Shiur #01: The Aggada Concerning Herod and Its Meaning

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch

I. A General Introduction to this Series


In the framework of this series of shiurim we will, God willing, occupy ourselves with aggadot found in the Talmud, primarily the Babylonian Talmud.

Many types of aggadot are found in the Talmud: stories, aggadic expositions of verses, parables, sayings, and more. Our study will focus on the stories, especially those falling into the category of "sage stories." Before we begin our examination of the stories themselves, let us briefly address two important characteristics of talmudic aggadot that will occupy us over the course of this series of shiurim: the literary design of the aggada and the aggada's context within the broader talmudic passage.

Literary Design

The study of the aggadot found in the Talmud in general, and of the stories in particular, differs from the study of the halakhic discussions which comprise the greater part of the Talmud. Many have already noted that Chazal designed the aggadic stories that they created using various literary devices, and exposing this design through literary analysis sheds light on the content and messages that Chazal wished to express.[1] We will, therefore, devote a large part of our study to an examination of literary design, and demonstrate how exposing the design, and especially the structures of the stories and their linguistic formulation, enriches our understanding of the themes, issues and content of the stories and their messages.

The Aggada’s context within the broader Talmudic Passage

The aggadot recorded in the Talmud do not exist in a vacuum. They are found within a specific talmudic context: often we are dealing with a halakhic context, where the aggada is integrated into a halakhic discussion of a passage in the Mishna. Frequently, the aggada closes the discussion, or even opens it. Elsewhere, the broader context of the aggada is strictly aggadic, especially in passages consisting of a series of stories or homiletical expositions. Sometimes, it appears that the relationship between the aggada and its context is strictly associative-technical – for example, when the aggada mentions the name of a certain sage or matter that had been mentioned earlier in a halakhic discussion. At times, however, an examination of the broader context of the aggada reveals new meanings, and sometimes even suggests a new reading of the entire aggada, which differs from the way it can be read independently, detached from its context. Our examination of the Aggada in the context of the passage in the Babylonian Talmud will occasionally involve a comparison with the parallel sources (e.g. the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the Midrash) that contain the same aggada, often dressed in a different garb. We will occupy ourselves with the context when we find meaningful (and not merely associative-technical) connections between an aggada and the halakhic passage in which it appears.

We will open with an examination of a relatively long aggada concerning King Herod that appears in one of the first passages in tractate Bava Batra. We will see how the aggada’s literary design contributes to its themes and latent messages.

II. The Aggada concerning King Herod

            The aggada concerning King Herod appears in Bava Batra 3b-4b. Its immediate context is a discussion (3b) dealing with the prohibition to demolish a synagogue, even if the demolition is done in order to make room for its reconstruction. Against this background, the Talmud asks how it is that Bava ben Buta advised Herod to demolish the Temple in order to rebuild it. After offering two answers, the Talmud presents the following aggada:[2]

1. Herod was the slave of the Hasmonean house,

2. and had set his eyes on a certain maiden [of that house].

3. One day he heard a Heavenly Voice say:

4. "Every slave that rebels now will succeed."

5. So he rose and killed all the members of his master's household,

6. but spared that maiden.

7. When she saw that he wanted to marry her,

8. she went up on to a roof and cried out:

9. "Whoever comes and says, I am from the Hasmonean house, is a slave,

10. since I alone am left of it,

11. and I am throwing myself down from this roof."

12. He preserved her body in honey for seven years.

13. Some say that he had intercourse with her,

14. others [say] he did not.

15. According to those who say that he had intercourse with her, his reason for embalming her was to gratify his desires.

16. According to those who say that he did not have intercourse with her, his reason was that people might say that he had married a king's daughter.


17. He said: "Who are they, who teach: 'From among your brothers you shall set up a king over you' (Devarim 17:15), [stressing the word 'brothers']? The Rabbis!"

18. He therefore arose and killed all the Rabbis,

19. sparing, however, Bava ben Buta, that he might take counsel of him.

20. He placed on his head a garland of hedgehog bristles

21. and put out his eyes.


22. One day [Herod] came and sat before [Bava ben Buta] and said:

23. "See, sir, what this wicked slave [Herod] does."

