Aggadot of the Destruction: The Story of R. Yishmael’s Children

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch

Translated by Kaeren Fish


In the Babylonian Talmud, the aggadot about the Destruction of the Temple are found in the fifth chapter of Massekhet Gittin (55b-58a). The first part of this collection begins with the well-known story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza and continues with other narratives describing up until the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the punishment suffered by Titus. This is followed by stories of destruction of other towns (Beitar, Tur-Malka, etc.). The final part of the collection focuses mainly on more personal stories of tragedy involving individuals or families who suffered from the cruelty of Israel's enemies following the destruction (such as, for example, the account concerning Miriam and her beloved young son). Among these stories, we find one about the son and daughter of R. Yishmael, the Kohen Gadol, and the tragedy that befell them following the destruction (Gittin 58a).[1]

It happened that the son and daughter of R. Yishmael ben Elisha were taken captive and sold to two different masters. Later, these two [masters] met at a certain place. One said, “I have a servant who is unparalleled in beauty anywhere in the world.” The other said, “I have a maidservant who is unparalleled in beauty anywhere in the world.” They said, “Let us marry them to each other, and we will share their offspring.”

They put them into a room. He sat in one corner and she sat in the other corner. He said, “I am a kohen, a descendant of Kohanim Gedolim. Shall I then marry a maidservant?” She said, “I am a kohenet, a descendant of Kohanim Gedolim. Shall I then marry a servant?” They sat and wept all night. When dawn broke, the recognized one another, and fell upon one another and sobbed until their souls left them.

Concerning them, Yirmiyahu laments (Eikha 1), “For these I weep…”

The story can be divided into three parts: the first includes the introduction and the scheme concocted by the two masters; the second part is the night that the two children spend together in the room; and the third part is the discovery of each other's identities and the conclusion.

The different parts of the story are connected to one another through the literary molding, as demonstrated by Prof. Yonah Fraenkel.[2] The first part, recounting the plot by the masters, linguistically parallels the third part, which turns the plot on its head:

Part 1: They said, “Let us marry them to one another (zeh la-zeh)."

Part 3: They recognized one another (zeh et zeh) and fell upon one another (zeh al zeh).

This connection is not incidental, for it is thanks to their mutual identification as brother and sister that they ultimately foil the scheme of marrying them to one another. Fraenkel also notes the dynamics of the changing appellations for these characters, which guide the plot and divide the story into its parts. In the first part, they are transformed from "the son and daughter of R. Yishmael" into a "servant" and "maidservant" in the words of the masters. The status of a manservant and maidservant as subservient to the authority of their masters and as requiring them to do whatever they are instructed to is supposed to ensure the success of the scheme. Indeed, this is their actual status at this point.

In the second part of the story, the words of the son and the daughter reflect an intermediate situation. Each refers to him/herself as the son/daughter of kohanim, while the other is referred to as a servant/maidservant. In other words, half of the truth is revealed.

In the third part, there are no appellations; instead, there is full, unmediated recognition. Each is aware of the status of the other, and thus the plot is foiled.

There are additional aspects of the molding of the story which are worthy of attention, and to this end we shall attempt a close and sensitive reading of the story.

Part I – Introduction and the Plot

The situation described in the first part of the story (following the initial explanatory background telling us that the son and daughter of R. Yishmael were taken into captivity and sold to two different masters) is that the two masters tell each other about their "bounty" and concoct their scheme. The captives are described at first as a manservant and a maidservant. This is a great humiliation for children raised in the noble and holy family of Kohanim Gedolim. However, the manner in which the masters express themselves – "Let us marry them to each other, and we will share their offspring" – brings their level even lower. This suggestion creates an association with animals sold at the market for breeding purposes. Treating the captives in this manner, like animals whose offspring possess only monetary value, is the moment of greatest debasement.

It should be noted, however, that this formulation testifies not only to the depths to which the status of the captives has fallen, but also to the depths of human vulgarity characterizing the masters. Their treatment of the captives like animals and their assumption that if the boy and girl spend a night together in the same room they will automatically engage in sexual relations – an act which, from the point of view of the captors, is of no greater significance than the mating of animals – testifies, above all, to the animalistic nature of the masters themselves. There is some irony in the fact that the captors view the captives as animals, but the text reveals their own animalistic thinking and values. Seemingly, aside from the aim of describing the background to the incident and introducing the readers to the plot, the purpose of the first part of the story is to present the captors, representatives of Roman culture, as vulgar and animalistic people.

Part II – The Night

This is the central part of the story. Although from a dramatic point of view, the story’s climax is in the third part, it would seem that the second part of the story contains the most important statement concerning the situation of Jews in exile as reflected in this incident.

