Memorializing the Temple through the Maternal Practice of ‘Arakhin

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.

Women of all cultures praying at the Western Wall. Meaghan O'Neill / flickr 2.0

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 
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. 
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.
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 of ‘Arakhin

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/she[7] 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
נותן משקלו  אם כסף כסף אם זהב זהב
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.
מעשה באמה של ירמטיה שאמרה משקל בתי עלי ועלתה לירושלי ושקלוה ונתנה משקלה זהב
A story about the mother of Yarmatyah[11] who said, “The weight of my daughter is upon me.”[12] 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 in Tandem: Female Devotion and Pilgrimage to the Temple

Reading the story about the mother of Yarmatyah[13] 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]

For example,

  • 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.



Dr. Jane L. Kanarek is Associate Professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College. She is the author of Biblical Narrative and the Formation of Rabbinic Law (Cambridge, 2014). She is a co-editor of two forthcoming books: With Marjorie Lehman, Learning to Read Talmud: What It Looks Like and How It Happens (Academic Studies Press, 2016) and with Marjorie Lehman and Simon J. Bronner, Motherhood in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2017).