24. "What do you want me to do to him?" replied Bava ben Buta.

25. [Herod] said: "I want you to curse him."

26. [Bava ben Buta] replied with the verse: "Even in your thoughts you should not curse a king" (Kohelet 10:20).

27. [Herod] said to him: "But this is no king."

28. [Bava ben Buta] replied: "Even though he be only a rich man,

29. it is written: 'And in your bedchamber do not curse the rich' (Kohelet 10:20).

30. And be he no more than a prince,

31. it is written: 'A prince among your people you shall not curse' (Shemot 22:27)."

32.  [Herod] said to him: "This applies only to one who acts as one of 'your people,'

33. but this man does not act as one of your people."

34. He said: "I am afraid of him."

35. [Herod] said to him: "But there is nobody who can go and tell him, since we two are quite alone."

36. He replied: "It is written: 'For a bird of the heaven shall carry the voice and that which has wings shall tell the matter' (Kohelet 10:20).

37. [Herod] then said: "I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, I should not have killed them.

38. Now tell me what amends I can make."

39. [Bava ben Buta] replied: "As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Rabbis are called] as it is written: 'For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp' (Mishlei 6:23),

40. go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple, of which] it is written: 'And all the nations become enlightened by it' (Yeshaya 2:2)."

41. Some report that [Bava ben Buta] answered him thus: "As you have blinded the eye of the world, [for so the Rabbis are called] as it is written: 'If it be done unwittingly by the eyes of the congregation' (Bemidbar 15:24),

42. go now and attend to the eye of the world, [which is the Temple], as it is written: 'I will profane My sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes' (Yechezkel 24:21)."

43. [Herod] replied: "I am afraid of the kingdom [of Rome]."

44. {Bava ben Buta] said: "Send an envoy, and let him take a year on the way and stay in Rome a year and take a year coming back, and in the meantime you can pull down the Temple and rebuild it."


45. [Herod] did so.

46. He received the following message [from Rome]: "If you have not yet pulled it down, do not do so; if you have pulled it down, do not rebuild it;

47. if you have pulled it down and already rebuilt it, you are one of those bad servants who do first and ask permission afterwards.

48. Though you strut with your sword, your genealogy is here; [we know] you are neither a reka nor the son of a reka,

49. but Herod the slave who has made himself a freedman. 50. What is the meaning of reka? It means royalty, as it is written: "I am this day rak and anointed king" (II Shemuel 3:39).

51. Or if you like, I can derive the meaning from this verse: "And they cried before him, Avrekh [father of the king]" (Bereishit 41:43).


52. It used to be said: He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building.

53. Of what did he build it? Rabba said: Of yellow and white marble.

53. Some say: Of blue, yellow and white marble.

54. Alternate rows [of the stones] projected, so as to leave a place for cement.

55. He originally intended to cover it with gold, but the Rabbis advised him not to, since it was more beautiful as it was, looking like the waves of the sea.


III. The Main Themes of the Story

The Key Words in the Story

            This aggada is long and complex, and this framework does not allow us to examine all of its aspects. For now we will note two main themes that are woven throughout the story and expressed through the recurring key-words: slave-king, and eye-seeing-hearing.  

Slave King[3]

The root a-b-d, in the sense of slavery, appears six times in the story (lines 1, 4, 9, 23, 47, 49).[4] The root, m-l-kh, in the sense of king, appears seven times in the story (lines 16, 17, 26, 27, 43, 50 twice).

Herod is initially a slave, who aspires to rule, and when the opportunity presents itself, he takes over the kingdom by force, killing the entire royal family. Throughout the story tension revolves around the question of the status of Herod as king and the degree of his reign's legitimacy: does a slave who ascends the throne by force become a king, or does he in essence remain a slave? This tension is expressed, in part, by the widespread use of two opposite key-words "king" and "slave."

