In the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, rabbinic literature’s presentation of mothers donating their children’s weight in gold to the Temple – following the rabbinic interpretation of ‘Arakhin – comes to exemplify both piety and tragedy.
Dr. Rabbi Jane Kanarek
The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, more than a century before the redaction of even the earliest works of rabbinic literature, yet, it still held a central position in the rabbinic imagination.1 Rabbinic writing about the votive practice of mishkal, a procedure through which a person donates his or her worth in weight to the Jerusalem Temple, presents us with one way in which the rabbis sought to memorialize the Temple: namely, through a pious practice associated particularly with mothers.
A Mother, Mishkal,
and the Horrors of War
The Sifra–the Halakhic Midrash on Leviticus, discusses a particularly horrifying reference to cannibalizing children in the tokheha –curses that will befall Israel if they obey or disobey God’s commandments (Leviticus 26:9). The core of this tale uses the rabbinic votive practice of mishkal.
The Midrash reads as follows:
ספרא בחוקותי פרשה ב
ואכלתם בשר בניכם ובשר בנותיהם תאכלו אמרו עליו על דואג בן יוסף שמת והניח בן קטן לאמו והיתה מודדהו בטפחים בכל שנה ונותנת משקלו זהב לשמים וכשהקיפו מצודת ירושלים טבחתו בידה ואכלתו ועליה מקונן ירמיה ואומר ריבוני אם תאכלנה נשים פרים עוללי טיפוחים, משיבה רוח הקודש ואומר אם יהרג במקדש ה’ כהן ונביא, זה זכריה בן יהוידע הכהן.
Sifra Behukotai 2
You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” (Leviticus 26:29).2 They said of Doeg ben Yosef that he died and left a young son to his wife. She would measure him in handbreadths (tefahim) each year and give his weight (mishkalo) in gold to Heaven. And when the fortress of Jerusalem was surrounded, she slaughtered him with her own hand and ate him. It was to her that Jeremiah referred in his lament, “My Lord, alas, women eat their own fruit, their newborn babes (‘olelei tipuhim)” (Lamentations 2:20). The Holy Spirit responded, saying, “Alas, priest and prophet are slain in the sanctuary of the Lord” (Lamentations 2:20). This is Zecahariah son of Jehoiada the priest.
The very act of a mother killing and eating her child is of course terrible enough, yet the Midrash heightens the horror of this tale by depicting this woman as particularly pious, donating her child’s weight (mishkalo) in gold to the Temple.
The Midrash refers to the practice of mishkal, “weighing,” supplementing this with the description of the mother measuring her child in tefahim, thereby connecting to the phrase ‘olelei tipuhim (newborn babes) in Lamentations 2:20. Thus, the Midrash weaves this mother’s tale into Jeremiah’s lament for the Destruction.3 Where once this woman could annually donate the worth of her child’s body in gold to the Temple, she is now forced to consume his very body.4 She becomes the embodiment of the curse that mothers will eat their children (Lamentations 2:20).
Human Votive Donations:
The Biblical Background
The rabbinic practice of mishkal is part of a larger complex of votive procedures by which people could donate their weight to the Temple. Leviticus 27, the chapter that follows the tokhehah, elucidates a series of laws for gifts to the sanctuary. The first of these passages (Leviticus 27:1-8) outlines the procedure through which a man can make a vow dedicating his monetary worth or the worth of another person to the sanctuary.
Known in rabbinic literature by the term ‘arakhin (“valuation”), these verses prescribe a fixed scale of valuation for human beings, where changing monetary worth depends on two variables: sex and age. Infants and adults, males and females, are accorded specific monetary values for votive contributions to the sanctuary.5
‘Arakhin and Hannah’s Donation
This biblical mode of dedicating one’s monetary worth echoes another form of dedication: the offering of one’s own self to the Temple, as was seen, for example, in Hannah’s gift of her son Samuel to the temple at Shiloh (I Samuel 1). Indeed, several biblical scholars regard Hannah’s vow as a precursor to this priestly practice of dedicating the monetary worth of a person instead of the person him or herself to the Temple. 6 This votive process is a voluntary pious practice, funding the tabernacle, and later the Temple, through the dedication of the fixed valuation of one’s person.
The Rabbinic Adaptation
As tannaitic literature further elucidates the laws surrounding the practice of ‘arakhin, it also adds two other modes of votive donation, termed respectively mishkal and damim.
Mishkal: a person’s worth as determined by weight.
Damim: A person’s worth – or even the value of a body part – measured by what he/she7 would be worth if sold in the slave market (m. ‘Arakhin 5:1-2).
Precursors of Mishkal in the ANE
The basic idea of a monetized version of someone’s worth is not unique: Hittite vows of a person’s worth were fulfilled through the donation of a full-sized likeness of the person in gold or silver to the sanctuary. At close-by Ugarit (an important ancient city in Northern Syria), similar vows were made according to the person’s weight.8 Thus, there may be a late antique cultural continuity between rabbinic practices of valuation by weight and these older Near Eastern ones. Nevertheless, ‘arakhin, damim, and mishkal should also be appreciated for the specific roles they played within rabbinic culture.
