© James Consulting

Tisha B’av
How to (and how not to) Carpet the way to the Beit Hamikdash. Corruption and the Temple

 

To mark Tisha B’Av, we will study together two Midrashim from Eicha Rabba. I will print the Midrashim without comment or introduction in order to give you the chance to think them over. (What point is the Midrash making? What message does it wish to convey?) I will then engage in some deeper analysis. [1]

Two Midrashim about the Destruction of Jerusalem (Eicha Rabba 1:47-8)

 

It happened that when Martha the daughter of Boethus was betrothed to Yehoshua ben Gamla, the king appointed him to be the High Priest, and they were married. Once, she said: I will go and see him (the High Priest) when he reads (the Torah) on Yom Kippur in the Temple. They laid out carpets for her from the entrance of her house to the gateway of the Temple so that her feet not be exposed (to the ground), even so, her feet were exposed.... R.Elazar b. Tzadok said: May I not live to see the consolation (of Jerusalem), if I did not see her hair tied to the tails of horses as they ran from Jerusalem to Lod. I applied this verse to her (Deut 28:56): ‘She who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and daughter.’

 

At first glance, these Midrashim would seem to fit into an entire literature of stories that express the severe downfall of the Kingdom from the towering heights of wealth, security and stability to the terrible depths of ruin, persecution and destruction. And indeed, these stories do tell that tale. There is no doubt that the images which are painted here in vivid colours, illustrate a frightful picture of tragedy. Who can imagine a woman, any woman, being dragged by her hair from Jerusalem to Lod? And who cannot fail but be horrified at the image of the once rich and comfortable, who can now only subsist by picking up barley grains from amongst the animal dung? The sense of tragedy is palpable. The devastation resonates through our consciousness in a most real manner. 

 

From a structural point of view these stories are identical. They both consist of two discreet sections. The first section of each story gives the name of the particular woman, and an episode from her life prior to the Churban that demonstrates her exceptional wealth. The second section is a testimony by Rabbi Elazar Ben Tzadok that reports the awful events that befell her in the wake of the Churban, and connects her fate with a passuk. The contrast between the pre-Churban world and the post-Churban reality is vastly frightening.

 

THE SUBTEXT

 

But as is frequently found in Midrash, there is a “subplot”. The way that Chazal wrote each story belies a different narrative hidden just beneath the surface. Let us decode this second sub-narrative and examine its implications.

 

We shall suggest that these stories contain a clear critique, and maybe even a direct accusation pointed at the wealthy classes who lived in Jerusalem before its destruction. Let us begin by repeating the theme of the Midrash. Opulent pre-churban wealth and then devastation. Is this the Midrash bewailing the tragic ruin of Jerusalem, or are Chazal actually drawing a causal connection between one or the other?

 

Let us examine the first section, about Martha the daughter of Boethus. See the strange language as it describes her betrothal and then her marriage. What does it mean when it says: “Martha the daughter of Boethus was betrothed to Yehoshua ben Gamla, the king appointed him to be the High Priest, and they were married?” It means that Martha was so rich that it was inappropriate for her to marry anyone other than the highest figures in the country. She would not marry a commoner. She was betrothed to Yehoshua ben Gamla, but they would not be married until he was appointed as Kohen Gadol. Here, we see that Martha is also rather “well connected.” Her family are able to orchestrate things such that the king, no less, appoint Yehoshua to the office of Kohen Gadol as a political appointee.

 

What does this tell us regarding the values of the wealthy in Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction? What does this tell us about the state of the Mikdash? If the rich and famous can buy their way into the high-priesthood just to gain some social standing within high society then the Temple itself has fallen into the hands of the politicians[2]. The highest echelons of society are manipulating the Temple. It has ceased to be a holy, spiritual institution. And on the social level, the notion that two young people reject the prospect of marriage simply because the status of one does not befit the other (and only the very best will do!) - this indicates an obsession about image, societal status and clearly an unhealthy trend within a society that is supposed to uphold values of justice and sensitive kindness.

