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History of IsraelSecond Temple
The great and powerful Babylonian empire came to an abrupt end in the 6th century BCE. Infamous in Jewish history for destroying the First Temple and exiling the Jews from their homeland, the Babylonian's reign was usurped by Cyrus the Great of Persia.
In 539 BCE, Cyrus called for the Jews to return from their exile back to their homeland, and even encouraged them to rebuild the Temple. Historians generally agree that Cyrus' motives were not altruistic; rather, he desired the income from a rebuilt Jerusalem and new Temple. However, the Jews heeded his call and excitedly returned in droves, under the leadership of Zerubabel and the prophets Ezra and Nehemia.
Zerubabel, a descendant of one of the last kings of Judah, was appointed governor over the Jews in Israel. The Persians forbade the reinstitution of the monarchy; however, the rulers did allow the Jews significant autonomy. The description of the return of the Jews and the subsequent rebuilding of the Temple is described in detail in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai. Construction of the Temple began in 535 BCE and continued for about twenty years. After Cyrus' death, the Jews were forced to take a hiatus from building by an order from his successor, but the next emperor, Darius, allowed the construction to continue.
The Temple was dedicated in the year 515 BCE, and lasted until 70 CE, though it was missing crucial components that had been looted by the Babylonians. The Persian emperors returned many of the beautiful golden vessels, but significant items like the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments were never returned. After its dedication, Temple worship continued like it had during the Solomonic era, with the reinstitution of animal sacrifices, and pilgrimages during the festivals.
Religious fervor peaked during the Second Temple period. Ezra, responding to the fear that the Jewish identity would be lost, forbade intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. He also established the Great Assembly, whose members instituted the Shemonah Esrei (the focal point of the daily prayers), established the holiday of Purim, and canonized the 24 Books of the Jewish Bible. Messianism, which had began to take hold after the destruction of the First Temple, gathered strength. An apocryphal work written during this time (the Book of Enoch) writes of a man, a descendant of David, who would bring peace at the "end of days." The Jewish messianic zeal of the time reached a crescendo during the Jewish revolts against the Romans at the end of the Second Temple Period, specifically in the person of Bar Kokhba, who was assumed by Rabbi Akiva to be the Messiah. When he was killed and the final rebellion crushed, in 135 CE (after the destruction of the Temple), it brought a temporary end to the messianic enthusiasm of the Jewish people.
The Persian Empire fell into the hands of Alexander the Great in approximately 330 BCE. The Greeks attempted to eradicate Jewish religion and culture, in their desire for the Jewish people to conform to the Greek values and way of life. They forbade Torah study and did not allow the Jews to practice halakhah (Jewish law.) The Greeks entered the Holy Temple and desecrated it, but the Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolted and regained control of their Temple and their autonomy. The Greek empire eventually crumbled during the Roman conquest.
In 37 BCE, Herod the Great, the Roman ruler, refurbished the Temple to make it even more splendid. Although some refer to this reconstructed building as "Herod's Temple," in Jewish tradition, it is considered the same Temple, because worship continued unabated during the rebuilding. The Romans were not as liberal with the Jewish people's autonomy, and sought to suppress it. This led to a series of revolts by the Jewish people, ending with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Though the revolts continued after the destruction, by the year 135 CE, following the Bar Kokhba debacle, Jerusalem was razed, the Jews exiled, and the Holy Land renamed Aelia Capitolina.
However, this did not end Jewish presence in Israel. The north, specifically Tiberias, became a center of Jewish learning and Torah study until, over time, exiles returned, synagogues were built, and eventually, Jewish life flourished once again in the Holy Land.