisrael to complete the building of the second Beit Hamikdash despite the overwhelming challenges that faced them. We also noted that some of their prophecies, especially those regarding Zerubavel, were not fulfilled during their lifetimes. We saw, though, Zechariah preparing the Jewish People for the possibility of the prophecies not being fulfilled in case of sin and his teaching that the promise of Mashiach persists despite Zerubavel’s failure to fulfill his potential to emerge as the Mashiach. This week we shall discuss how Zechariah helped the Jewish People cope with yet another trauma, the loss of Nevu’ah (prophecy).
The Reduction of Nevu’ah – Churban Bayit Rishon
Among the tragedies of the Churban Bayit Rishon (destruction of the First Temple) was severely reduced Nevu’ah. Yirmiyahu notes in Sefer Eichah (2:9) “Gam Nevi’eha Lo Matzu Chazon Mei’Hashem”, the prophets did not experience prophecy from Hashem. This is a result of the diminished level of spirituality and distancing between us and Hashem as a result of the Churban. It is also possible that it is a consequence of the Jewish People ignoring the words of the Nevi’im (such as Yirmiyahu) urging them to repent.
In fact, when Chagai and Zechariah began to prophesize in the second year of the reign of Darius (520 B.C.E.) the reaction must have been one of shock since the last dated prophecy prior to this was presented by Yechezkel (29:17) in the twenty seventh year since the exile of Yehocyachin (570 B.C.E.). In other words, fifty years had passed without a message from Hashem delivered by a Navi.
The Jewish People must have been elated by this revival of prophecy, especially since Chagai twice relays the message from Hashem “I am with you”. The Jewish People must have felt abandoned with the termination of Nevu’ah and they responded very positively to the words of Chagai and Zechariah upon discovering that Hashem is still with them. Nonetheless, one can sense the era of Nevu’ah drawing to a close in Sefer Zechariah, as Zechariah often needs a Malach (angel) to help him interpret the visions from Hashem that he is shown (see Ibn Ezra’s introduction to Zechariah; though Abarbanel disagrees sharply with the Ibn Ezra). This reflects that prophetic ability is diminishing and will soon terminate.
Halachic Questions Resolved by the Navi – Rav Tzadok Hakohen
The Navi not only presented prophecies regarding the overall direction of our people but also Halachic guidance. In fact, Rav Tzadok Hakohen (one of the great Ba’alei Hashkafah, Jewish thinkers, of the late nineteenth century) stresses that the Navi also served as the address for Halachic issues (for further discussion of Rav Tzadok’s views on this matter see Rav Yaakov Elman’s essay in Tradition volume 21 volume 4). Indeed, we find that when David Hamelech (King David) was unsure as to whether he should build the Beit Hamikdash, he consulted Natan the Navi (Shmuel II 7:1-3). Similarly, in Zechariah (7:2-3) we find Nevi’im being consulted regarding a Halachic issue.
In the fourth year of Darius (518 B.C.E.), Jews from Bavel (see Rashi and Da’at Mikra to Zechariah 7:2) posed a Halachic question to both Kohanim and prophets as to whether they should continue observing the fast of Tishah B’av. Construction had begun on the second Beit Hamikdash in the second year of Darius and was completed in the sixth year of Darius. Thus, in the fourth year of Darius much progress had been made in the construction of the Mikdash and thus the question emerged whether Tisha B’av should still be observed.
We should note that many Jews raised a similar issue in the aftermath of the Six Day War and the subsequent building of much of Yerushalayim. They asked Rabbanim whether they should continue reciting the Nacheim prayer on Tisha B’av which describes Yerushalayim among other things as “desolate without inhabitants”, which seems entirely inappropriate to recite at a time when nearly a million Jews live in Jerusalem.
Rav Chaim David Halevy (Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav 1:14) calls for adding one word to Nacheim, “Sh’hayta”, the city that was desolate without inhabitants but still mourns due to the continued absence of the Beit Hamikdash. However, most Rabbanim including Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Nefesh HaRav pp.78-79) opposed changing the text of Nacheim. Rav Soloveitchik argues that referring to Yerushalayim as desolate refers to Jerusalem in its status as an extension of the Beit Hamikdash, a status from which Jerusalem derives its special Halachic standing. As long as the Beit Hamikdash is not rebuilt we view Yerushalayim as desolate and degraded.
Hashem’s Vague Response
Interestingly, the people from Bavel do not present their question only to Nevi’im, but rather to Kohanim as well (as the Torah instructs us to do, Devarim 17:9). Possibly, the questioners realized that they could not depend on the Nevi’im response, since Nevu’ah was declining.
Instead of presenting a straightforward response, Hashem reviews the sins that motivated Hashem to destroy the first Beit Hamikdash and send our people into exile (7:4-7:14), outlines the scope of the future redemption (8:1-8), reiterates the promise presented to Chagai that the economic situation of the Jews will improve starting from the time we begin work on the Mikdash (8:9-13) and urges good behavior (8:14-17). When Hashem finally addresses the question (8:18-19), it is not clear what He means. He states that the fast of the fourth month (what we observe as Shivah Asar B’Tammuz), the fast of the fifth month (Tishah B’Av), the fast of the seventh month (Tzom Gedaliah) and the fast of the tenth month (Asarah B’Teivet) will be a time of rejoicing for the Jewish People.
