Born When the Temple Fell

Xus Casal Bn Yohani

Plowing with Ox 1
The story: Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:2 (25b)

“The Rabbis said: This king, the Messiah, if he’s from the living, David is his name; if he’s from the deceased, David is his name.

Rabbi Tanhuma said: I offered a source for this: And He does kindness for his Messiah, for David (2Sam 22:51).

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Tzemakh is his name. Rabbi Yudan, son of Rabbi Aivu said: Menakhem is his name. Rabbi Hananya said: and they do not disagree, both names have the same numerical value. Tzemakh equals Menakhem.

And the source for this is as R’ Yudan said: There was an incident involving a certain Jew who was standing, plowing his field. The ox lowed before him. An Arab passed by and heard the sound of it, and said: Son of a Jew, Son of a Jew! Release your ox, stop plowing, because the Beit haMiqdash has just been destroyed. The ox lowered a second time, and the Arab said to him: Son of a Jew! Son of a Jew! Fasten your ox and fasten your plow [again], because the king Messiah has been born. The farmer asked the Arab: What’s his name? – Menakhem (the comforter). And he said: And what is his father’s name? He said: Hizqiyah. He asked him: Where is he from? He replied: From Birat Malka of Bethlehem of Judah. The farmer went and sold his ox, sold his plow, and became a seller of children’s clothing. He would go from city to city, until he went into that city [Birat Malka]. All the women were buying [his clothes], but the mother of Menakhem was not buying. He heard the women saying: Mother of Menakhem, mother of Menakhem, come, buy for your son. She said to them: I wish to strangle the enemies of Israel, because on the day he was born, the Temple was destroyed. He said to her: We can be sure that just as with his coming it was destroyed, so too with his coming it will be rebuilt. She said to him, I have no money. He replied to her: So what? Come, buy for him and if you don’t have the wherewithal today, I will come back after a few days and take the money then. After a few days, he went back into that city and asked to her: What is the child doing? She told him: From the moment you last saw me, winds and gales came and snatched him from my hands.

Said Rabbi Bun: What is it that we learn from this Arab? It is not an unqualified verse that teaches us: And ‘Levanon’ [the Temple] shall fall to a mighty [king]? (Isa 10:34). What is written immediately afterwards? A staff will emerge from the stump of Yishai (Isa 11:1).”


If he’s from the deceased, he’s David“. Mainstream Judaism – and specially Sephardic Judaism – rejects the possibility that Messiah will be among those who resurrect from the death. Among other things, they say, the messianic redemption begins prior to the resurrection of the dead. The Lubavitcher Rebbe clearly states: “King David cannot himself be the king Messiah who will be a ‘leader for them forever’ because the initial work of the King Messiah starts before redemption, and certainly before the resurrection” (Liqutei Sikhot vol 35, p. 206 n.6).

Mainstream recognition of “Messiah” comes from Rambam’s codification of Hallakha. As stated in Rambam’s Hilkhot Melakhim (11:4), we recognize a possible Messiah when a king comes from the house of David, studies written and Oral Torah, observes the mitzvot, leads Israel to repentance, and fights the wars of God (whatever that means). In order to be certain he’s the Messiah, in addition to the things above, he should rebuild the Temple, gather the exiles, and perfect the world. The Rambam concludes at the end: “If he doesn’t succeed or if he’s killed, then he’s not the Messiah” (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:5).

But here, in this aggadah, as crazy as it sounds, we are actually offered the idea that Messiah may be someone who resurrects from the death. The aggadah says Messiah will be king David, whether he’s from those among the living or those among the dead. What does that mean? He will not be king David literally. Other midrashim offer the possibility that he will be Moses. But these stories do not mean it in the literal sense. They are based, obviously, on Biblical verses, as it says: “And I HaShem will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them” (Eze 34:24), and somewhere else, “Until Shiloh comes” (Gen 49:10) [Shiloh is Moshe in Gematria].

The Ohr haKhayim explains that whoever Messiah will be, he will have the soul of David and of Moses. When the commentaries say that Messiah is David himself or even Moshe himself, they are talking of their soul root, not in the literal sense (cf. his commentary on Genesis 49:11).

