Ari Z. Zivotofsky
Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Nir Orbach’s fictional midrash about brothers and the Temple Mount

Last week, all eyes were on rookie MK Nir Orbach of Yamina (New Right Party) – would he agree to support his party’s coalition agreement with leftist parties or would he torpedo the entire, fragile pact. The suspense lasted days, until finally, on June 8, he posted a long message to the world  (see here for a [poor] English translation) in which he explained why he was indeed supporting the coalition agreement. His explanation, he said, “was rooted in a return to a foundation as found in the well-known rabbinic legend.” He then proceeded to summarize this “famous rabbinic tale.”

In short, the story relates that there were two brothers who shared a plot of land. One got married and had 10 children while the other remained single. They divided the property and each worked his land. When harvest time arrived, each was blessed with a bountiful crop and piled up his grain for long term storage. The unmarried brother thought to himself that God had blessed him with more than he needed, whereas his brother, who was blessed with a large family, could surely use more. He arose in the middle of the night and secretly took from his grain and put it in his brother’s pile. In parallel, the married brother thought to himself that he was fortunate to have children who will care for him in his old age, while his brother will depend on what he saved. These nocturnal transfers went on for several nights, until in the middle of one night the brothers bumped into each other. In that instant, in the dark of night, the glow of brotherly love lit up the mountain sky as they each understood what the other had been doing. According to the legend, when God saw that display of brotherly love He selected that site, known today as the Har Habayit- the Temple Mount, for His Temple.

MK Orbach explained that the incoming government will display the qualities of that rabbinic legend. It seems that MK Orbach had two messages in mind by beginning with that legend. He was trying to reassure his base that he was grounding his support for the new government on classical rabbinic sources and that he had the Temple Mount in his consciousness.

The story is indeed well-known and touching. But Orbach should be aware that it is fictional, with no source in traditional Jewish literature, as detailed below. I assume this was a mere error and not a cynical use of the Temple Mount and a purported rabbinic legend.

The holiest site in Judaism is indeed the Har Habayit, The Temple Mount, the site where both Temples stood for a combined period of almost a thousand years. The first was built by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE, and the second by those who returned from the Babylonian exile in the 5th-6th century BCE and was later renovated by Herod. To this day, more than 1900 years since the second Temple’s destruction, all Jews anywhere in the world turn to face Har Habayit when offering their prayers, and ascent to the mount is permitted only in a state of ritual purity. This location is said to be the place where God’s presence resides, never to depart, and it clearly must have been carefully selected. Perhaps that is why most people readily accept the touching story that is told about how it was chosen.

The legend regarding how the site was selected is often quoted, as Orbach did, without a specific reference but simply as “a rabbinic legend”. The reason is clear – although it appears in collections of Jewish legends from the last two centuries, it is completely absent from traditional sources. The origins of the legend were traced by Prof. Sándor (Alexander) Scheiber of Budapest, who demonstrated that the first written reference of this story is to be found in a non-Jewish French book by Alphonse de Lamartine published in 1835, in which De Lamartine claims to have heard the legend from an Arab peasant while visiting the Land of Israel in 1832.

Further research by Haim Schwarzbaum revealed a fascinating twist to the history of the story. He found that in an 8th century prologue of an Arabic translation of a collection of Indian legends, there is a similar, but “less ideal”, variant in which two partners replace the loving brothers and in the dark of night each tries to steal from rather than give to his partner. Just like the story told by Orbach is well-known, there is an almost equally popular cynical variant that invokes the “less-ideal” version and concludes with “it was at that very spot that the Knesset was built.”

Thus, the story that Orbach quoted to justify his decision is actually not a rabbinic tale but a modified Indian legend that made its way to the Jews of Europe via the Arabs of the Middle East. The biblical narrative regarding the selection of the Temple Mount site tells how King David saw an angel there, confessed to God his sin, built an altar on the site, and purchased it on behalf of the Jews for full price. King David proclaimed that the site should be where the House of God is built, and he commenced preparation for building the Temple.

The main message of the fable is one of brotherly love and ahavat chinam, values that are indeed central to rabbinic legends and should be in the consciousness of our elected officials as they make their decisions. The “rabbinic legend” cited by MK Orbach just happens to be fictional. While it is “popular”, we expect from our elected leaders to be careful with their words and accurate in their judgements. We hope that he and his partners in this new government will indeed regard authentic Jewish tradition and the Temple Mount as central to their mission, will help put an end to the cynical version of how the site for the Knesset was selected. And will be careful in their actions and quotes.

For a more complete article on the story of the two brothers and the selection of the Temple site, see the article in the OU Magazine, Jewish Action.

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in his regular column (now running 20 years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action and in Mishpacha magazine.
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