Herod’s Renovation of the Temple – The Talmudic Version

In their discussion of King Herod’s reconstruction of the Second Temple, Talmudic storytellers emphasize themes of sight, blindness, and illegitimate rule. They also make a surprising suggestion about who really should get credit for this renovation.

Model of Herod's Temple (a renovation of the Second Temple) in the Israel Museum

King Herod: Master Builder

King Herod reigned from about 37 BCE to 4 BCE.  His rise to power followed the upheavals that resulted after the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE: a civil war between two Hasmoneans, Hyrcanus II and Antigonus II, and Antigonus’s rebellion against the Romans. With Roman backing, Herod defeated Antigonus II and become king.

Herod is well known for his great building endeavors, as anyone who has toured Israel can attest. He built the fortress of Masada, the palace at Herodium, the port of Caesarea with a massive harbor, and many other projects, most notably the renovation and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple—the Western Wall is part of the outer retaining wall that Herod built.

A Complicated Man and a Problem for the Rabbis

Herod presented the Rabbis with a problem. On the one hand, he was a usurper, a murderer, and a vicious tyrant. On the other hand, he had the great merit of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, the holiest place on earth, and did a magnificent job—numerous rabbinic traditions praise its spectacular beauty. How could God allow Herod to become king (since all rulers, in rabbinic theology, ruled by the grace of God)?  How could God grant the wicked Herod the mitzvah of rebuilding the Temple?

The Talmud preserves a story that addresses these questions (b. Bava Batra 3b-4a). This story departs from what we know of the historical Herod from other sources.[1] That, in and of itself, is not exceptional, as rabbinic stories are didactic, fictional tales and not intended as reliable historical accounts.[2] Here I will offer a literary analysis of the story that highlights themes that help solve the theological implications of the evil Herod building the holy Temple. In a subsequent piece, I will compare the Rabbis’ narrative of Herod’s rebuilding to Josephus’ account, and will then explore the Persian traditions that influenced the rabbinic storytellers.[3] ­

The Story of Herod in b. Bava Batra 3b-4a

הורודוס עבדא דבי חשמונאי הוה. נתן עיניו באותה תינוקת. יומא חד שמע קלא דהוה קאמרא כל עבדה דמריד האי שעתא מצלח.
Herod was a slave of the Hasmonean House. He set his eyes on a certain maiden. One day he heard a voice that said, “Any slave who rebels now will succeed.”

Herod, according to the story, is a slave or servant of the Hasmonean royal family,[4] who has designs on the throne. His primary motivation to rebel, however, is attributed to a sordid lust for a young Hasmonean princess—the Talmudic idiom “set his eyes on” generally refers to an illicit sexual desire.[5] Obviously the Hasmonean family will not consider marriage to a servant/slave, hence Herod must usurp power in order to gratify his desires.

An opportunity arises when Herod hears a “voice” (qala) disclose that it is a propitious time to rebel. The nature of this voice is far from clear, and we might wonder why Herod should trust it sufficiently to risk a rebellion that would involve certain death were he to fail. The “voice” evidently should be understood as a divine voice, typically referred to as a “bat qol” (or bat qala), as is indeed the reading in the Vilna printing of the Talmud and some other text-witnesses.[6] If so, then Herod understands that he has been privy to a prophetic revelation that guarantees success. (More on this later.)