Now, concerning the resurrection part, Abarbanel explains that it is possible for the Messiah to resurrect from the dead (Yeshuot Meshikho, Iyun 2:1). Abarbanel says not to be troubled about the idea of Messiah resurrecting from the dead, because this is a possible interpretation (especially among Ashkenazim), and it was actually a possibility raised in the Gemara Sanhedrin ─ here he refers to a second source, the Talmud Babli in which it is written: “Rabbi [Assi] said, If he’s from the living he’s like Rabbeinu haQadosh, if he’s from the dead, he’s like Daniel, the most desirable of men” (Sanhedrin 98b). Mainstream interpretation is that this verse refers to the Messiah of each generation. Daniel could have been Messiah, because he was from Judah, from the house of king David, and he was a righteous person. Rabbeinu haQadosh refers to Yehudah haNasi, the Rabbi who codified the Mishna, who was from the house of King David as well. However, Abarbanel is presenting this talmudic verse in a more literal sense ─ according to how Ashkenazim tend to interpret these stories ─ and suggests that the Messiah could be Daniel himself resurrected. Not that he agrees with it, but he admits it’s a possibility.

Our portion is clearly talking of a resurrected Messiah. What it says in the plain text is that: Whether he’s from the living or from the dead, his name is David. We have already explained what do they mean by “his name is David”.

Names for Messiah:

Tzemakh and Menakhem are both messianic attributes. ‘Tzemakh’ refers to him as a branch that blooms forth from the roots of Yishai. Menakhem means “the comforter”, because he will ease the suffering of Israel. Both words are Biblical and have the same numerical value, 138.

The story of the Jew plowing:

The Gemara then narrates a story, which supports the idea of Messiah being: Tzemakh and Menakhem, especially the last one, since it’s going to depict Messiah as a comforter.

In this story the Jew’s messenger is an ox. The ox knows and tells his owner that the Temple has been destroyed. The owner doesn’t understand the ox’s expressions. Probably he doesn’t even know that the ox is sending him a message. So the story introduces an Arab who is able to decipher the ox’s communication. While they were working, the ox lowed before the Jew and began to cry (by mooing). The Arab said: Stop plowing! The ox is mourning for Jerusalem and you should too (cf. Yefeh Mareh).

Who is this mysterious ox? The ox refers to Messiah ben Yosef. Both Yaaqov and Moshe used the imagery of an ox when blessing Yosef (cf. Gen 49:6; Deut 33:17). The Jew was plowing the field with an ox. In other words, the Jewish people are preparing the ground of redemption by the spiritual force called Mashiakh ben Yosef. Mashiakh ben Yosef leads the chain of events that prepare the world for redemption. Mashiakh ben Yosef prepares the field, prepares the soul of the people in order to greet redemption. At the beginning of the redemption process, it will seem like Messiah ben Yosef would fulfill its goal, but the aggadah says he will be killed during his battle against the Evil Forces (the Yetzer haRa, Armilus, Gog uMagog, Amaleq… etc), so the final redemption is at the hand of the force called Messiah ben David.

When the Temple was destroyed it was a time for mourning, it’s the day the Jewish people failed. In this story the destruction of the Temple actually represents the spiritual poverty in which Israel fell due to their general lack of honest spirituality.

But then the ox lowered a second time and mooed again. The Arab understood here that the ox was ready to continue working on the field. So the Arab tells the Jew, fasten your ox and your plow, because the king Messiah is born. In other words, time to keep working, because the day the Temple was destroyed, the hope was born with it. From this lower spiritual state of struggle it is possible for the Jewish people to ascend even higher than before and eventually merit the Messiah (cf. Netzakh Israel ch. 26). It sometimes happen that something is not in its better state, and in order to really fix and improve it, one must first to tear it down so one can start from the very foundations. That’s what really happened with the destruction of the Temple.

