Aggadot of the Destruction: The Story of Rabbi Tzadok’s Children

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch

Translated by David Strauss


I. Introduction

            In last year’s Tisha Be-Av shiur, we dealt with the story of Rabbi Yishmael's son and daughter who were taken captive by the Romans. That story is recorded in Gittin among the aggadot relating to the destruction of the Temple. An analysis of that story reveals symmetry in the manner in which the son and daughter are presented. On the one hand, this symmetry emphasizes the fundamental identification and closeness between the two siblings; on the other hand, it also highlights the loneliness, the alienation and the mental anguish that they each experienced over the course of that night. Even though they spent the entire night in the same room, they neither recognized each other nor turned to each other.

            In this shiur we will deal with a similar, but still very different, aggada found in Midrash Eikha Rabba.

II. The Children of Rabbi Tzadok Ha-Kohen

The following is the full text of the story of Rabbi Tzadok Ha-kohen’s children, found in Eikha Rabba, 1.


It once happened that two children of [Rabbi] Tzadok, the High Priest, were taken captive, one male and one female. One [child] was taken by one officer and the other [child] was taken by another officer. One [officer] went to a harlot and gave her the male as a payment, and the other [officer] went to a merchant and gave the female in payment for wine, fulfilling what is written: “And they have cast lots for My people; and have given a boy for a harlot, and sold a girl for wine, that they might drink” (Yoel 4:3).

After several days, the harlot went to the wine merchant and said: “I have a Jewish man who looks like the girl you have, let us wed them to one another and let us divide up their offspring.”


They did so.

They closed them both in one room and locked them in.

The girl began to weep.

The boy said: “Why are you weeping?”

She said: “Woe to this daughter of the High Priest, going to marry a slave.”

He said: “Who is your father?”

She said: “Tzadok, the High Priest.”

He said: “Where did you live?”

She said: “In Jerusalem.”

He said: “In which street?”

She said: “In such and such a street.”

He said: “In which courtyard.”

She said: “In such and such a courtyard.”

He said: “What was the sign in your courtyard?”

She said: “Such and such a thing above such and such a thing.”

He said: “Did you have a brother?”

She said: “Yes.”

“What sign did he have?”

She said: “He had a mole on his shoulder, and when he would come back from school he would uncover the mole and I would kiss it.”

He said: “And were someone to show you this mole, would you know it?”

She said: “Yes.”

He uncovered his shoulder to her. She saw and they recognized one another.


They embraced one another, and kissed one another, and wept to each other until their souls departed.

And the Holy Spirit cries out and says: “For these I weep” (Eikha 1:16).

III. Analysis of the Story

The Structure of the Story

Like the story in Gittin, this story too is divided into three parts. In the first part, the characters are presented and the background is explained. The reader is informed of the sequence of events leading up to the meeting between the harlot and the merchant, at which time they devise their malicious plan. In the second part, they execute their plan (“they did so”), and the camera now turns to the children of Tzadok the High Priest, remaining focused on them until the end of the story. In this part of the story, the brother and sister are together in the same room and talk to each other. As in Gittin, the third part of the story describes their reconnection and reunion, as well as their shared deaths.

The Story's Asymmetry

In both this story and the story in Gittin, Chazal emphasize the debasement and degradation that the two siblings suffer. Here the devious plot to mate them and breed them like animals does not surprise us, as the proposal comes from a harlot, whose life's occupation is the commercialization of sexual relations. But the scheme still arouses our disgust, as does the story in Gittin. The description of the soldiers is also particularly blunt, and it expresses the narrator's contempt towards the Roman soldiers in general. The first officer visits with a prostitute and pays her with the captured boy, and the second buys wine, symbolizing drunkenness, in exchange for the girl. The coarseness and crudeness in this entire picture depicts the Roman enemies as base and carnal, and it seems that, as with the story in Gittin, this is one of the goals of the story.

However, one of the striking features in the story in Eikha Rabba is the lack of symmetry between the two siblings, in contrast to the story in Gittin. At the beginning of the story, the fates of the brother and sister are formulated symmetrically: “One [child] was taken by one officer and the other [child] was taken by another officer. One [officer] went to a harlot and gave her the male as a payment, and the other [officer] went to a merchant and gave the female in payment for wine.” However, the symmetry ends here.