 

Now the next scene. It is Yom Kippur. Martha is not really a regular visitor to the Temple. She sounds - in this story - far more like one of those Jews who visit shul on Yom Kippur only, once a year Jews! Martha decides, on a whim, to spectate as her husband reads the Torah before the throngs at the Temple [3]. But she has a problem. It is Yom Kippur, and she cannot wear shoes. How shall she walk through the streets of Jerusalem? She sends her servants to lay carpets all the way to the Mikdash, so that she can walk without setting foot on the cobblestones and dust of the city streets. Interestingly enough, the Midrash suggests that even this was not enough. This was a woman who knew nothing but luxury: “even so, her feet were exposed” - even the carpets could not protect her feet with absolute protection against the “elements.”

 

But let us examine another angle on this story. Who are laying out all these carpets throughout the street? Obviously her servants. Let us assume that these are Jewish servants. Are these servants not observing Yom Kippur too? Are they not fasting that they have to schlep heavy carpets in the blazing sun of Jerusalem in the summer. Here we certainly witness a severe dose of insensitivity. Did Martha even think about her servants sweating away in the sun, so that she could observe the strictures of Yom Kippur?

 

Rabbi Elazar ben Tzadok witnessed the fate that met this young lady. He applied a passuk from the Tochacha in Sefer Devarim. What did he mean by this? He certainly meant to bewail the situation by expressing the fact that indeed the Tochacha had come true, that the horrific predictions of Sefer Devarim were the reality of his age.

 

But here too, might we suggest a subtext? Does the Tochacha not tell us that “If you do not listen to the voice of God ... then all this curse will befall you and overtake you”? (Devarim 28:15) Maybe the first section of the story and the second story are linked by a macabre poetic justice. The woman who would not let her feet touch the earth is now dragged along the earth by horses through the entire breadth of Eretz Yisrael! [4]

 

MIRIAM BAT NAKDIMON

 

Let us move on to explain the second story.

A happening with Miriam the daughter of Nakdimon that the Rabbis granted her (from her late husband’s estate) 500 dinari a year for her perfume needs.... She cursed them, saying : ‘I would like to see you apportion such an amount for your own daughters!’ R. Acha said: We answered “amen” after her! R.Elazar b. Tzadok said: May I not live to see the consolation (of Jerusalem), if I did not see her picking up grains of barley from between the horses hooves in Akko. I applied this verse to her (Song of Songs 1:8) ‘If you do not know, O fairest of women, go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds.’

Miriam’s husband dies (the Midrash calls her a Shomeret Yavam) and the Rabbis have to grant her a portion of her husband’s estate. He clearly is a wealthy man because she is granted an enormous sum even for her cosmetics needs. You can see that this was a large amount by the reaction of the people. When she shouts: I would like to see you apportion such an amount for your daughters! everyone responds “amen!” as if to say; “If only we would have the financial resources for such a thing.”

 

Despite the large amount, she insults (curses!) the Rabbis that the sum that they granted her was too little. She is exceptionally rude and hostile.

 

This image too indicates a pampered woman, who lives surrounded by exceptional wealth, yelling at people who will not view her luxurious environment as standard. She is a person who is contained within her world.

 

Are the Rabbis criticising her too? I think that the exchange reported her with Rav Acha’s humorous quip at the end  does indicate a certain cynicism in this Midrash. But lest we read in too much, let us look at another source where the daughter of Nakdimon talks about herself, and we will gain an understanding into the way in which she perceives her tragic downfall. This is a passage from Avot D’Rabbi Nattan, which contains a wealth of aggadic stories.

 

“One time, as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in the Marketplace, he saw a girl picking up barley grains from under the feet of Arab cattle.

”My child,” he asked her, “who are you?” She did not answer.

Again he asked her: “My child, who are you?” But she would not answer.

Finally she said to him: “Wait a moment.” She covered herself with her hair and sat down before him. “Master,” she said, “I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion.”

“My child,” he asked, “the wealth of your father’s house, where is it?”

“Master,” she replied, “is this not how the proverb goes in Jerusalem” ‘Your wealth will keep if you do not keep it’ - and some say - ‘Your wealth will keep if you give alms’”

... Thereupon Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said to his disciples: “All my life I have read this verse : (Song of Songs 1:8) ‘If you do not know, O fairest of women, go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds.’ and not understood what it meant and now I come to learn what its meaning is - that Israel has been surrendered to the lowest/meanest of peoples, and not merely to a mean people but to their cattle dung.”

She said to him: “Master, do you remember when you signed my Ketuba?”