Part 2 focuses exclusively on the captives – the son and daughter of R. Yishmael. It is readily apparent that the sketching of these two characters maintains a meticulous symmetry:

He sat in a corner

And she sat in a corner;

He said, "I am a kohen, a descendant of Kohanim Gedolim. Shall I then marry a maidservant?”

She said, “I am a kohenet, a descendant of Kohanim Gedolim. Shall I then marry a servant?"

In fact, the symmetry in the description of the captives starts earlier on, in the first part of the story, when the masters compare their servants:

One said, “I have a servant who is unparalleled in beauty anywhere in the world.”

The other said, “I have a maidservant who is unparalleled in beauty anywhere in the world."

However, this trend is intensified greatly in the second part of the story.

The symmetry of the description reflects the fact that there is complete harmony between the two siblings, even though they are altogether unaware of it throughout the night. Ultimately, this harmony leads them to the final image, in which they are united and their souls leave them at the same time, foiling the scheme of the captors.

In addition, it would seem that one of the functions of the complete symmetry in these descriptions is to highlight very clearly, in the middle section of the story, the terrible loneliness in which each of them is immersed. Each sibling experiences a terrible night; each is unaware of the identity of the other; and from the words that each of them utters it is clear that each truly believes that the other is a servant. This creates great anxiety, in two senses. In the practical sense, each believes the other to be a servant, and since servants are presumed to be licentious and lacking in moral restraint,[3] each fears that at some point the other party is going to force impure physical relations upon him/her. Beyond this, on the level of conscious perception, the thought that the other person is a servant serves to amplify the sense of a sharp fall from their previous status. The descendant of a line of Kohanim Gedolim is to marry a servant – a situation prohibited to any Israelite, and all the more so to kohanim.[4]

The most difficult feeling aroused in the reader is one of a sudden, sharp fall from the highest level – a place of nobility and great honor – to the lowest. It is a sense of all the familiar parameters of order suddenly being undermined. There is a sort of security that each of us places in these regular, familiar frameworks of order, and when they are shaken or disappear altogether, one finds himself not only in physical danger, but also – even worse – having the sense that one's entire identity and essence have been turned upside down. A person in such a situation loses any anchor that lent stability to his previous life, and this psychological difficulty is even harder to bear than the physical subjugation.

Beyond the sharp fall "from the loftiest heights to the lowest depths," the narrator seeks to convey to the reader the meaning of exile – not in the usual sense of the world, a community living outside of the Land of Israel, but rather in the primal sense of a person who personally experiences a forced transition from his home to a place of exile, of homelessness. One of the most central feelings characterizing exile, as experienced by the children of R. Yishmael, is loneliness and alienation. The transition from a familiar environment to one that is foreign, to homelessness, is also bound up with the loss of the social and family anchors of one's familiar world, such that one is confronted with the harsh reality of each individual being left to his own fate. In fact, this story is not just the description of what happened to the children of the Kohen Gadol, but rather a vignette that attempts to convey to the reader the feelings of a person who is exiled.

The great existential loneliness in which Rabbi Yishmael's children find themselves is expressed in the night they experience. Each is in the room with his/her sibling. The perfect symmetry of the descriptions serves to amplify the sense of the profound bond between them. These are a brother and sister who have grown up together and apparently were very close – perhaps even twins.[5] Why do they not identify one another? Obviously, the room is dark, and perhaps some years have passed since they have last seen each other. Nevertheless, once they are alone together in a room, weeping, one would expect them to recognize each other at some point – through voice, smell, or any other signal by which siblings might recognize one another even in the dark.

This pair fails to identify each other because of the psychological state in which each of them is immersed. The loneliness is so profound that neither of them imagines that the other is feeling the same way. Each secludes him/herself in the corner and weeps over his/her bitter fate, without devoting a moment's thought to the feelings of the other, who remains foreign. Were either of them to leave off thinking about him/herself for a moment, he/she would hear the weeping of the other, and then – even if the voice was not recognized – they could have experienced some closeness, spoken together, and perhaps brought about a level of unity and partnership that might have thwarted the plan of the masters.

However, throughout the entire night, this does not happen, because the state of exile imposes a loneliness that is so immanent, undoing any sort of order, connection, or trust in people, that the possibility never even occurs to them. In this way, it is the middle part of the story that conveys the most powerful sense of the essence of exile, even though the dramatic climax is found, as noted, in the third and final part of the story.

Part III - Reunification  

When morning comes and the room is illuminated, the siblings cannot but recognize one another. Now they are united, and there is a sudden intensification of their weeping, which has lasted throughout the night. We may surmise that this intense sobbing arises from the combination of the joy upon discovering one another and commiseration over their common bitter fate. This sobbing recalls the meeting between Yosef and Binyamin (Bereishit 45:14) and between Yosef and Yaakov (ibid., 46:29), including both the incredulous joy of the encounter and the accumulated sorrow and pain of all the years of separation.