A Suicide and Herod’s Plan B

קם קטלינהו לכולהו מרוותי שיירא לההיא ינוקתא.  סלקה לאיגרא ורמיה קלה ואמר כל דאמר מבית חשמונאי אנא עבדא הוא דלא אישתייר מיניהו אלא ההיא ינוקת והיא קא נפלה ומתה.  הטמינה בדובשא שבע שנין.
He arose and killed all of his masters. He left [only] that maiden.  [When that maiden saw that he wished to marry her,] she went up to the roof and raised her voice and said, “Whoever says, ‘I am from the Hasmonean House’ is a slave.  For only that maiden (=me) was left from them, and she jumped and died.”  He preserved her in honey for seven years.
איכא דאמרי בא עליה ואיכא דאמרי לא בא עליה.
Some say he had sex with her, and some say he did not have sex with her.
מאן דאמר בא עליה כי היכי דליתוביה יצריה.
He who says he had sex with her—to satisfy his [sexual] urge.
ומאן דאמר לא בא עליה למה לי דעביד הכי? כי היכי דניפוק קלא דניסב בת מלכא.
He who says he did not have sex with her—why did he do that? So as to send forth a rumor (=voice) that he took in marriage the daughter of a king.

Herod’s rebellion succeeds to the point where he murders not just the ruling monarch but “all of his masters,” that is, the entire dynasty—a complete and total massacre!  He leaves alive the one princess he had lusted after. But she thwarts his plan by committing suicide before he can gain even a semblance of legitimacy by marrying into the royal family, much less having children with Hasmonean blood. To remove any possible doubt, the maiden broadcasts her suicide with a public proclamation so that everyone will know that all future descendants of Herod, despite claims of Hasmonean lineage, in fact have the same slave-status as their father.

His primary objective foiled, Herod adopts the strategy of preserving the maiden’s body in honey.[7] As is common in talmudic discourse, the Bavli now presents two alternative versions of the tradition: some storytellers relate that Herod had sex with the sticky corpse, while others record that he retained it for a different reason. The first version emphasizes that his overriding motivation resulted from his lasciviousness and construes Herod as a necrophiliac, while the second stresses his nefarious political ambitions and portrays him as a murderous pretender. In both cases the story contrasts the superficial appearance of things with the true, inner reality: Herod tries to make it look like a woman is alive, when in truth she is dead.  Sight and vision will emerge as important themes of the story.

Herod Massacres the Rabbis who Challenged his Rule

Having disposed of the Hasmoneans, Herod now focuses on the other group whom he perceives as potential opponents of his usurpation: the Rabbis.  This depiction is anachronistic, for the sages as a class did not yet exist.

אמר מאן דריש ”מקרב אחיך תשים עליך מלך“? רבנן! קם קטלינהו לכולהו רבנן. שיירי לבבא בן בוטא למיסב עצה מינה. אהדר ליה כלילא דילאי ונקרינהו לעיניה.
He said [to himself], “Who is it who expounds [the verse], Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; [you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman] (Deut 17:15)? The sages!” He arose and killed all of the sages and left Bava b. Buta to take advice from him.  He bedecked him with a crown of hedgehog [bristles] and poked out his eyes.

The storyteller here draws on a rabbinic tradition that interprets Deuteronomy 17:15 as stipulating that the kings of the Israelites/Jews must be Jewish. The verse mentions the king must be from “your own people,” literally, “from your own brethren,” and this, according to the Rabbis, means your co-religionists (therefore excluding non-Jews), and not your fellow “citizens” or inhabitants (therefore including non-Jewish residents of Judea, but excluding foreigners who come from abroad.)  In Herod’s view, the Rabbis, as the authoritative interpreters of the Bible, will threaten his rule. By disposing of them other Jews will accept Herod’s authority, not understanding that the Bible disqualifies him as king.


Why would Herod worry that he would not be considered Jewish? Herod came from an aristocratic Idumean family. The Idumeans who lived just south of Judea, in an area called “Edom” in the Bible. John Hyrcanos (164-104 BCE), the son of Simon “Maccabee,” conquered Idumea and forcibly converted the Idumeans to Judaism. The Rabbis questioned the sincerity of these conversions, and were divided as to whether such “forced” conversions were legitimate. As the descendant of Idumean converts, Herod’s Jewish status was shaky (in the rabbinic view), and hence his right to be king.