“Indeed,” he answered. “By the Temples service! I signed this girl’s ketuba and it read - a million golden dinar.”

In the prosperous days of the household of this girl’s father, they did not go from their home to the Temple unless woollen carpets were laid for them to walk on.”  (Avot D’Rabbi Nattan Ch.17)

 

Here, another account of the same woman, pictures the same scene of a young girl picking up barley from the dung of cattle, and indeed Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai recites the same passuk. (...interesting though, that he reads it about the nation, whereas our midrash reads it about Miriam herself. Apparently Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai sees her as a national metaphor.) Here Miriam bat Nakdimon is depicted as almost naked. Her clothes (if she has any) are so ragged that she must use her hair to cover her body.

 

The passage here talks about her former wealth; the carpets on the way to the temple , the million dollar ketuba. She clearly knows Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and he knows her.

 

But note also that she points to the reason why they lost all their wealth. It goes back to that proverb from ancient Jerusalem:

 

‘Your wealth will keep if you do not keep it’ - and some say - ‘Your wealth will keep if you give alms’”

 

They lost their wealth because they did not share it. These wealthy people did not distribute their riches to the beggars of the city. They used it to upkeep their luxurious lifestyle but they did not distribute charity to the poor. We have no reason to criticise accumulation of wealth. But, but when riches are accompanied by hardhearted disdain, when one flouts opulence amidst poverty; when that happens, then luxury is decadence and wealth takes on an ugly face.

 

Interestingly, the Gemara in Gittin 56a tells us:

 

“When Martha (daughter of Boethus) was about to die, she brought out her gold and silver and threw it into the streets saying: What good is this to me?”

 

There was no use for all the gold and silver because there was no food in the city. But she still had gold and silver!! Despite the poverty and hardship, their stores of gold were still intact!

 

What we have discovered is that beneath the story of tragedy and destruction, there is a strong critique of the wealthy upper-class in pre-Churban Jerusalem for their wealthy decadence and their lack of compassion and sensitivity to the nation. They might have demonstrated leadership. Instead they were self-occupied, and they were distant from the common folk.

 

IN CONCLUSION

 

In our Haftara this week, Yishayahu talks about the situation of the first Temple which was quite similar. He accuses the people of Jerusalem of being like S’dom and Amora, and notes that while people demonstrate their devotion to the Temple, they are totally insensitive to the cries of injustice which emerge from the wider society:

 

“Put your evil doings away from my sight.

Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged,

Uphold the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.

 

... Your rulers are rogues, and cronies of thieves.

every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts,

 

... Zion shall be saved by her justice,

her repentant ones with Tzedaka.” (Yishayahu 1:16-28)

 

 

The road to the Temple is not paved with carpets. It is paved with justice, sensitivity, compassion, giving, a sense of unity and shared destiny, values of honesty, love and care.

 

Let us work to merit its rebuilding.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

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Footnotes

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[1] In order to bring redemption to the world (Avot 6:6), let me mention my sources here. Analysis of these stories can found by Avigdor Shinan in Deot journal #4 and also in the book by Ofra Meir, The Poetics of Rabbinic Stories. I have adopted Shinan’s approach with a few additions of my own.

 

Let me also mention that these stories appear in multiple places in Chazal (Bavli, Yerushalmi, Mechilta, and later Midrashim) with multiple variations. Clearly Chazal saw these stories as representative of the Churban, either because of the dramatically emotive nature of the storyline, or because of the fame of the main figures within the story.

 

[2] We know from the Mishna that the Kohen Gadol was frequently ignorant of Halakha. We also know from the historians that these sorts of political appointments were de rigueur in Jerusalem.

[3] Interestingly, the opening Mishna in Yoma suggests that the quality of the Kohen Gadol’s atonement is somehow linked to his wife so much so that if his wife dies, they cannot have him as Kohen Gadol. If this is so, maybe it explains why Martha wanted to attend the Mikdash on Yom Kippur. But the flip-side is true as well. If this is the wife of the Kohen Gadol, then what indeed is the quality of the atonement achieved on this particular Yom Kippur?

 

[4] The Gemara in Gittin 56a records a very different death for Martha that is more similar to the story of Miriam bat Nakdimon. Clearly there were different traditions, or else in the course of time, the textual traditions of the Midrashim have become a little jumbled.