It seems that in the story in Gittin, the intensification of the weeping also contains an element of horror at the thought of the terrible misdeed that could have taken place if the scheme of the captors had been realized (even though the captors themselves were not aware of it), and which had been avoided thanks to the insistence of each of them on maintaining his/her purity – not the marriage of a kohen to a servant, but rather the far more fundamental prohibition of incest.

The expression "ga'u bi-v'chiya" (sobbed) once again recalls something of the animal kingdom, like the attitude of the captors as viewed in the first part of the story. Here, however, it would seem while the previous image created a sense of loathing towards the captors, the story now takes the animalistic image in a different direction. The association with a bellowing animal evokes something innocent or primal; it evokes the helplessness of a caged animal that has no way of escape.

Finally, their souls leave them at the same moment. This is a tragic conclusion, but it also includes an element of grace. In their particular situation, death is the only alternative to the scheme of the captors; this joint death is the greatest kindness that God can offer them. In their death, they achieve a small victory over their captors; this is the greatest victory possible in exile.

The Motif of the Sharp Fall

The sense of sudden and sharp transition from a solid, safe order to loss relates not only to the specific story of the children of R. Yishmael, but rather reflects the Destruction in general as reflected in Massekhet Gittin. This is expressed in the fact that other stories that are cited as part of the discussion depict the same fall. For example, the opening narrative about Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza describes a sumptuous feast held by one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem. The readers know that the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem is imminent, but the richest elements of Jerusalem society are living in a bubble. Both the host and the guests sit at the feast as though all is well, concerning themselves with nothing more ominous than the question of who is invited and who is not. A banquet – especially an opulent, festive banquet – is a symbol of normality, of the normal flow of life, even the good life. But the descent into total destruction is so rapid (at least in the story, which occupies just a few lines), that here too we have a sense of the unfathomable gap and the sharp fall from the situation at the beginning of the story to the situation at its conclusion.

The motif of food serves to express this transition in another story that appears within the same sugya (56a):

Marta, daughter of Baytus, was one of the wealthiest people in Jerusalem. She sent her servant to the market, instructing him: “Go and bring me the finest type of meal.” By the time the servant arrived there, all the fine meal was already gone. He returned and told her, “The fine meal is already gone, but there is white flour.” By the time he got there, it too was gone. He returned and told her, “There is no white meal, but there is dark meal.” By the time he got there, even that was gone. He returned and told her, “There is no wheat flour, but there is barley flour.” When he got there even this had been sold out. She put on her shoes, saying, “I shall go myself and see if I can find something to eat.” She stepped in some filth, and [owing to her great delicacy] she died. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai recited over her the verse (Devarim 28), "The tender and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot upon the ground…"

This Marta daughter of Baytus, exceedingly rich and accustomed to eating only the finest and most refined foods, sends her servant to buy some fine flour. Each time the servant sets out for the market, he is given instructions to compromise on flour of ever-lower grade, something which he would evidently not dare to do on his own initiative, since he is familiar with his mistress's habits and thinks that anything less than the finest flour is not befitting her station. Eventually, nothing at all remains, and she sets off herself to seek leftover food in the streets. There, she steps into some animal droppings, and owing to her great delicacy, this is enough to cause her to die. Here too, then, the narrative emphasizes the sharp fall "from the loftiest heights to the lowest depths."

Thus, the Gemara chooses to tell us the story of the Destruction through the eyes of the top echelons of Jerusalem society, those who, in an instant, fall from their elevated, pampered status to the depths of degradation. It seems that the story of the children of R. Yishmael forms part of this general picture. The narratives that form this sugya in Massekhet Gittin are, in fact, symbolic of the sudden transition that befalls Am Yisrael with the destruction of the Temple.


[1] The story is also found in the form of a piyyut / lamentation among the kinot for Tish'a be-Av. (In Ashkenazi printings, the piyyut by R. Yechiel is entitled "Ve-et noi chatati ha-shamayma"; in the Sefardi kinot, the title is, "Eikh noi chatati ha-Shamayma.")

[2]  Y. Fraenkel, Sippur ha-Aggada – Achdut shel Tochen ve-Tzura (Tel Aviv 5761), pp. 240-243.

[3] See, for example, Gittin 5b.

[4]  In terms of halakha, the situation is more complicated for the man who himself is a kohen than it is for a woman who is the daughter of a kohen. While the daughter of a kohen is forbidden to cohabit with a servant, as is any Israelite, a kohen also carries a special prohibition concerning cohabiting with a maidservant; see Yevamot 61a-b; Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations 18:1-5; Ra'avad and commentaries ad loc.

[5]  This refers not to the historical truth, which is unknown, but rather the impression arising from the perfect symmetry between the siblings.