This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Founding of Jerusalem: A Palestinian Midrash?*

The following story is probably familiar to most of my readers. I have heard it told on innumerable occasions from the pulpits of synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora.

According to the tale, there long ago lived two brothers who shared a field whose crops they used to divide equally. One of the brothers was a bachelor, and the other a married man with many children. Once, during the harvest, each of them felt pity for the other. The bachelor was worried that his brother did not have enough to feed his household, while the bachelor had concern for his brother's solitude. In the dark of the night each of them would carry some sheaves of produce to the other's house, and in the morning each would be astonished to discover that their own supplies had not diminished. This went on for several days and nights until the two finally met tearfully during one of their nocturnal errands. At that point it was decreed from above that this was the place upon which it would be fitting to establish God's Holy Temple.

The rabbis who tell this moving story, often in connection with Jerusalem day, usually cite it as a Talmudic legend taken from the "midrash." Making allowances for the limitations of my own erudition, I was always troubled that I had not encountered the story of the two brothers in any of the standard compendia of rabbinic lore. As it turns out, the same problem had troubled a more capable scholar than myself, the late Prof. Alexander Scheiber of Budapest, who devoted a number of special studies to the history of the legend.

According to Scheiber's researches, the earliest attestation of the story appears in the writings of Alphonse de Lamartine, a noted French author with an affection for the Bible and its land. He claims to have heard it from the mouth of an Arab peasant during a journey through the Holy Land in 1832. The literary record of that journey was published in 1835.

From that point on, versions of the tale began to appear in several European languages, including German and Hungarian. It also found its way into Jewish writings, such as the moralistic anthology Mikveh Yisra'el by Rabbi Israel Costa of Livorno, Italy, which was published in 1851 and a collection of miracle tales (Ma'aseh Nissim) that was printed in Baghdad around the turn of the century.

The story has become so familiar that many knowledgeable Jews are convinced that it is indeed a talmudic Aggadah. Some have insisted that the Arabs might be preserving an originally Jewish tradition that for some reason was not recorded in our own literature.

The fact is that even in ancient times it was not uncommon for foreign legends and fables to find their way into the volumes of Talmudic and Midrashic teachings. Our rabbis did not live in isolation from their surroundings, and recognized that an edifying teaching is worth retelling no matter what its source. The concept of "midrash" is accordingly a dynamic one, and there is nothing inherently novel or unacceptable about receiving an Arab folk-tale into the family of Jewish legend. Indeed, the story of "the two brothers" accurately reflects the traditional reverence which Islam has always held for the site of the "Bait al-muqdasah" (the Temple) and its builder, King Solomon. The story, by the way, is still part of the living oral tradition of the Palestinian Arabs.

The main purpose of the legend was to emphasize the values of peace, compassion and brotherly love that are symbolized by Jerusalem and the Temple. Is it not therefore doubly appropriate that in admitting (or repatriating) this story into Jewish tradition we should have to express a debt of gratitude precisely to those cousins with regard to whom it has been so difficult to realize those very ideals!

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: Jewish Free Press, May 5 1994.


  • A. Scheiber, "La Légende de l'emplacement du Temple de Jérusalem," in: Essays in Jewish Folklore and Comparative Literature, Budapest, 1955.