Herod therefore perpetrates a second massacre, again leaving alive but one member of the group.  The storyteller artfully narrates this bloodbath with similar phrasing to the earlier massacre of the royal family:

  1. Herod “killed all” (the Hasmoneans/Rabbis) and “left” alive (one maiden/one sage);
  2. Herod wishes others to think he has “taken” the princess in marriage, while he intends to “take” advice from Bava b. Buta.
  3. Just as he wishes to use the maiden for his own twisted and self-serving purposes, so he wishes to use the rabbi.

To render Bava b. Buta weak and impotent, and hence even less of a threat, Herod blinds the sage, a gesture that continues the thematization of sight. Adding insult to injury, he makes Bava b. Buta wear a crown made of hedgehog hide.[8] According to early Christian tradition, the Romans sent Jesus to his crucifixion wearing a crown of thorns in order to mock and humiliate him, as if to say: you thought you were the messianic king, but this is the only crown you will wear.[9] Here too, Herod means to mock and humiliate Bava b. Buta, as if to say: I am the true king wearing a crown of gold, while you Rabbis are powerless, only fit for a degrading headdress.

Herod Tests Bava b. Buta

Herod, still acutely insecure of his position as King despite the double massacre and blinding, resolves to test Bava b. Buta. Perhaps the Sage retains some power by which he can harm the tyrant?

יומא חד אתא ויתיב קמיה.
One day he [Herod] came and sat before him [Bava. b. Buta].
אמר ליה: חזא מר האי עובדא בישא מאי קא עביד? (א”ל) ומאי אעביד ליה?
He [Herod] said to him, “Do you see, Sir, this evil slave—what he does?” (Bava b. Buta said to him), “What can I do to him?”
אמר ליה. נלטייה מר. אמר ליה כת’ גם במדעך אמלך לא תקלל.
He [Herod] said to him, “Curse him.” He [Bava b. Buta] said to him, “It is written, Don’t revile a king even among your intimates (Qoh 10:20).”
(א”ל) הני מילי מלך. האי לאו מלך הוא. (א”ל) ולא יהא אלא עשיר. כת’ ובחדרי משכבך אל תקלל עשיר. ולא יהא אלא נשיא. כת’ ונשיא בעמך לא תאור.
(Herod said to him), “This applies to a king. But that one is no king.”  (Bava b. Buta said to him,) “Even if he is only a rich man, as is written, [Don’t revile] a rich man even in your bedchamber (Qoh 10:2). And even if he is only a noble, as is written, Do not put a curse upon a noble among your people (Exod 22:27).
אמר ליה. בעושה מעשה עמך והאי לאו עושה מעשה עמך הוא. אמר ליה מיסתפינא דילמא איכא איניש אחרינא דשמע מילתא ואזיל ומודע ליה.
He [Herod] said to him, “[That verse applies] to one who acts in accord with the ways of your people, but this one does not act in accord with the ways of your people.” He [Bava b. Buta] said to him, “I am afraid lest there be another man who would hear something and go and inform him.”
(א”ל) השתא מיהת ליכא איניש גבן דאזיל ואמר. אמר ליה כי עוף השמים יוליך את הקל ובעל כנפים יגיד דבר.
(Herod said to him,) Now, however, there is no other man with us who might go and tell.”  He said to him, For a bird of the air may carry the utterance, and a winged creature may report the word (Qoh 10:20).”
אמר ליה אנא הוא. אי הוה ידענא דצניעיהו כולי האי לא קטלינא לכו.
He [Herod] said to him, “I am he! Had I known that the Sages were so discreet, I would not have killed you [all].”

Pretending to be an enemy of the king, Herod approaches Bava b. Buta, who of course cannot see the individual before him. There follows an extended dialogue where Herod tries to trick Bava b. Buta into cursing the king, which would reveal the Sage’s disloyalty. The wily Herod attempts to convince the Sage that biblical verses cautioning prudence do not apply to him.  Because he is not a true king but an illegitimate pretender, the advice of Qohelet 10:20 against cursing a king is irrelevant.