The challenge to Herod's royal status expresses itself, on the one hand, in circles external to Herod: a Hasmonean maiden challenges it by proclaiming the true status of Herod and his house (9-11). Through her suicide, she prevents him from marrying into the legitimate royal house. The Sages, at least as Herod views them, threaten Herod's status since they expound a biblical verse in such a way that negates the appointment of a gentile king. Finally, the "true" kingdom of that period, the kingdom of Rome (which in our story is referred to as "the kingdom" with no further specification) challenges Herod's royal status with the derisive phrase: "You are one of those bad servants who do first and ask permission afterwards. Though you strut with your sword, your genealogy is here; [we know] you are neither a reka nor the son of a reka, but Herod the slave who has made himself a freedman" (lines 47-49). Thus, the Roman authorities proclaim that even if Herod in fact rules over Judea, and even though he acts against their will, in their eyes he remains a slave.

 On the other hand, Herod also experience internal doubt and insecurity, which lead him repeatedly to attempt to strengthen his position in his own eyes and in the eyes of those surrounding him. When he fails in his attempt to marry the king's daughter, Herod tries (at least according to one view) to create a semblance of marriage to the royal family by preserving the body of the Hasmonean maiden in honey. He kills the Sages, whose very existence appears to him to undermine the legitimacy of his reign. Finally, he blinds Bava ben Buta, and even places a crown of thorns upon his head as a sign of contempt for the sage, an act that once again expresses his insecurity about his own rule. The conversation that he conducts with the blind sage without identifying himself reflects Herod's insecurity regarding his subjects' loyalty. At the end of the conversation, Herod reveals another aspect of his insecurity when he says: "I am afraid" (line 43), which is formulated in identical manner to the words of Bava ben Buta:  "I am afraid" (line 34). Thus Herod creates an ironic comparison between himself and the blind sage who fears him. Herod reveals that his inner self retains the mentality of a slave, and that in his eyes the only absolute kingdom is the kingdom of Rome.

Bava ben Buta makes use of a verse: “Even in your thoughts you should not curse a king, and in your bedchamber do not curse the rich; for a bird of the heaven shall carry the voice and that which has wings shall tell the matter” (Kohelet 10:20). The chapter from which this verse is quoted contains additional verses that contribute significantly to the slave-king theme: "I have seen slaves upon horses, and princes walking as slaves on the earth" (7); "Happy are you, O land, when your king is a man of dignity" (17). It is difficult to ignore the silent cry of the story when it alludes to this chapter.

Another literary device in the story that illustrates the slave-king tension is the sophisticated play on words found in the message sent to Herod by the Romans: "Avdi bisha batar de'avdin mitmalkhin." The plain meaning of this is: You are one of those bad servants [avdi] who do [avdin] first and ask permission [mitmalkhin] afterwards." But the use of the key-words a-b-d and m-l-kh creates a second meaning that connects with our theme: "Bad servants, after being slaves, try to become kings." As is stated in the continuation, for the Romans this process is meaningless: the slave remains a slave.


The root a-y-n, in the sense of eye, appears four times in the story (lines 2, 21, 41, 42), and the root r-a-h (or the Aramaic equivalent, ch-z-y, in the sense of see, appears four times (7, 23, 52, 56).

The story presents sight as a sense that has many limitations, and is often misleading or deceptive. This idea is intensified in light of Herod's attempts to turn himself from slave to king by creating various optical illusions.

The story opens with Herod "setting his eyes" on a Hasmonean maiden, whom he will eventually preserve in honey for seven years, thus creating an optical illusion, directed inward or outward (depending on the two versions), that she is still alive. In a certain sense, killing the sages works in the same direction: Herod thinks that physically killing the sages will nullify their teachings and the inner truth they express.

Herod's encounter with Bava ben Buta is, in great measure, built on the symbolism of the sense of sight and its meaning. Herod, who blinded Bava ben Buta, comes to him assuming that the latter is now in an inferior position. The story emphasizes the irony in Herod's opening sentence: "See, sir, what this wicked slave [Herod] does."[5] Herod mocks the sage, emphasizing his inferiority. But very quickly the picture reverses itself, and it turns out that the blind sage enjoys the superior position. Bava ben Buta, whether or not he knows who is standing before him, dominates the conversation in an ironic manner. All of Herod's attempts to get Bava ben Buta to say something for which he could be punished are fruitless. The story presents the inferiority of the sense of sight, since it is the blind who often see the truth. Herod, who thought that he would cause Bava ben Buta to stumble, finds himself admitting his failure to Bava ben Buta, and asking for advice on how to make amends.

