What is the point of wishing for the return of the Temple?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi debate contemporary Jewish problems


The Holyland Model of Jerusalem, also known as Model of Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period is a 1:50 scale model of the city of Jerusalem in the late Second Temple period.

QUESTION: What is the point of references to the Temple in the liturgy when it was destroyed so long ago?

An Orthodox view: Rabbi Alex Chapper

It was an historic moment. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the IDF liberated the Western Wall in Jerusalem. After two thousand years of restricted access, the Jewish people had finally regained this hugely significant site and many of the soldiers were overwhelmed by emotion. Some began to cry.

As soldiers ran to the Wall, one of the non-religious soldiers who ran with them saw the religious soldiers crying. He too began to cry. The religious soldier looked at him surprised and asked: “I know why I’m crying, but why are you crying?” The non-religious soldier replied: “I’m crying because I don’t know what I’m supposed to be crying about.”

There is a Yiddish saying that encapsulates this sense of disconnect: “A worm that lives its whole life in horseradish, does not know that its life is bitter!”

For generations we have lived without the Temple so it is a challenge to feel its loss.

The Talmud teaches that seven phenomena existed before the world was created, one of them being the Temple (Pesachim 54a), as it says in Jeremiah, “Your Throne of Glory on high from the beginning, in the place of our Sanctuary” (17:12).

Due to its unparalleled holiness, even before the first Temple was built there by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE, Abraham built an altar on the site to sacrifice Isaac and Jacob lay down at night and dreamed of a ladder, planted on the ground but whose top reached heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. When Jacob awoke, he realised the sanctity of the spot and said, “God is definitely present in this place.”

Both the First and Second Temple were the focal point of our connection to God, the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, where the light of the golden menorah emanated to illuminate all its surroundings and a place of pilgrimage where everyone was expected by Divine command to appear at least three times a year.

Despite the tragedy of its destruction two millennia ago, for which we continue to mourn, we have never forgotten it. Wherever Jews found themselves exiled, we built synagogues, not as replacements for the Temple but with an internal architecture that reminded us of it.

Three times a day, we pray for the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple while facing towards the holy site. We do so as a great symbol of hope that the prophecy of our glorious future will be fulfilled in our days and, as the Talmud teaches, “Those who mourn for Jerusalem will merit to see the rejoicing of Jerusalem.”

Alex Chapper is senior rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree (United) Synagogue

A Progressive view: Rabbi Jonathan Romain

A lot of Jews would agree with you.

Yes, the Temple was enormously important— the religious and political centre of ancient Israel — so unique that we have no equivalent today.

The best way of describing it is as if the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey were rolled into one building.

It is also true that the loss of the Temple was devastating, heralding the end of independence and the beginning of exile. In addition, its destruction, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans,  was seen as a religious message, signifying that God was punishing the Jewish people for their lapses.

However, the fact that it was two thousand years ago that the last Temple stood is not the main reason for removing constant mention of it.

Instead, the issue is much simpler: the references in the Orthodox prayer book call for the restoration of the Temple and, frankly, we do not want it back.

Think about it: the Temple leadership was an hereditary system — you were a priest only if you were the son of a priest (and certainly not a daughter), whereas we have replaced that with the rabbinate, which is based on scholarship and merit, not birthright.

We have also replaced the Temple form of worship of slitting the throats of lambs, pigeons and other animals with worship by prayer. We no longer scatter blood around an altar, but read from the scrolls at the bimah.

Do you really want to go back to those days? If not, then why pray for it?

That is why you will find that those longing references to the Temple have been omitted in the liturgies of Reform and Liberal synagogues.

The principle is: you should not pray for what you do not believe in.

In addition we have freed those of priestly descent from the penalties they face. The rule that a priest cannot marry a woman who might be their perfect partner and who could make them happy for the rest of their life, but who happens to be divorced, makes no sense.

Whatever relevance that ban may have had in the past does not apply today when priests have lost their main role and divorcees are no longer stigmatised. It is pointless and cruel.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, email it to

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive