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External Appearance versus Internal Truth: The Aggadah of Herod in Bavli Bava Batra

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2011

Yonatan Feintuch*
Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel
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King Herod ruled Judea from 37 to 4 bce. His life and achievements are described in detail in the writings of Flavius Josephus and have been explored in numerous historical studies. In rabbinic literature, however, mention of Herod's image and achievements is scarce. The few sources that do exist are very brief, with the exception of one significant source in the Babylonian Talmud (henceforth: BT), which will be discussed in this article.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 2011

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1. For historical sources and scholarship, especially in the context of the story that this article discusses, see below, note 16.

2. In rabbinic literature, Herod is mentioned almost invariably in the context of the rebuilding of the Second Temple (for rabbinical sources and additional ancient Jewish sources, see Schwartz, Daniel R., “Hordos ba-mekorot ha-Yehudiyim,” in Ha-melekh Hordos utekufato, ed. Naor, Mordekhai [Jerusalem: Yad Itzhak Ben-Zvi, 1985], 3842)Google Scholar. It should be noted that in tannaitic sources the construction of the Temple is said to have occurred in Herod's days, albeit without any mention of his involvement (see Sifra, Beḥukotai, par. 1:1, to Leviticus 26:4 [ed. Weiss, p. 110d] and parallels in Vayikra Rabba, Beḥukotai, par. 35, to Leviticus 26:3 [ed. Margaliyot, 4:828] and B. Ta‘anit 23a). The identification of the Temple as “Herod's Building” is only in amoraic sources (see B. Sukkah 51b and a partial parallel in the Aggadah that will be discussed below, B. Bava Batra 4a). According to Schwartz (esp. 38, 42) Herod himself is hardly mentioned in rabbinic literature because as a “secular” king, who generally avoided contact with the “religious” world, his relevance to this literature is minimal.

3. The Aggadah is presented here and translated according to text of the Vilna printed edition. In the footnotes, I note textual variants significant to the literary analysis, according to the following textual witnesses: M = MS Munich 95; F = MS Florence 9-I-II; E = MS Escorial G-I-3; P = MS Paris 1337; V = MS Vatican 115; Y = Ein Ya'akov, ed. princ., Salonika 1510. It should be noted that most of the Aggadah is missing from MS Hamburg 165 of tractate Nezikin. As a rule, in the Talmudic segment discussed in this article, the differences among the various textual witnesses are minimal.

4. M, F, V- שמע קלא, (V—an additional 'בת' between the lines); E—שמעינהו דקאמרי. Cf. Epstein, Jacob. N., Mevo'ot le-sifrut ha-’amora'im (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1962), 198Google Scholar.

5. M, F—The whole line is missing; V—כי מטא לגבא.

6. M—כי היכי דליפוק לי' קל' דנסי' בת מלכי. Y—כי היכי דניפוק ליה שם דנסיב בת מלכא.

7. All translation of biblical verses is according to the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation, in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Berlin, Adele and Brettler, Marc Z. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

8. M, F, Y—שיירי.

9. E, M, F, V, Y—למיסב, P—למינסב.

10. A garland of lizards (according to Sokoloff, M., A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmud and Geonic Period [Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2002], 533Google Scholar), and see also below, note 30.

11. M, F—הני מילי מלך האי לאו מלך הוא. E—הני מילי מלך האי הדיוט הוא. P—הני מילי מלך האי עבדא הוא. V—האי מלך מלך הדיוט הוא.

12. M—adds: א"ל האי עבדא הוא.

13. Cf. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, par. Mishpatim, to Exodus 22:27 (ed. Horovitz-Rabin, 318, and cf. the parallels noted by Horovitz there): “A ruler of your people. . . . Why does it say ‘of your people’? When they behave in accordance with the custom of your people” (In some of the MS: “When they follow the custom of your people,” see textual variants for line 6 there); B. Yevamot 22b (as in all BT parallels): “It is written here, you shall not curse a ruler of your people, he who behaves in accordance with the custom of your people” (it can be assumed that the printed text of the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, presented by the Horovitz-Rabin edition, was affected by the above-mentioned Babylonian text).

14. M, E, F, P, V, Y—דצניעיתו.

15. M, E, F, P—כיבה. It is possible that the version of סימא in the other witnesses was created under the influence of Baba b. Buta's blinding.

16. Regarding the various parts of the story in comparison with historical sources: On the story in general, see Halevy, A. A., Sha‘arei ha'aggadah (Tel Aviv: Gottenberg Press, 1982), 183–88Google Scholar. On Herod and the Hasmonean girl, see Josephus, Flavius, Jewish War, 1, 22, 1–5, ed. Loeb, (London: Heinemann, 1927), 205–11Google Scholar; Shalit, Avraham, Hordos ha-melekh—ha-’ish u-fa‘olo (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1964), 4043, 276–86Google Scholar. On the identity of the Hasmonean girl in the Aggadah, see also Ben-Zion Lurie, “Demuyot mi-zman kibbush Yerushalayim bi-yedey Sossius,” Proceedings of the 4th World Congress for Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1969), 1:97, and, in contrast, Feldman, Louis H., Josephus and Modern Scholarship (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1984), 282CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On part B of the Aggadah (the killing of the scholars), see Shalit, Hordos ha-melekh, 60–61 (and his footnotes, especially n. 10); on the building of the Temple, see ibid., 194ff. On Herod's personality, see Kasher, Aryeh and Witztum, Eliezer, King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor: A Case Study in Psychohistory and Psychobiography, trans. Gold, Karen (Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter, 2007)Google Scholar. At the forty-first annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (Los Angeles, December 2009), Jeffrey L. Rubenstein presented a paper titled “King Herod in Ardashir's Court: The Bavli Story of Herod (Bava Batra 3b–4a) in Light of Sasanian Sources.” In this intriguing paper, Rubenstein demonstrated that the story of Herod discussed here was influenced not only by Josephus but also largely by several Sasanian traditions. Thus, it seems that previous scholarly rulings with respect to the historical and literary kernels of the Herod story need to be reexamined. The idea that the Aggadah in Bava Batra is not a historical account, but rather a literary text based on a historical kernel, is supported by the fact that Part B of the story, dealing with the confrontation between Herod and the scholars, has several thematic parallels in the Talmud, which are very similar to the present story in their plot; they deal, however, with different characters. See B. Berakhot 48a; B. Sotah 47a (B. Sanhedrin 107b); B. Kiddushin 66b; B. Sanhedrin 19a. We find another tradition about King Yannai being brought before the Sanhedrin on account of his servant who committed murder, an event that ended with the death of all the Sanhedrin's scholars except for Shimon b. Shatah. This tradition parallels Josephus’ account of Herod being brought before the Sanhedrin for killing thieves in the Galilee without a trial, and silencing the judges with his belligerent appearance, with the exception of one rabbi (possibly Shammai the Elder; see Shalit, Hordos ha-melekh, 33 and n. 151; concerning the relationship between the stories about Yannai and Herod, see also nn. 152–53), who threatened the reticent judges with punishment from heaven (Josephus Flavius, Jewish Antiquities, 14, 9, 4 [ed. Loeb, 539–43]). The relation between the characters of Herod and Yannai finds its expression also in the scholium of Megillat Ta‘anit, in the passage that relates to the second of Shevat (ed. Noam, 109–110, MS F; cf. also 122): “The second of Shevat. . . . Mourning is forbidden . . . and why do they differ? On the first it is not written that mourning is forbidden as on the second. On the first, Herod had died and on this, King Yannai. . . .” Further on it is recounted that Yannai attempted to bring about the killing of all the scholars on the day of his death, but the attempt was thwarted by his wife. According to Schwartz (above, note 2), the phenomenon that part of the Herod stories were “transferred” in rabbinic literature to Yannai is related to the sparse contact between Herod and the religious world, in contrast with Yannai, who as a High Priest and a Hasmonean spurred more interest among the rabbis. Thus, for example, the story in B. Sanhedrin 19a about Yannai is actually the story about Herod, but Yannai's name was inserted as the wicked king, and subsequently, Shimon b. Shatah's character was also inserted.

17. About this issue, see, e.g., Moshe D. Herr, “Tefisat ha-historyah ’etzel-hazal,” Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress for Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1977), 3:129–42; Fraenkel, Jonah, Darkhei ha-’aggadah ve-hamidrash (Givatayim: Yad la-Talmud [Massada], 1991), 235–38, esp. 238Google Scholar; Friedman, Shamma Y., “La-’aggadah ha-historit ba-Talmud ha-Bavli,” in Saul Lieberman Memorial Volume, ed. Friedman, Shamma Y. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1993), 119–63Google Scholar; Rubenstein, Jeffrey L., Talmudic Stories, Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 38Google Scholar; Gafni, Isaiah M., “Tekufat ha-Mishnah ve-ha-Talmud: ḥeker shenot dor—hesegim u-tehiyot,” Cathedra 100 (2001), 215–26Google Scholar. Another general issue in the background of stories like that of the Herod story is the relationship between rabbinic literature and the writings of Flavius Josephus. This topic has already been the elaborated on by scholars, from many different angles. For example, Neusner (Neusner, Jacob, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999], 1:58–59; 387–88Google Scholar) points to parallels between the sages and Josephus, yet emphasizes the differences in the details between them. S. R. Isenberg (Isenberg, S. R., “Power through Temple and Torah in Greco-Roman Palestine,” in Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty, ed. Neusner, Jacob [Leiden: Brill, 1975], 2:24–52Google Scholar), conversely, agrees with Neusner that indeed there are sometimes differences in details between Josephus and rabbinic literature, yet he claims that it still appears that both sources lean on a common tradition, so that the differences do not express a real contradiction between the sources. Shaye J. D. Cohen, in “Parallel Historical Tradition in Josephus and Rabbinic Literature,” Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress for Jewish Studies, BI [1986] 7–14) addresses several examples and claims that parallels in Josephus to rabbinic stories can be used as controls, through which one can learn about the historical precision and the modes of formulating stories by the rabbis. For additional references, see Feldman (note 16 above), 296. See also Milikowsky, C., “Josephus between Rabbinic Culture and Hellenistic Historiography,” in Shem in the Tents of Japhet: Essays on the Encounter of Judaism and Hellenism, ed. Kugel, Jacob L. (Leiden: Brill, 2002), esp. 181–90Google Scholar.

18. See T. Hagigah 2:11 (ed. Lieberman, 385); B. Beiẓah 20a; and cf. Ben-Shalom, Yisrael, Beit Shammai u-ma'avak ha-kanna'im neged Roma (Jerusalem: Yad Izhaq Ben Zvi, 1994), 104107Google Scholar.

19. See M. Keretot 6:3; B. Nedarim 66a; B. Gittin 57a. In B. Beiẓah 21a it is recounted that despite the fact that he belonged to the house of Shammai, he supported a ruling of the house of Hillel when he knew that this was the true ruling. See also Heiman, Aaron, Toldot tann'aim ve-’amora'im (Jerusalem: Kirya Ne'emana, 1964), 1:261–62Google Scholar.

20. For the historical basis of Herod's and Baba b. Buta's meeting, see Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 15, 7, 10; 15, 10, 4 (ed. Loeb, 123–27; 177–81); Ben-Shalom, Beit Shammai, 106.

21. For a comparison of various parts, expressions, and motifs in this story to parallels in Ancient Greek literature, see Halevy, Sha‘arei ha'aggadah, 180–88.

22. Although in content this “appendix” constitutes a continuation of the story by discussing the renovation of the Temple, it is separated from the story by the opening term אמרי” (“it was said”), and by the appearance of questions and answers, unlike the story that precedes it.

23. This line does not appear in the textual witnesses M, F (see above, note 5); therefore, the comparison to the parallel sentence is only according to E, P, V. However, the content-related comparison is obvious even according to M, F, as well as in the use of the Hebrew root נ.ס.ב (in all the manuscripts) with regard to the Hasmonean girl: כי היכי דלימרו בת מלך נסב. In general, it seems that the author of the story or the redactor made intentional use of the root נ.ס.ב, and thus it seems that the versions that include this root are preferable to those that contain an alternative such as “למשקל”.

24. On keywords (Leitwörter) see, e.g., Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) 88113Google Scholar; Bar-Efrat, Shimon, Ha-‘itzuv ha-’omanuti shel ha-sippur ba-mikra (Tel Aviv: Sifriyat Po‘alim, 1984), 2223Google Scholar; and Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories, 251–53. Avraham Walfish, “Shitat ha-‘arikha ha-sifrutit ba-Mishnah ‘al-pi masekhet Rosh Hashanah” (PhD Diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001), 19, addresses rabbinic literature, and adds several additional criteria.

25. Secondary to this theme is that of rabbis versus kings in the second part of the story. In this part, Herod kills the rabbis and confronts Baba b. Buta, and it is possible that this implies the question about who a true king is, by way of the saying in B. Gittin 62a: “and they said: How do we know that rabbis are called kings? . . . as it is written ‘By me kings reign etc.’”

26. The root ע.ב.ד appears four additional times with a different meaning: “doing” (lines 17, 18, 36, 40).

27. The verse from Daniel, where the root appears twice consecutively, was counted as one appearance. The root appears one more time in line 38, meaning “consulting.”

28. See Shalit, Hordos, 42, 60 (and n. 1 there), and cf. M. Sotah 7:8, the opposite attitude toward Agrippa regarding the same biblical verse (on the identity of this Agrippa, see Saul Lieberman, Tosefta ki-fshutah, Sotah, 638). However, cf. in T. Sotah 7:16 (ed. Lieberman, 196) there is criticism in the name of R. Natan of the attitude described in the Mishnah. On both sources, see Schwartz, Daniel R., Agrippas ha-rishon: melekh Yehudah ha-’aḥaron (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1987), 173–76Google Scholar.

29. The two versions in the Talmud (lines 8–11) express two opinions that had probably existed among the rabbis about Herod's motive for marrying the Hasmonean girl. (In actuality, both opinions find expression in the duality that exists at the beginning of the story: line 2 states that Herod “cast his eyes” upon the girl, as an introduction to the story and as a motive for the events that follow. In line 3, however, there is a description of a voice that promises success to the servant who rebels, which implies that the desire to rule is at the center of his motives.) These two aspects of Herod's actions are the basis for Shalit's discussion (above, n. 16) on the question of whether Herod's marriage to Miriam derived from his desire to strengthen the legitimacy of his rule or from his desire for her.

30. Concerning the meaning of the expression 'כלילא דיילי': 'כלילא' is a crown or garland. 'יילי/ילי/יאלי' is interpreted by Jastrow, Marcus (A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature [New York: Judaica Press, 1985], 576)Google Scholar as “hedgehogs,” while Sokoloff (Dictionary, 533) translates it as “lizards.” With regard to our issue, Jastrow writes: “Herod put around Baba's head a garland made of skin of hedgehogs which pricked his eyes out.” In his interpretation of the entire sentence, Jastrow follows in the footsteps of Rashi, who interprets (beginning at the words אהדר ליה כלילא דיילי‎): ילא is a vermin whose hair is hard as needles and he made a garland from its skin around his eyes.” According to these interpretations, the garland itself served to blind the rabbi. However, it seems that the garland serves two separate purposes in the story: 1. “Crowning” the rabbi with a thorny crown (as a means of ridicule, which is ironically directed by the narrator at Herod himself as part of the theme of servant-king). Possibly an ironic metaphoric use is made here of a motif from the stories of the New Testament of a garland of thorns the Romans had placed on Jesus’ head. 2. Blinding the rabbi, in order to weaken him and simplify Herod's exploitation of him.

31. See the previous note.

32. See above, note 12, about these lines being based on the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, as well as several Babylonian sources. In light of the fact that the use of this verse interrupts the sequence of the three parts of the verse from Ecclesiastes, it is possible that originally there had been three parts to Herod's persuading attempt and that the three had been answered by part of the verse from Ecclesiastes. At a later stage, the discussion about the verse from Exodus was transferred into the story because of the relation to the content of the dialogue. This assumption, however, has no support in the textual witnesses.

33. I thank Assaf Englard for pointing out this connection to me. It is possible that there is a connection to additional verses in chapter 10. For example, verses 9–10, “ . . . he who breaches a stone fence will be bitten by a snake. He who quarries stones will be hurt by them; he who splits wood will be hurt by it” might be interpreted, in the context of the story, as criticism regarding the destruction of the Temple and its renovation by Herod. Verse 12, “A wise man's talk brings him favor, but a fool's lips are his undoing,” is an appropriate description of the dialogue between Herod and Baba b. Buta.

34. There is an interesting parallel, which combines a motif related to eyes and the reversal of the status between a man and his master (B. Gittin 58a): “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: What is signified by the verse, ‘And they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage?’ A certain man once cast his eyes upon the wife of his master, he being a carpenter's apprentice. Once, his master wanted to borrow some money from him. He said to him: Send your wife to me and I will lend her the money. So he sent his wife to him and she stayed three days with him. The master then came to him. Where is my wife whom I sent to you? he asked. He replied: I sent her away at once, but I heard that the youngsters played with her on the road. What shall I do? He said: If you listen to my advice, he replied, divorce her. But, he said, she has a large marriage settlement (ketubah). Said the other: I will lend you the money for her ketubah. So he went and divorced her and the other went and married her. When the time for payment arrived and he was not able to pay him, he said: Come and work off your debt with me. So they used to sit and eat and drink while he waited on them and tears used to fall from his eyes and drop into their cups. From that hour the doom was sealed. . . .” This Aggadah, like that of Herod, opens with the expression “cast his eyes upon . . .” and the casting of the eyes is upon the master's wife. At the end of the story, the tables have turned and the previously married master is now a servant without a wife serving his former apprentice, who is married to his wife. The story also concludes with the motif of the eyes: “and tears used to fall from his eyes”—the harm to the master is shaped in the story as being expressed by the eyes, giving the story a closed structure. Another story, in which Baba b. Buta also appears, opens with a man who “has cast his eyes” (B. Gittin 48b): “There was a man who cast his eyes upon his wife to divorce her, but hesitated because she had a big marriage settlement. He accordingly invited his friend and gave them a good feast and made them drunk and put them in one bed. He then brought the white of an egg and scattered it among them and brought witnesses and appealed to the court. There was a certain elder there of the disciples of Shammai the Elder, named Baba b. Buta, who said: This is what I have been taught by Shammai the Elder, that the white of an egg contracts when brought near the fire, but semen becomes faint from the fire. They tested it and found that it was so, and they brought the man to the court and flogged him, and made him pay her ketubah.

35. This sentence contains the previous motif as well: Herod calls himself a servant and with Baba b. Buta's answer מאי אעביד ליה, the story plays on the words between them.

36. In worldwide literature, use is made of the motif of the blind person seeing the truth better than those who can see, cf. Fraenkel, Jonah, Sippur ha-’agada: ’aḥdut shel tokhen ve-ẓura (Tel Aviv: ha-Kibbutz Ha-Meuhad, 2001), 302303Google Scholar and n. 30 there, and 211 n. 50, and his reference to Sophocles' stories. See also B. Berakhot 58a: “The blind R. Sheshet . . .”—the blind rabbi “sees” better than the seeing heretic. At the end of the story, the heretic is blinded according to one version, and according to the other is killed by R. Sheshet, with an ironic use of the expression “cast his eyes upon.”

37. About the three years of the messenger to Rome cf. M. Baba Batra 3:2 and M. Yoma 6:8, regarding the sign according to which the scapegoat has reached its destination.

38. Indeed, in the printed editions the expression “Divine voice” appears, but in most manuscripts the expression does not occur (see above, note 4).

39. The evaluation of eyesight mentioned in this paragraph (and its opposite regarding hearing) is, of course, quite radical. In practice, of course, the sense of eyesight can also reveal the truth, just as the sense of hearing has its own limitations. In the story, the purpose is to highlight the disadvantages of the sense of eyesight, in order to emphasize its potential dangers.

40. This discussion is not directly related to the Mishnah. Its natural context is the last section of the third chapter, which discusses cases of damage of sight. The redactors of the tractate had chosen, in a somewhat artificial manner (by a connection to an interpretive question about the word partition in the Mishnah), to place this discussion at the beginning of the tractate, probably because the discussion, by the way it progresses, surveys many of the tannaitic sources that deal with the laws of neighbors, which is the subject of the first chapter. On saboraic discussions of such kind, which are placed at the beginning of the tractate, see Weiss, Abraham, ha-Yeẓirah shel hasavora'im (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1913), 8 and onwardGoogle Scholar; Brandes, Yehudah, “Ha-Messukha ha-rishona,” in: ‘Al derekh ha-’Avot, ed. Bazak, Amnon, Vigoda, Shmuel, and Munitz, Meir (Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 2001), 3347Google Scholar.

41. It may be argued that Herod's casting his eyes at the girl is not precisely identical to gazing into a private domain in the sense indicated in the formal damage of sight. However, Herod's deed is, in the least, one type of usage of eyesight (whether physical or metaphorical; it seems, in this case, to be both) in a negative, intrusive manner. See, e.g., negative uses of the expression “cast his eyes” in T. Ketuvot 12:2 (ed. Lieberman, 95); B. Gittin 58a (above, note 34); and B. Sotah 9a.

42. Conversely, it is possible that the story adds an ideological point of view to the discussion. The discussion about damage of sight, which is halakhic-legal in nature, typical of the laws of torts, explores the halakhic-legal question of whether damage of sight is legally defined as damage. The discussion does not contain moral and ethical questions, which deviate from the domain of conviction or exemption, and even the legal question had not been decided upon in the discussion. The story, however, does not deal with the legal domain, but rather, the ethical one. It does not deal specifically with damage of sight, but in a more comprehensive manner, with the sense of eyesight in general. This occupation with the sense of eyesight expresses a certain ethical view of this sense and its limitations: It is presented by the story, as shown above, as limited in the best of cases and as misleading and deceiving in the worst. Herod uses the appearance of things in order to deceive others, whereas the blind rabbi, who cannot use this sense, penetrates through Herod's “disguise” and overcomes the king with his words.

43. For a general discussion on the redactional setting of stories in the BT, see Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories, esp. 15–24, 32, 255–67; Feintuch, diss., esp. 19–28. In the latter, I have demonstrated the existence of substantial thematic and literary links between the majority of the stories in the tractate Nezikin and their halakhic contexts. In such cases, I have shown, new light is shed on the both the halakhic and the aggadic parts of the sugya as a result of reading the Aggadah in its wider halakhic context. Thus, both halakhah and Aggadah benefit from their juxtaposition in one context. However, the Herod story is one of the exceptions in the tractate Nezikin. As shown above, the links between this story and its wider halakhic context are vague, and thus it is difficult to point to any specific new light that is shed on the story as a result of reading it in its BT context.

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