The Legend of the Two Brothers and the Temple Mount
Misconception: God’s choice of Mount Moriah as the site for the Beit Hamikdash is based on a midrash involving two brothers who expressed their mutual devotion to each other by each surreptitiously giving of his grain to the other.
Fact: This beautiful and widespread fable has no basis in traditional Jewish literature.
Background: The holiest site in Judaism is Mount Moriah, Har Habayit, the Temple Mount. It is the site where both batei mikdash stood for a combined period of almost 1,000 years. The first was built by King Solomon in the tenth century BCE and the second by those who returned from the Babylonian Exile in the fifth-sixth century BCE and was later rebuilt by Herod (first century BCE). To this day, more than 1,900 years since the Second Temple’s destruction, Jews all over the world face in the direction of Har Habayit when offering their prayers, and ascent to the Mount is permitted only when one is in a state of ritual purity. This location is said to be the place where God’s presence resides, never to depart.
The Legend The story relates that long before the Beit Hamikdash was built, two brothers lived and farmed on that site. One was married and had a large family, while the other was single. They lived in close proximity to each other, and each worked his land growing wheat. When harvest time arrived, each was blessed with a bountiful crop and piled up his grain for long-term storage. The unmarried brother, observing his good fortune, thought to himself that God had blessed him with more than he needed, whereas his brother, who was blessed with a large family, could surely use more. He arose in the middle of the night and secretly took from his grain and put it in his brother’s pile. Similarly, the married brother thought to himself that he was fortunate to have children who will care for him in his old age, while his brother will depend on what he saved. He, too, arose in the middle of the night and quietly transferred grain from his pile to his brother’s. In the morning, each pondered why there was no noticeable decrease in his own pile, and so they repeated the transfer the next night. These nocturnal activities went on for several nights, until one night the brothers bumped into each other. In that instant, in the dark of night, the glow of brotherly love lit up the mountain sky; they each understood what the other had been doing and fell into each other’s arms in a loving embrace. According to the legend, when God saw that display of brotherly love, He selected the site for His Temple. In other versions, it was the Jews who, based on the story, chose the site for building a House for God.
This fable is well known and circulates, for the most part, orally. More often than not, no source for the story is offered. When a source is offered, it is usually a vague reference to “a Talmudic legend” or “a midrash.” There is never a specific reference, and that is for a good reason—the story is not found in any of the classic rabbinic sources.
Origin of the Legend The story, however, does appear in collections of Jewish legends from the last few centuries, including some that are important and reliable.1 Zev Vilnay, in his classic Legends of Jerusalem ([Philadelphia, 1973], 77-78) includes this story. But the author is aware of its tenuous origin and introduces it with the following: “Israel Kosta, a printer and bookseller in the middle of the nineteenth century, relates . . . ” as if to say that the earliest source he could find was from the nineteenth century and that he knew it was not an ancient Jewish legend. In his sources (n. 75, p. 320) he reveals: “The legend appeared first in the description of travels by A. de Lamartine, Voyage en Orient I” (, 329). In this note, he identifies Israel Kosta mentioned in the text as a rabbi from Livorno, Italy, who authored an anthology of educational lessons, Mikveh Yisrael, which appeared in 1851, where he mentions this legend (p. 30-31, story 59).2
Another source that mentions the legend is Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg (1909).3 In a footnote, the author mentions Kosta’s Mikveh Yisrael but he does not provide an ancient classic source.
Based on the exhaustive scholarly research of Professor Sándor (Alexander) Scheiber (1913-1985) of Budapest,4 it appears that the first written reference to the legend is found in a non-Jewish French book by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) published in Paris in 1835.5 De Lamartine claims to have heard the legend from an Arab peasant while visiting Palestine in 1832, and that the Arabs claim that this story explains how King Solomon chose the location to build the House of God. It seems that Jews read this book, identified with the message of the story, adapted it and rapidly disseminated it.
Further research by Haim Schwarzbaum6 revealed a fascinating twist to the history of the story. He wrote that “Scheiber has, however, overlooked the primary source of all the versions of this lovely legend.” He found a strikingly similar, but “less ideal” tale in the eighth-century prologue of an Arabic translation of the Indian collection of legends Kalilah wa-Dimnah. In this variant, two partners replace the loving brothers and in the dark of night each tries to cheat from the other rather than add to the other’s pile.7 This story would not have been unknown to Jews; there was a thirteenth-century Hebrew version of Kalilah wa-Dimnah that was reprinted as Deux versions hebraiques du livre de Kalilah et Dimnah in 1881 that contains the story.8
It thus seems the story originated in India, made its way to the Arabs in the eighth century where it was given a positive spin, and then in the early nineteenth century migrated to Europe where the Jews adopted it and applied it to the Temple. In order to posit an original Jewish origin, one would need to explain how it got from the Jews to India and then how all trace of it was lost from Jewish texts.