As to the prohibition against cursing a nobleman, Herod counters with an interpretation of Exod 22:27 that limits the scope of the verse.  He takes the words “among your people” as excluding those who do not observe the ways and laws of their people, that is, who do not act like good Jews. Such leaders deserve no respect, so Bava b. Buta may lawfully curse the sinful and false “ruler.” Bava b. Buta, however, drawing on his knowledge of scripture and ability to apply it to contemporary situations, refuses to curse Herod and thereby escapes the trap.[10]

That Bava b. Buta declines to betray the King shows that Herod has miscalculated again, as he concedes in his concluding observation: “Had I known that the Sages were so discreet, I would not have killed you [all].” His massacre of the Hasmoneans failed to achieve his purpose (either sex with the princess, or marriage into the dynasty), and his massacre of the Sages likewise was a failure (elimination of a rival and threatening group, as the Rabbis were loyal).

Appearances are not what they seem, as Herod’s perception of the Sages as a hostile group deceived him. Nor, were there any doubt, is Herod the rightful king, as he himself admits in his deceptive machinations. His own words testify to the fact that, appearances to the contrary, he is an “evil slave” who does not act “in accord with the ways of your people,” i.e., an illegitimate ruler. In these ways the storyteller continues his negative portrayal of Herod: not only a murderer, pretender, and necrophiliac, but also a buffoon, albeit a dangerous one.

Bringing Light to the World

Having realized he has miscalculated badly, Herod now asks Bava b. Buta for a remedy (takkanah), a way to atone for his sins. He had kept the Sage alive for his advice, and now needs it acutely.

השתא מאי תקנתיה דההוא גברא.
(Herod said) “Now what is the remedy for that man (=me)?”
אמר ליה. כיבה הוא אורו של עולם ילך ויעסוק באורו של עולם.
He [Bava b. Buta] said to him: “He (=you) extinguished the light of the world. Let him go and busy himself with the light of the world.
הוא כיבה אורו של עולם דכת’ כי נר מצוה ותורה אור.
“He extinguished the light of the world[—the Sages,] as is written, For the commandment is a lamp; the Torah is a light (Prov 6:23).
אמר ליה. כיבה הוא אורו של עולם ילך ויעסוק באורו של עולם.
“Let him go and busy himself with the light of the world—the Temple, as is written, And all the nations shall be illumined by it (=the Temple) (Isa 2:2).”
איכא דאמרי הכי קאמר ליה
Some say he [Bava b. Buta] said to him thus:
הוא כיבה עינו של עולם ילך ויעסוק בעינו של עולם.
“He extinguished the eye of the world. Let him go and busy himself with the eye of the world.
כיבה עינו של עולם. רבנן. דכת’ והיה אם מעיני העדה נעשתה וגו’
“He extinguished the eye of the world—the Sages, as is written, If this was not known to the eyes of the congregation (Num 15:24).
ילך ויעסוק בעינו של עולם. בית המקדש. דכת’ הנני מחלל את מקדשי גאון עוזכם מחמד עיניכם.
“Let him go and busy himself with the eye of the world—the temple, as is written, I am going to desecrate my sanctuary, your pride and glory, the delight of your eyes (Ezek 24:21).”

Bava b. Buta prescribes that Herod atone for his sin of murdering the Sages by “busying himself” with the Temple, that is, that Herod devote his resources to rebuilding or renovating the Jerusalem Temple. The Torah and the Temple were the two foci of Judaism in the Second Temple period, the two “lights” or “eyes” (note the theme of sight again) of the world, that is, the two primary ways to enter into relationships with God that ensure that divine blessings flow to the world. Having destroyed the one—the Sages who study and teach Torah—Herod can compensate by building up the other—the Temple.

Fear of the Romans

Herod presents a potential difficulty to Bava b. Buta’s suggestion: he fears the Romans may oppose this project.