As a post-destruction midrash, the opening Sifra text does not prescribe actual monetary dedication; there is no longer a Temple to which one could donate such a votive offering. Rather, it utilizes the memory of this mother’s pious dedication to intensify our sense of shock at the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction.
Indeed, Josephus’ Jewish War contains a similar story about a mother who slaughters and eats her child during the siege of Jerusalem.9 However, Josephus’ version of this story does not contain the detail of mishkal, underscoring the sense that the mention of mishkal is a particularly rabbinic device of remembering the modes of devotion that had once been possible and no longer are.10
A Parallel Temple Narrative:
Mothers, Daughters, and Piety
The above passage from the Sifra could be termed a tale of terror. For their part, the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Bavli record a different tradition about votive offerings of the self—one lacking this particular sense of terror. Like the Sifra pericope, the story also concerns a mother and also concerns mishkal. Below I cite the version from the Mishnah:
משנה ערכין ה:א
האומר משקלי עלי
אם כסף כסף אם זהב זהב
מעשה באמה של ירמטיה
ועלתה לירושלי ושקלוה
m. ‘Arakhin 5:1
One who says: “My weight is upon me, ”gives [the monetary equivalent of] his weight.
If silver, silver; if gold, gold.
She went up to Jerusalem and they weighed her, and she gave her weight in gold.
In contrast to the Sifra, which utilizes a story about a mother’s piety to heighten a reader’s horror at the Temple’s destruction, this Mishnah utilizes this same trope as an illustration of how to properly fulfill the law of mishkal. Strikingly, however, both stories deploy a mother and her child as examples of this devotional practice.
Reading the Sifra and Yarmatyah Traditions in Tandem:
Female Devotion and Pilgrimage to the Temple
Reading the story about the mother of Yarmatyah13 together with the story from the Sifra opens the possibility that these stories preserve a memory of mishkal as a pious practice particularly associated with women, an aspect of a larger culture of female pilgrimage in the ancient Mediterranean. These pilgrimages to holy sites often involved some act of devotion, whether prayer or actual gift-giving.14
- Josephus depicts Queen Berenice (daughter of Agrippa I and co-ruler with her brother Agrippa II) as well as Queen Helene making pilgrimages to Jerusalem – Queen Berenice to bring nazirite offerings and Queen Helene to bring thanks-offerings and gifts of food.15
- The Roman historian and bishop Eusebius describes Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine, and her journey to Jerusalem as motivated by a desire to offer prayers of thanks for her sons and grandsons there.16
- Christian sources of the fourth to sixth centuries indicate that a significant percentage of religious travelers were women. Beginning in the fourth century, women pilgrims to Jerusalem marked their visits through monastic patronage and building monasteries.17
In addition, many of these women are portrayed as travelling in family units, as mother and daughter, grandmother and granddaughter, or sisters, complementing the rabbinic portrayal of Yarmatyah and her mother.18
While female pilgrimage and votive donation were part of the wider culture of the Mediterranean, the stories about the mothers of Doeg ben Yosef and Yarmatyah reveal particularly rabbinic ideas about pilgrimage and donation. As the only stories about mishkal in rabbinic literature, they reveal mothers and children as a significant subject through which rabbinic literature conceptualized and preserved memories of the Jerusalem Temple. It is possible that the idea of a mother’s dedication to her child could heighten the sense of devotion that rabbinic literature sought to cultivate around the Temple.
Memory and Maternal Care
While Temple memory is surely constituted through such actions as a transformation of the priestly Yom Kippur Temple ritual into the rabbinic liturgical one (as in tractate Yoma) or a translation of visual descriptions of the physical Temple into the oral/written Mishnaic form (as in M. Middot), it was also established through the more immediate lens of maternal care. The depiction of mothers performing the devotional ritual of mishkal enables the Temple to be conceptualized within the intimate terms of mother and child, and thus its destruction to be understood as the tragic and terrible loss of family.
- Recent scholarship has demonstrated that at best, rabbinic literature preserves only a kernel of historical data about the Temple. Instead, it better reflects contemporaneous rabbinic thinking about antiquity. See Naftali S. Cohn, The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Ha-tekes she-lo hayah: mikdash, midrash u-migdar be-masekhet sotah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2008). ↩
- Biblical translations are from NJPS. ↩
- Rabbinic tradition ascribes the authorship of Lamentations to Jeremiah. ↩
- The Bavli’s version of this story heightens this mother’s piety by describing her as engaging in this practice of weighing and donation not just annually but daily (B. Yoma 38b). In the Bavli, the story’s literary context is part of a longer discussion about the meaning of Proverbs 10:7 (“The name of the righteous is invoked in blessing, But the fame of the wicked rots”):
בבלי יומא לח ע”ב
מעשה בדואג בן יוסף שהיניחוהו בן קטן לאמו בכל יום היתה מודדתו בטפחים ונותנת משקלו זהב לבית המקדש, וכיון שגבר אויב טבחתו ואכלתו ועליה קונן ירמיה אם תאכל’ נשים פרים עוללי טפוחים משיבה רוח הקדש ואמרה אם יהרג במקדש יי כהן ונביא
b. Yoma 38b (Oxford Opp. Add. Fol. 23)
A story about Doeg the son of Yosef who left a young son to his mother. Each day his mother would measure him in tefahim and give his weight in gold to the Temple. And since the enemy prevailed, she slaughtered him and ate him. And about her lamented Jeremiah, “Women eat their own fruit, their newborn babes (‘olelei tipuhim)” (Lamentations 2:20). The Holy Spirit responded, “Alas, priest and prophet are slain in the sanctuary of the Lord” (Lamentations 2:20).