In his response, Bava ben Buta emphasizes the idea of seeing (line 39 and on): "As you have extinguished the light of the world / As you have blinded the eye of the world… go now and attend to the light / the eye of the world." The word eino is used here in a twofold sense: the simple, literal meaning, the eye of Bava ben Buta that was blinded, and the metaphorical meaning, the sages as the light / the eye of the world. Here the story once again alludes to the idea that true vision is not necessarily the vision of the eyes, but rather something more profound. The eye of the world is the sages, who represent the Torah and wisdom, and is not connected to any external seeing.

The repair proposed for Herod's sins is also associated with seeing; there, the expression "eye/light of the world" has a double meaning. The metaphorical meaning is clear – the Temple also serves as "the eye of the world," owing to the Torah that emerges from it. But there is also a physical meaning, since Herod's repair is connected to the external faחade and thus a beautification of the external appearance of the Temple. Herod wishes to plate the Temple with gold, which may parallel his earlier attempt to preserve the Hasmonean maiden in golden honey. Herod, even when he attempts to make amends, acts as Herod, addressing external appearances.

The limitations of the sense of sight are presented by way of comparison to the sense of hearing. As opposed to the sense of sight, that which is received in the story through the sense of hearing is true, and not merely an allusion: the Heavenly Voice heard by Herod; the Hasmonean maiden who raises her voice with an inner truth that runs through the entire story; Bava ben Buta's response to Herod's assertion that they are alone ("For a bird of the heaven shall carry the voice…"). In contrast to sight, which is limited to those present, sound is not limited by walls (both in the physical and the metaphorical sense), and whatever has been uttered will eventually be revealed.[6]

IV. Conclusion

In this aggada about Herod, we have seen two main themes, between which there is a substantive connection.

The first theme is that of slave-king, and it deals with the question of whether or not a slave can become a king by means of brute force. The aggada teaches that this is impossible, and even mocks Herod's repeated attempts to bestow legitimacy upon his rule.

The second theme is the sense of sight. Sight, in our story, reveals the superficial layers of things, but is often misleading and unable to reveal a true inner essence. This theme reinforces the fact that Herod, who acts in a brutal and murderous manner, manages in the end to affect only the external dimension of things, which is often the same dimension captured through the sense of vision. The sage Bava ben Buta, whose sight is taken away from him, overcomes Herod, thus exposing the weakness of the facade that Herod tries to create in order to gain legitimacy for his kingdom.


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] See, in this context, the various articles and books of Prof. Yonah Fraenkel, including: Darkhei ha-Aggada ve-ha-Midrash, Givatayim 1991; Iyyunim be-Olamam shel Sippur ha-Aggada, Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me'uchad 1981; Sippur ha-AggadaAchdut shel Tokhen ve-Tzura; Kovetz Mechkarim, Ha-Kibbutz ha-Me'uchad 2001.

[2] I have divided the aggada into lines in order to facilitate its reading and provide references for specific passages. I have also divided the aggada into sections, which are marked by a space between the lines.

[3] In a secondary manner, it is also possible to talk about the theme of sage-king in the second half of the story, in which Herod kills the Sages and contends with Bava ben Buta. It is possible that there is an allusion to the question of who is true king, based on the statement in Gittin 62a: "From where do we know that the Sages are called kings… As it is written: 'By Me kings reign' (Mishlei 8:15).”

[4] The root a-b-d also appears four more times in the sense of doing (lines 23, 24, 46, 48).

[5] This statement also expresses the previous motif: Herod calls himself a slave [eved], and Bava ben Buta responds with a play on words: "What do you want me to do [a'avid] to him."

[6] The Nazir (Rav David Cohen), in his book, Kol ha-Nevu'a, expresses a similar idea regarding the relationship between the sense of sight and the sense of hearing. In practice, however, the sense of sight can also reveal the truth, and the sense of hearing has its own limitations. Our story emphasizes and highlights the deficiencies and dangers of the sense of sight.