What is more, the part where the narrative shifts to the brother and sister opens with a sentence that upsets the symmetry in remarkable fashion: “The girl began to weep.” In sharp contrast to the story in Gittin, here only the sister weeps. As for the brother, not only does he not cry, but he does not understand why his sister is crying: “The boy said: ‘Why are you weeping?’” This gap between the siblings is puzzling. Seemingly they are in the same situation: They are both children of the High Priest, who had been taken as captives by the Romans, and were later sold as objects to people at the very bottom of society. They both stand now at the threshold of the desecration of their sanctity: Each is expected to join in a forbidden and unclean union with another slave. It is quite clear why the sister is crying, and it is difficult to understand why the brother is not doing the same, and what is even more bewildering is that he fails to understand why she is crying. The brother’s question implies empathy or curiosity, seemingly testifying to a certain detachment from his reality. His sister is experiencing the same horrifying reality, but in contrast to her brother, she is exceedingly aware of it, and reacts accordingly.

Another striking point is that even when they stand and talk face to face, they do not recognize each other. This fact is surprising, and here too the story stands in sharp contrast to the story in Gittin, where the moment that the two siblings leave their distant corners and see each other, they immediately recognize each other and embrace.

Loss and Recovery of the Brother's Identity

Various resolutions to these difficulties have been proposed, but it seems to me that the answer lies in the dialogue that takes place between them. Let us consider the conversation from the beginning. The brother's first questions indicate that he does not recognize his sister. But more than that, it seems that he no longer knows himself. When the sister explains that she is weeping because she, the daughter of the High Priest, is about to be married off to a slave, the brother does not respond as we would have expected: “I am not a slave; I too am the son of the High Priest.” Rather, he begins to ask her about her family and where she lives. At a certain point, the reader begins to note that the questions are becoming less general and more specific, as if the brother were asking them based on personal knowledge. This reversal is especially striking when, after having asked who she is and where precisely she lives in Jerusalem, he asks: “What was the sign in your courtyard?” This question certainly sounds like it is based on knowledge. The same may be said regarding the questions about her brother, about whom he would otherwise have no way of knowing. There may be different ways to explain this dialogue, but I would like to suggest that the explanation of this strange conversation lies in the fact that at the outset the brother does not know who he is. He knows that he is now a slave belonging to a prostitute. And it would appear that he even remembers that he came from Jerusalem, and he has a certain familiarity with the city. At the same time, however, he seems to have lost his personal identity; he does not know that he too is the son of the High Priest and he does not even recognize his own sister.

Why doesn’t he remember? It appears from the story that there is an age gap between him and his sister. This follows from the description of how when he would come home from school, she would kiss him on the shoulder where he had a mole (the significance of this element will be discussed below). We may conjecture that when they were captured by the Romans and separated from the rest of their family, he was still a little boy, while she was already a teenager. While in the first part of the story the events are described in a highly dense fashion, as is typical in aggadot, it stands to reason that years have passed since they were separated and taken from Jerusalem by the soldiers, until they reached their current owners. The story is reminiscent of what happened to many families during the Holocaust. In many instances, children were separated from their families at a very tender age. They sometimes adapted so well to their new location that they forgot or suppressed their original identities, until relatives arrived after the war and attempted to restore their identities to them.

As the dialogue proceeds, the brother begins to remember his past. The details described by his sister stimulate hidden points in his memory, and his questions become more and more directed. He no longer asks exclusively out of empathy or curiosity, but rather he seems to be holding on to the end of a rope that arose in his mind and trying to expose more and more of it. The conversation leads him through a process through which he reconstructs his identity.

Here something interesting takes place – a sort of reversal of roles. The brother begins to remember, and at a certain point he regains his identity, realizing that the girl in front of him is his sister, while she does not yet recognize him. In other words, he grasps what is happening before she does. What is more, from the moment they begin to discuss his mole, his questions seem to take her through a process of self-rediscovery similar to his own. From this point on, he directs his questions to bring her to recognize that he is her brother. She finally reaches this recognition when he shows her his mole, and we are then led to the third part of the story – their full and conscious reunion.