What is not clear, though, is when precisely this will occur. Ibn Ezra (8:18) understands that in Zechariah’s time the fasts were no longer necessary. Radak (8:18) and Malbim (8:19) understand that the fasts will be transformed into joyous occasions only when the full redemption occurs, which sadly did not occur during the time of Bayit Sheini (the Second Temple). The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2), in fact, writes that Tishah B’av was observed throughout the time of Bayit Sheini.
Why Hashem Presents an Unclear Response
When someone poses a Halachic question, it is self-evident that he must be given a clear and straightforward answer; otherwise he will not know what to do. Accordingly, it is shocking that Hashem responds in such a roundabout and unclear manner to the question regarding Tishah B’av observance.
Perhaps by offering an unclear response that requires interpretation, Hashem tells us that the time has arrived for Chachamim (rabbis) to resolve questions and not to pose questions to Hashem through the Navi. There is no point asking a Navi a question if the answer requires interpretation. Thus we might as well pose the question directly to Chachamim who will answer Halachic questions based on their interpretations of Hashem’s Torah.
Interestingly, this Nevu’ah is the last dated Nevu’ah (518 B.C.E.) in the entire Tanach. It is most appropriate that one of the last Nevu’ot guide us on how to live as a Torah observant Jew without Hashem responding to our Halachic inquiries.
Bava Metzia 59b and Shabbat 88a
The transition from Nevi’im to Chachamim may help us understand a well-known but somewhat enigmatic Talmudic episode. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) records a dispute between Rabi Eliezer and the Chachamim as to whether a certain oven referred to as a “Tanur shel Achnai” is Tamei or Tahor; Rabi Eliezer believed it to be Tahor and the Chachamim believed that it is Tamei. Rabi Eliezer made every possible argument to support his opinion but it was not accepted by the Chachamim. Rabi Eliezer then sought to prove that Hashem agreed with his opinion by performing miracles such as the water channel outside the Beit Midrash (study hall) flowing backwards and the walls of the Beit Midrash falling. The Chachamim rejected resolving Halachic questions based on a water channel and a wall.
Finally, Rabi Eliezer summoned a Bat Kol (voice from Heaven) to declare that his is the correct view. A Bat Kol indeed supported Rabi Eliezer. Rabi Yehoshua in dramatic fashion rose and declared, citing Devarim 30:12, that the Torah is not in heaven, meaning that Chachamim resolve Halachic questions and not Hashem. This story continues with Rabi Natan who encounters none other than Eliyahu Hanavi whom he asks what is Hashem’s reaction to this. Eliyahu responded that Hashem “smiled” and declared “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me”. Interestingly, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik interprets this phrase “Nitzchuni Bani” to mean my children have eternalized Me (Nitzchuni from the word Netzach, eternal and not Nitzachon, victory). The Torah is eternal if it can be applied without depending on a Navi or Bat Kol to relay the ruling of Hashem.
After Rabi Eliezer did not succeed in persuading his colleagues of the cogency of his opinion he sought to resolve the debate using the original style of deciding Halachic questions – consulting Hashem, if not by a Navi then via a Bat Kol. Rabi Yehoshua responded that the era of posing Halachic questions to Hashem had passed, a notion affirmed by none other than Hashem. Rabi Yehoshua’s message is identical with the message of Zechariah - the time for posing questions to Hashem using a Navi has ended. In communicating this idea, Zechariah has eternalized Torah observance in all times, as we can be confident in the rulings of our Chachamim without being concerned that Hashem does not agree with their rulings and will hold us accountable for acting improperly.
We may similarly interpret Chazal’s assertion (Shabbat 88a) that we accepted the Torah during the time of Achashveirosh a second time. We may interpret this statement in light of our understanding of Zechariah, especially according to the Da’at Mikra (based on Ezra chapter four) that Achashveirosh (Xerxes, according to this approach) is the Persian Emperor who succeeded Darius. Chazal can be understood as teaching that there is a second acceptance of Torah in the time of Achashveirosh (a generation after Zechariah according to Da’at Mikra) because in that time the style of Halachic decision making underwent the dramatic shift from Navi-based answers to Chacham-based answers.
Without Chagai and Zechariah’s incredibly encouraging words the second Beit Hamikdash would not have been built. Without Zechariah’s cautionary words that we discussed last week the Jewish People could not have survived the devastation of the Zerubavel disappointment. Finally, Zechariah was essential in helping us transition to Torah life without a Navi and instead rely on Chachamim who faithfully interpret and apply the word of Hashem to our ever changing world.
Next week we shall b”n and iy”h conclude this series with a discussion of the critical role of Malachi’s message that is responsible in great part for the survival of the Jews of his time and of all time.