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Two Brothers, a Field and the Temple

In a post commenting on the recent Israeli elections, Eugene Volokh alludes to a story which he had previously written about, “The Tale of the Two Brothers” (the new “version” of the story which he brings might actually be closer to the original than he may have known). He thought that it was “Talmudic”, and having never heard the story before I filed it under “look into this story”. Lo and behold, at minha today I had the pleasure of hearing a devar Torah from a senior rabbinical student at JTS, D.S., and she brought the same story in her devar Torah! She was kind enough to point me in the direction of where she knew the story was from and what I found was quite interesting. The story goes like this:

The place where our glorious Temple was built had long been a field owned by two brothers. One of them had a wife and children while the other had no wife and children…During one wheat harvest they bound up shocks in the field and beat out the ears and made two equal piles of the grain they had reaped, one pile for each of them; and they left them there in the field. That night the brother who had neither wife nor children lay in his bed and thought to himself: “I am all by myself and have nobody who is dependent on me for his daily bread. But my brother has a wife and children, so why should my portion be like his?” So he rose in the middle of the night and stole like a thief and took sheaves from his own pile and placed them on his brother’s pile. And his brother said to his wife: “It is not fair to divide the corn in the field into two portions, half to me and half to my brother. My lot and fate is so much better than his, since God has given me a wife and children while he goes alone and has no pleasure or song or delight in anything but the grain he gathers in the field. Come with me, wife, and we shall secretly add to his portion from our own.” And they did so.

The next morning both brothers saw that their piles were still the same size and this kept repeating itself for a few days. Finally both brothers stake out the piles and realize that both were giving to the other brother, they embraced and kissed. The story ends with,

That was the place that the Lord desired, the spot where the two brothers had thought the good thought and done the good deed. That was why it was blessed by the men of the earth, and the Children of Israel chose it for building a House for the Lord. (Bin Gurion I, 491-2; Bin Gurion II, 272-3)

One can find this story in L. Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews and in his footnotes Ginzberg refers one to Israel Costa’s Mikveh Yisrael (Livorno, 1851). A number of years after the publication of The Legends of the Jews Alexander Scheiber published a number of articles examining the origins and different versions of this story. His findings are very interesting. First, the story is not found in the Talmud or Midrash, rather the first evidence that we have of it is from…Palestinian Arabs, and I am not joking. Alphonse de Lamartine recorded it from Palestinian Arabs in 1832 and it was later reworked and recorded in a number of other 19th and 20th century sources. In Jewish literature we find it first in Israel Costa’s Mikveh Yisrael and Shlomo Bakhor Hutzin’s Maasei Nissim (Baghdad, 1890).

Haim Schwarzbaum also examined the story and further added to its interesting history. According to Schwarzbaum, the origins of this story are in the 8th century introduction of an Arabic translator to the Indian collection of legends, Kalilah wa-Dimnah. Schwarzbaum says that,

Here, unlike the two ideal brothers in the legends studied by Scheiber, we have Two Partners, with the difference that in this case one of them tries (also under cover of night…) to cheat the other and steal from his Partner’s store. It is indeed a less ideal story, but unfortunately more in accord with reality. At any rate, here we have a fine example of the well-known phenomenon of popular imagination exhibiting an inclination towards embellishing negative feature, and tending to idealism and ornamentation.


Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews. In the old JPS edition the legend can be found on 4:154 and a discussion on 6:293-294.
Bin Gorion I-Micha Joseph Bin Gorion, Mimekor Yisrael, ed. by Emanuel bin Gorion, trans. I.M. Lask, intro. by Dan Ben-Amos, Indiana University Press.
Bin Gorion II-Micha Joseph Bin Gorion, Mimekor Yisrael: Selected Classical Jewish Folktales, abridged and annotated edition, ed. by Emanuel bin Gorion, trans. I.M. Lask, intro. and headnotes by Dan Ben-Amos, Indiana University Press. Although this edition has fewer legends, it has better notes and bibliographical material on each legend. See the bibliographical notes for this legend on p. 272.
Alexander Scheiber, “The Legend about the Temple Location in Jerusalem” in Essays on Jewish Folklore and Comparative Literature, Budapest, 1985, pp. 291-299.
Haim Schwarzbaum, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore, Berlin, 1968, pp. 462-463
Eliezer Segal, “The Founding of Jerusalem: A Palestinian Midrash?”
Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS, pp. 77-78.

2 Responses to “Two Brothers, a Field and the Temple”

  1. 1
    More on Two Brothers, a Field and the Temple « Menachem Mendel:

    […] while ago I posted here on the folk tale about Two Brothers, a Field and the building of the Temple. Recently Admiel Kosman […]

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    Another excellent post. On the title page of Costa’s Mikveh Yisrael, he says that “some of these stories are done [from] society (?)(ברוח בינתו and some are from Hazal and some are translated into Hebrew.” Both the first statement and the last “some are translated into Hebrew” seem to imply that these aren’t necessarily Jewish in origin.
    Also Hutzin’s name translated appears to be Husein.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 03.30.06 – 8:32 am | #

    that shouldn’t have a smiley face it was supposed to have been a closing parenthesis.
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 03.30.06 – 8:33 am | #

    The next volume of Shmuel Ashkenazi’s book is supposed to discuss this legend if it is ever published.
    andy | 03.30.06 – 5:19 pm | #

    there’s a similar story about two brothers or partners, and each used the opposite logic to steal from the other in the dead of night, until one night they caught each other red-handed. there they built the kremlin.
    adderabbi | Homepage | 03.30.06 – 10:31 pm | #


    See the link to Volokh and you’ll see that the same story exists about the knesset.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 04.01.06 – 7:41 pm | #

    a rebbi of mine once was asked where is the medrash about the 2 brothers, the field. and the beis hamikdash. after extensive research he discovered in the hebrew “U” library that it was an old arab proverb. he was very surprised, because this story is taught to virtually all yeshiva boys as a medrash/gemara! he sent harav chaim kanievsky a question asking were on can find this “medrash”. R’ chaim wrote him back- “NIREH LI, ZEH MA’ASEH ARAVI”
    N.I.K. | 04.11.06 – 10:03 pm | #

    It will be interesting to see if the knowledge that this isn’t a traditional midrash ever filters back into the yeshiva world to an extent that they stop telling it.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 04.11.06 – 10:46 pm | #




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