See also the version in Lamentations Rabbah 1. ↩
- Note, however, that there is an interesting detail in the gender distinction: On the one hand, males are normally valued at a higher amount than females. However, as Carol Meyers notes, from age twenty forward, the relative worth of females increases in proportion to males’ worth. Meyers attributes this closing gap to women’s ability to continue her domestic responsibilities and productivity while a man’s efficiency declines with age. Carol Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” 51, no. 4 (1983), 585-86. ↩
- Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 193. See also Milgrom, who argues that these laws are meant to prevent instances like the dedication of Jephthah’s daughter and a proliferation of nazirites. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 2410-11. ↩
- Another noteworthy difference is that while in ‘arakhin only males and females are valued, in damim the tumtum and ’androgynous – those of indeterminate sex/gender – also have monetary worth. See M. ‘Arakhin1:1. ↩
- Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, 2371. ↩
- Jewish War 6.201-219. ↩
For an extended comparison of the different versions of this story, see Tal Ilan, “The Mother who Ate her Son,” in Tal Ilan, Vered Noam et al, Josephus and the Rabbis: Vol II: The Legends on the Destruction of the Temple (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, forthcoming 2016). As Ilan discusses, the different versions of the story all draw on a biblical motif of a mother cannibalizing her child (Leviticus 26:29 and Deuteronomy 28:57) each reworking that motif in their own way. In Ilan’s opinion, such cannibalism did occur during the Jerusalem siege. ↩
- The Bavli version (B. ‘Arakhin 19a), in turn, depicts the mother as an important, and likely wealthy, person (’adam hashuv):
בבלי ערכין יט ע”א
“מעשה באמה של ירמטיא וכו’.” מעשה לסתור? חסורי מחסרא והכי קתני: ואם אדם חשוב הוא אף ע”ג דלא פריש לפי כבודו אמרינן. ומעשה באמה של ירמטיא שאמרה משקל בתי עלי ועלתה לירושלים ושקלוה ונתנה משקלה זהב. (בבלי ערכין יט ע”א)
B. ‘Arakhin 19a
“A story about the mother of Yarmatya etc.” Doesn’t the story contradict (the previous explanation that the donation is made in gold or silver according to the donor’s explicit pledge and the mother of Yarmatyah does not specify and nevertheless gives in gold.) (No, the mishnah) is lacking (an element), and this is what it teaches: If he is an important person (adam ḥashuv), even though he did not specify (what he will donate), we say (he donates) according to his honor (lefi kevodo). And a story about the mother of Yarmatya who said, “The weight of my daughter is upon me.” She went up to Jerusalem and they weighed her, and she gave her weight in gold. (BT ‘Arakhin 19a, ed. Vilna)
- In the Toseftan version of the story (T. ‘Arakin 3:1), the daughter is sick and her mother vows she will donate her weight if her daughter heals, as she does.
תוספתא ערכין ג:א
מעשה באימא של רימטיא שהיתה בתה חולה ואמרה אם תעמוד בתי מחוליה אתן משקלה בזהב. עמדה מחליה עלתה לירושלים ושקלתה זהב. (תוספתא ערכין ג, א)
T. ‘Arakhin 3:1
A story about the mother of Rimatya whose daughter was sick. And she said, “If my daughter rises from her sickness, I will give her weight in gold.” She rose from her sickness. She went up to Jerusalem and she weighed her in gold.
- Yarmatyah (or in its Toseftan version Rimatya) is likely a form of the Latin Domitia; see Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part I: Palestine 330 BCE–200 CE (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), p. 343. ↩
- See Jane L. Kanarek, “Pilgrimage and Piety: Rabbinic Women and Vows of Valuation: Mishnah ‘Arakhin 5:1, Tosefta ‘Arakhin 3:1, Bt ‘Arakhin 19a,” Nashim: A Journal of Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 28, (Spring 2015): 61-74. ↩
- Josephus, Jewish War 2.309-314; Antiquities 20.49-53. M. Yoma 3:10 and t. Yoma 2:3 describe Queen Helene as donating a lamp and gold tablet to the Temple. ↩
- Eusebius, Vita Constantini 3.42. ↩
- Maribel Dietz, Wandering Monks, Virgins, and Pilgrims: Ascetic Travel in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 300-800 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 107-153 and in particular p. 138. Although this evidence about Christian travelers is from the fourth to sixth centuries and thus postdates the tannaitic texts, it is roughly contemporaneous with the Bavli and so still relevant. ↩
- Dietz, Wandering Monks, 108. ↩