אמר ליה מיסתפינא ממלכותא דרומי.
He [Herod] said to him, “I am afraid of the Kingdom of Rome.”
אמר ליה שדר שלוחא. אזיל שתא ומיעכב שתא והדר שתא אדהכי והכי בני ליה.
He said to him, “Send a messenger. He will travel for a year, and stay there for a year, and return for a year. Meanwhile raze it and build it.”

Again, Herod’s words unmask the true reality, that far from being a (real) king, Herod in fact serves the true kings, the Romans, whose slave he remains. And once again, Bava b. Buta counsels him on how to circumvent the problem.  The Sage understands that “it is easier to beg for forgiveness than to get permission,” as the adage goes.  Confronted with a fait accompli, the Romans can hardly request that a renovation be undone, and will reluctantly come to terms with the new reality. Bava b. Buta thus emerges as a true source of strength, capable of outwitting the powerful Romans, despite the outward appearance of weakness.

The Romans Response

Herod rebuilds the Temple at the behest of Bava b. Buta, and also follows the Sage’s advice in outsmarting the Romans.

עבד הכי. שלחו ליה. אם לא סתרת אל תסתור. ואם סתרת אל תבנה. ואם סתרת ובנית עבדת בישא בתר דעבדין מתמלכין.
He did so. They [the Romans] sent to him, “If you have not razed it, do not raze it. And if you have razed it, do not build it.  And if you have razed it and built it, then you are an evil slave who consults after [already] acting.
אם זינך עלך סיפרך כאן. את לא רכה ולא בר רכה הורודוס עבדא קלינא מיתעבד.
Although your weapons are with you, your book [of genealogy] is here.  You are not a king [rekha], nor the son of a king [bar rekha], but Herod, a slave, who made himself a freeman.”[11]

The ploy succeeds, though Herod is called to account for his machinations. The Romans put him squarely in his place, emphasizing once more that he is in fact nothing but an “evil slave,” with no royal blood. They possess the scroll of his genealogy that documents his servile origins.

As some scholars have noted, the Romans’ words may also contain a double entendre.[12] The phrase, בתר דעבדין מתמלכין, in context meaning “consults (מתמלכין) after acting (בתר דעבדין)” can also be read as “after being slaves (בתר דעבדין) they become king (מתמלכין).” This alternative understanding functions as an additional rebuke to Herod, reminding him that he was a slave who became king and reigns at the whim of his Roman masters.

Two Talmudic Appendices

The story proper ends with the Roman rebuke, but concludes with two brief glosses that serve as types of appendices.  

The Meaning of Rekha

The first appendix explains the etymology of the term used for king, rekha, as the rabbinic audience would expect the typical Aramaic word, malka. This word probably derives from rex, the Latin for “king,” but the glossator wished to offer a midrashic explanation or two. He draws on a verse where the king is described as “soft” (rakh), and on the Aramaic translation (Targum) of the Torah that takes the obscure word that Joseph is called, avrekh, as father (av) of the king (rekh).

ומנלן דהא רכה לישנא דמלכותא הוא? דכת’ ואנכי היום רך ומשוח ומלך
How do we know that this word “rekha [rex]” is the language of kingship? As is written, I am weak (rakh) even though appointed king  (2 Sam 3:39).
ואיבעית אימא. ויקראו לפניו אבריך ומתרגמין אבא למלכא.
And some say [from here], And they cried before him Avrekh (Gen 41:43), and we translate [in the Aramaic Targum], Father of the king.

The Beauty of Herod’s Temple

The second appendix invokes a tradition found in the Tosefta that praises the beauty of Herod’s Temple, and then explains the source of its splendor, namely the different colored stones from which it was built. This glossator adds that Herod considered covering it with gold to further enhance its beauty, not realizing that this covering would detract from the stunning appearance of waves created by the alternating colors of its stones. The Sages, with their superior aesthetic sense, advised Herod against this policy.