Therefore, when the Jewish man asks the Arab what’s the Messiah’s name, he answers that Menakhem is his name. Menakhem is the one who comforts, and he provides ‘strength’ to the Jewish people, therefore the name “Menakhem ben Hizqiyah”. Hizqiyah חזקיה comes from the word Hazaq חזק, which means strength. The Biblical character of Hizqiyah was, according to Rabbi Hillel II, the only character with the proper Messianic characteristics. Therefore he says: “There’s no Messiah for Israel, for he was consumed in the days of Hizqiyahu” (Sanhedrin 99a). We could discuss at length what did he mean by these words; for example, according to Rashi he meant that redemption will not include a human messanger. Rabbenu David Bonfil understands here that redemption might be condensed, thus skipping a long part of it and moving from our current reality towards the World-to-Come in a straight forward and quick succession of events, thus almost skipping the period called “Messianic era”. As far as our study is concerned, it doesn’t really matter what did he mean by those words. The point made is that Hizqiyah is a proper descendant of Messiah, and therefore the Messiah will be a descendant of him as well.

From Birat Malka of Bethlehem of Judah“. Other sources read “Birat Araba” – city of Arabia (Eikha Rabbati 1:51), which may be the same with the Biblical Qiriat Arba (Josh 14:15). Birat Malka means ‘the city of the king’ and it refers to the Davidic Messianic dynasty. Bethlehem or Beit-Lehem refers to the house of David as well, for he was born there (1Sam 17:58).

The Jewish man then becomes a seller of children garments and travels everywhere, and the women buy garments from him. If you could see past the allegorical language, you’ll notice that the text is saying that Judaism has become the teacher of behavior, and the women represent ‘Malkhut’, the sefirah of reception, the women are those who are willing to receive the teachings. His goal was to arrive to Bethlehem and to sell some clothes for the Messiah who was born there. The Messiah’s mother says she doesn’t want to buy any clothes for him, because he’s an enemy of Israel. The Temple was destroyed because he was born. And even if she wanted to, she doesn’t have the money.

The mother of the child is the Shekhina, the Divine presence among the people of Israel. Israel considers that this Messiah is an enemy of Israel, his arrival only brought a bad omen. He’s not a good thing. The Jew answers that with his coming the Temple was destroyed, and with his coming the Temple will be rebuilt. He seems on the outside a bad omen for Israel, but he’s actually the opposite; he’s our hope for redemption. But the people of Israel only see a “child without proper garments”, maybe a “bad Jew”, as it is written: “And he came up before him like a sapling, and like a root from dry ground, he had neither form nor comeliness; and we saw him that he had no appearance. Now shall we desire him?” (Isaiah 53:2). So this Jew is selling garments for the child. In order for this child to be understood as what he really is, he must be clothed in proper garments. He must be understood from the point of view of the Jew, who is the one who created those garments. He must be understood from Judaism itself. Judaism offers the tools, the proper garments to make him “kosher”.

Winds and gales came and snatched him from my hands“. The winds (or spirits) and the gales represent the forces of impurity (cf. Maharal), which are the very opposite of Messiah. The Messiah was forced into the realm of impurity. In the new process of redemption things didn’t go any better at all. In fact it seems like the world fell in an even deeper darkness. What did this Messiah achieve? Apparently he didn’t achieve anything, he was taken by the very forces he was supposed to defeat. The Messiah has been exiled since then in the realm of impurity and Israel hasn’t seen him since then. That’s why we remain in the exile, until we learn to look for him and redeem him by our deeds. The forces of impurity “snatched him” from the hands of Israel. He was taken because of our sins, because we didn’t merit redemption.

There’s a later version of the story in which it is said that demons took him, but he was hidden away shortly after birth in Gan Eden (cf. Babylonian Sanhedrin 98b; Aggadot Eliyahu; Eikha Zuta, nusakh 2). Although from our point of view he’s just gone to the realm of impurity, his soul is actually protected and glorious, pure, waiting for the day of redemption. Messiah was born and hidden away from us so that God could send him in the future, even if we don’t deserve redemption (cf. Maharsha on Sanhedrin 98b), because he’s already born, and because his existence as a reason to be, this is why we know that God will eventually give us Messiah.