“Distinguishing Marks” and “Visual Recognition”

Here we must expand a little on the matter of the mole and its significance in the story. A mole is a type of imperfection, and as Prof. Yonah Fraenkel has already noted, this defect is especially significant for a priest, as it disqualifies him from participating in the divine service.[1] It stands to reason that this had an emotional impact upon the child, the son of the High Priest (in addition to the aesthetic impairment in itself, which can often be challenging for a child). He grew up in a priestly circle, always conscious on the fact that he was blemished, defective and barred from the ultimate purpose of priests – the divine service in the Temple.

We may assume, then, that even before the destruction of the Temple, the brother in our story led a difficult childhood, possibly suffering from social ostracism or rejection. This follows from the manner in which his sister related to his mole. The story describes how every day, when the brother would return from school, his older sister would uncover the mole, his blemish, and kiss it. This is a very maternal response: Instead of being repulsed by the unattractive blemish, she accepts him as he is, and loves him despite the mole. This is also a protective response, apparently intended to counteract the insults that he suffered from his peers because of his blemish. It may be that the mole played a part in the brother’s loss of identity as well: The fact that from the outset he was marked as a deviant and disqualified may have eased its way out. On the other hand, the special maternal and accepting treatment that he received from his older sister, who loved him as he is, may have been what brought him back to his original identity, leading to their emotional reunion at the end of the story.

However, the questions that the siblings asked each other and the way the sister came to recognize her brother have an additional function. The second chapter of Bava Metzi’a, which deals with the laws of restoring lost items to their owners, distinguishes between two methods by which lost property may be claimed by its owner. The most common method is the use of distinguishing marks: When a person claiming ownership of a found object provides a description of the object’s unique markings, this suffices as proof that it indeed belongs to him. But there is also another method, namely, visual recognition.[2] This method is reserved for Torah scholars, whose trustworthiness is beyond question. It allows for a lost article to be returned, even if the person claiming to be its owner cannot describe any distinguishing marks, provided that when he sees it, he claims that he can identify it with certainty as belonging to him, based on “visual recognition.”

Conceptually, it may be argued that these two methods of claiming lost items differ also with respect to the nature of the relationship and familiarity between the person and his property. While the ability to describe a distinguishing mark indicates close familiarity with the object, this familiarity is still external and superficial. Visual recognition, on the other hand, has a more primal element – the relationship with the object is unmediated, more “intimate.” It does not necessarily find expression in the objective, external characteristics of the object, but rather in a strong sense of confidence that “the object is mine.”

Regarding our story, neither sibling recognizes the other through visual recognition. The various questions and answers serve as distinguishing marks. The word “siman” (sign, distinguishing mark) is mentioned explicitly, both with respect to their house and to the mole. The brother finally identifies the house in which he grew up through a certain distinguishing mark that his sister provides. Similarly, the sister recognizes her brother only after she sees a distinguishing mark – his unique mole. In this way, the story expresses the tragedy of the destruction and the exile. A brother and sister who had once been so close to each other, the sister having played a quasi-maternal role for her brother, recognize each other solely on the basis of superficial distinguishing marks. The loneliness and alienation that befell the exiles in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple find sharp and painful expression here.

The story transcends its role as a simple tragedy, using sophisticated literary techniques to communicate to us the experience of terrible loneliness, and alienation to the extent of loss of identity and memory. When people are suddenly cut off from their homes and families, they lose the unmediated connection to familiar things, the basic feeling of security and the capacity to rely on their senses that people with normal lives enjoy. This loss can be so profound that a brother and sister, previously so intimately linked, are incapable of recognizing each other.

The story in Eikha Rabba and the story in Gittin have similar endings: From the moment the siblings recognize each other and become reunited, they connect to each other and merit one final kindness – their souls depart before their owners have the opportunity to carry out their plans.

IV. The Two Stories as a Parable

Another layer of interpretation may be added to the story in Eikha Rabba and the story in Gittin. The two stories may be viewed as a parable for the relationship between God and the people of Israel, specifically with respect to the process that this relationship underwent in the wake of exile. Chazal stated many times that the Shekhina itself went into exile together with the people of Israel.[3] The stories express the reciprocal relationship, as it were, between God and Israel even in exile. The Gemara at the beginning of Berakhot speaks of the Shekhina's daily wailing over the destruction of the Temple, the loss of the direct connection with Israel and the separation that was created in the wake of the exile.