אמרו. מי שלא ראה בינין הורודוס לא ראה בנין מפואר מעולם. במאי בנייה באבני שישא  ומרמרא. איכא דאמרי באבני שישא כוחלא ומרמרא. אפיק שפא ועייל שפא כי היכי דליקביל סידא. סבר למישעיה בדהבא. אמרו ליה רבנן. שבקיה דהכי שפיר טפי דמחזי כאורוותא דמיא.
They said: He who never saw the Building of Herod never saw a beautiful building. With what did he build it? With stones of alabaster and marble. Some say with stones of alabaster, stibnite and marble. One row went in and one went out so that it could be plastered.  He [Herod] thought of covering it with gold.  The Sages said to him, “Leave it alone, as it is more beautiful thus, as it looks like the waves of water.”

Again, the storyteller takes credit away from Herod and confers it upon the Sages.[13] Not only did a sage, Bava b. Buta, give Herod the idea to rebuild the Temple and advise him how to accomplish the task by deceiving the Romans, but the Sages are also responsible for the amazing beauty of the (so-called) “Building of Herod,” as Herod himself would have diminished its grandeur. The contrast between the inferior covering (despite it consisting of gold) as opposed to inner beauty rehearses the theme of the disparity between superficial appearance and the deeper truth.

The Message of the Herod Tale: Demoting Herod and Promoting the Rabbis

Herod presented a theological conundrum for the Rabbis because he was a murderous and sinful king who nevertheless had the incredible merit of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. How can that contradiction be explained? The storyteller’s strategy is to reduce the credit due to Herod as much as possible. He construes the rebuilding of the Temple as the suggestion of a Sage and as penance for Herod’s crimes. Nor would Herod have been able to accomplish the task were it not for Bava b. Buta’s advice as to how to circumvent Roman opposition. Even the Temple’s great beauty was due to the Rabbis’ counsel.

Sight and Vision

The storyteller emphasizes that outward appearances can be deceiving and masks the true reality.[14]

  • Herod appears to be king, but is in fact a lowly slave, as his own words and the Roman messages reveal.
  • Herod attempts to make it look like the Hasmonean princess is alive when in truth she is dead.
  • Herod believes the Sages oppose him when in fact they do not.
  • It might appear that Herod deserves credit for reconstructing the Temple, but in fact the entire enterprise was the initiative of the Rabbis.
  • Gold veneer would appear to enhance the beauty of the Temple, but actually detracts from it.

However, the Rabbis, the rightful interpreters of Scripture, can penetrate beyond superficial appearance to the inner truth. Despite (or because of) Bava b. Buta’s lack of sight, he cannot be deceived by appearances, namely Herod pretending to be someone else.  Likewise, Bava b. Buta understands the true historical moment, that it is time to renovate the Temple despite Roman opposition, and successfully brings it about.

The Prophetic Voice?

The storyteller tries to explain why Herod became king in the first place by employing a supernatural, prophetic “voice” that revealed the opportune time for rebellion.  We should not think that God authorized Herod specifically, but that Herod luckily (over)heard a prophecy and capitalized on that information. He was not chosen by God (like King David), nor did God support his courageous and pious battle against the enemy (as we might say of the Maccabees/Hasmonean dynasty), but was fortunate to have learned that any slave who rebelled at that favorable time would succeed.

That said, the mechanics of this “bat kol” are far from clear. If we are not dealing with a fully prophetic voice—that is, if it does not stem directly from God—what exactly is its source and power? Further, even if it was not directed to Herod specifically, why provide such a general time for rebellion and allow the wicked to take advantage of the opportunity? And even if the Hasmoneans themselves had become corrupt and should not have become kings, as some sources suggest, why allow someone like Herod to replace them? Uncovering the Persian sources of the  Talmud’s account of Herod,  may help us answer these questions.



Prof. Rabbi Jeffrey L. Rubenstein is Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature at New York University.  He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Religion of Columbia University and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. His books include, The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods (1995); Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (1999), Rabbinic Stories (Classics of Western Spirituality Series, 2002),  The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (2003), and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).