However, even in this regard we must distinguish between the two stories, as they express two different models of the relationship between God and Israel. The story in Eikha Rabba describes this relationship in terms of the relationship between parents and their children. The older sister (who represents the Shekhina) is described as a sort of mother figure, capable of loving her brother (Israel) despite his blemish. Nevertheless, despite their love, the exile occurred, creating a disconnection between the two.[4] However, the sister/mother’s yearnings for her brother/son are still strong, and when a meeting between them becomes possible, it is significant and exciting.

In contrast, the story in Gittin speaks of a different kind of relationship. Here the relationship is not that of a parent and child. The brother and sister described are equal in age and they are described symmetrically throughout the story. If there is a parallel relationship here, it is that of a married couple. The disconnection between them the entire night, symbolizing the darkness of the exile, is not physical or external, as they are both in the same room. Rather, the disconnection is internal: The two siblings hide their faces from each other. This evokes the well-known parable regarding the keruvim, which also symbolize the relationship between God and the people of Israel:

How did [the keruvim] stand? Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar [disagree]. One says: “They faced each other”; and the other says: “Their faces were inward” (Divrei Ha-yamim II 2:3). But according to him who says that they faced each other, [it may be asked]: Is it not written: “And their faces were inward”? [This is] no difficulty: The former [was] at a time when Israel obeyed the will of the Omnipresent; the latter [was] at a time when Israel did not obey the will of the Omnipresent. (Bava Batra 99a)

When Israel obeys God's will the keruvim face each other, whereas in harsh times of judgment they are turned away from each other. So too the brother and sister in the story in Gittin – at night, as a result of the exile, they are in a state of internal alienation. But as the story draws to a close, the dawn rises and they are reunited.

V. The Broader Context in Eikha Rabba and in Gittin

The difference in the presentation of the relationship between God and the people of Israel in the two stories is also anchored in the broader context of each of these two sources. If we consider the context of Eikha Rabba (chap. 1), we will see that the story of the brother and sister is surrounded by other stories that deal with parents and children and their suffering in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple: the story of a son hiding in a cave and discovering that he participated in the consumption of his father's flesh; the story of Miryam and her seven sons; and others. In contrast, in Gittin, the relationship that dominates the stories is that of a man and his wife. This is true of the story of the betrothed man and woman, the story of the man whose wife had a large ketuba (57a), the concluding story of the carpenter's apprentice and others.

It seems that we are dealing here with a more general difference in the way that the Midrash chose to present the destruction of the Temple, the disconnection between God and Israel and the hiding of His face, and the way Gittin chose to do so. Eikha Rabba chose the parent-child paradigm, in the sense of “You are the children of the Lord your God” (Devarim 14:1), whereas the passage containing the aggadot on the destruction of the Temple in Gittin chose to emphasize in this context the marital relationship between God and the people of Israel. It is not by chance that the Gemara chose to cite these aggadot in tractate Gittin, which deals with the severance of the marital relationship.

In any event, both stories reflect the relationship between God and Israel in exile, after the destruction of the Temple: They begin with severance and the hiding of God's face, but also send the message that the Shekhina may be found in the exile as well. The stories end with reunion, expressing the hope and faith in a renewed meeting and connection between God and Israel, as in the days of old. These meetings take place from time to time in various forms during the exile, and they will find full expression in the future, with the arrival of the final redemption.



[1] See at length, regarding the mole: Y. Fraenkel, Sippur Aggada – Achdut shel Tokhen Ve-tzura, Tel Aviv 2001, pp. 247-249.

[2] See Bava Metzia 23b-24a.

[3] See Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masekhta De-pischa, 14: “‘I will be with him in distress’ (Tehillim 91:15): Wherever Israel was exiled, the Shekhina was exiled with them.”

[4] Of course, no parable is perfect: In the wake of sin it is God Himself who brings the exile; this element finds no expression in the allegory.