How the Temple Site Was Selected If the site of Har Habayit was not chosen because of the fable involving the two brothers, how was it selected? In the Torah the location is never specified, but rather is described as “the place God will choose to rest His name” (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 14; 17:8).9 The location was revealed to King David, and was originally the threshing floor of Aravnah the Jebusite. A devastating plague had killed 70,000 Israelites as punishment for King David’s sin and as the Destroying Angel approached Jerusalem, God stopped him at Aravnah’s threshing floor. King David saw the angel and immediately confessed his sin to God, at which point God, via the Prophet Gad, commanded him to build an altar on the site. Despite Aravnah’s generous offer, King David purchased the location for full price,10 erected an altar and offered sacrifices (II Samuel 24:16-25). When this incident is retold in Chronicles (I Chronicles 21:14-27), it continues with King David proclaiming that the site should be the House of God, and he commenced preparing for building the Temple (I Chronicles 21:28-22:19). And indeed, when Shlomo Hamelech begins the construction of God’s house, it is at the site where God appeared to his father, King David, at the threshing floor of Arnan (the name by which Aravnah is known in Chronicles [II Chronicles 3:1]). The Sifrei (Devarim, Parashat Re’eh, pasuk 62) understood that King David correctly searched for a location on his own and then had the selection confirmed by the navi, Gad.
That is as much as is explicit in Tanach. Many other historically significant events are said to have taken place at the site. The location where Shlomo Hamelech built the Temple is called “Mount Moriah” (II Chronicles 3:1) and the place where the Akeidah took place was the “land of Moriah” (Bereishit 22:2). The name Moriah appears nowhere else in Tanach; thus, it is clear that the site where the Temple was built (Aravnah’s threshing floor) is the site where the Akeidah occurred.11 Hermeneutics based on the name Moriah led Chazal to conclude that multiple other events of significance took place at that site. Chazal state that it was from the Even Shesiya, the Foundation Stone, located on Har Habayit, that the world expanded into its present form, and it was from Mount Moriah that God gathered dust to create the first man, Adam (Targum Yonatan to Genesis 2:7; found also in Yerushalmi Nazir 7:2; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 11, 12, 20; and Bereishit Rabbah 14:9). It is also a site historically used for altars. According to Chazal, after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam built an altar on the Temple Mount, as did Noach after the flood. It was this altar that Avraham and Yitzchak saw on the way to the Akeidah and that indicated to them that they were at the correct location.12 In addition, according to some opinions, Yaakov’s dream of the ladder took place on the Temple Mount (Pesachim 88a; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 35).
The legend of the two brothers is so popular and its message resonates so deeply with Jewish values that some have suggested that Arabs living in the Land of Israel may have been unknowingly preserving what had been an oral Jewish midrash. Others contend that whether or not it is originally of Jewish origin, it is a worthwhile story and should be admitted to the Jewish corpus.
The main message of this “midrash” is one of brotherly love and ahavat chinam. The pasuk in Tehillim (Psalm 133:1) states: “Hinei matov u’mah naim, shevet achim gam yachad,13 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” How appropriate that so many assume that the site of the Temple, which was destroyed because of sinat chinam, among other reasons,14 should have been chosen because of brotherly love. Despite this tale having no basis in Jewish sources, the notion that the Temple will be rebuilt only after we all get along and show respect and compassion for each other is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Indeed, the Rambam (Guide of the Perplexed III: 45) suggests that the reason the location was not originally revealed in the Torah was to avoid fighting between the tribes. According to the Talmud (Zevachim 116b), King David collected money from all Twelve Tribes in order to purchase the threshing floor. The Maharal explained that “Israel unites through the Temple, where there is one priest and one altar” (Netzach Yisrael 5). May we speedily in our day have the unity that will lead to the Temple being rebuilt on Mount Moriah.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
1. For example, Micha Josef Berdyczewski, also known as Mikhah Yosef Bin-Gorion (1865-1921), in his classic work on Jewish legends and folktales, Mimekor Yisrael, mentions it (see Indiana University Press edition, pages 491-492 or the abridged edition, pages 272-273 along with the bibliographical notes for this legend on page 272).
2. Vilnay also references A. Kopish, Gesammelte Werke I (London, 1856), p. 23; Gedichte von Aug. Kopish, p. 149; Shlomo Bakhor Hutzin’s Maasei Nissim (Baghdad, 1890), p. 53; and Alexander Scheiber, “La Legende de l’emplacement du Temple de Jerusalem,” REJ IX (1948-49), 108-109.
3. In the JPS edition, it is in 4:154, and it is discussed in 6:293-294.
4. “La Légende de l’emplacement du Temple de Jérusalem,” in Essays on Jewish Folklore and Comparative Literature (Budapest, 1955) and Alexander Scheiber, “The Legend about the Temple Location in Jerusalem” in Essays on Jewish Folklore and Comparative Literature (Budapest, 1985), 291-299.
5. Souvenirs, impressions, pensées et paysages pendant un voyage en Orient, 169.
In 1848, an English translation was published in New York by D. Appleton and Company entitled A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The entire book can be read online at http://archive.org/stream/apilgrimagetoho00lamagoog#page/n288/mode/2up. The story is found on page 289 of the online version.
6. Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (Berlin, 1968), 462-463.
7. Attributed to Abdallah ibn al-Muqaffa, died circa 760.
8. The positive version of the story is also found in Eastern thought but with no connection to selecting a sacred site. It is also found in Caravan of Dreams (New York, 1988), p. 133, a collection of Sufi stories by Idries Shah. In that version, the stealth shifting of grain continues for years without the brothers knowing why their piles don’t decrease.
9. Interestingly, all of the verses (including the above) in which the selection is stated in the future tense in the Torah are modified in the Samaritan version to be in the past, indicating that God had already selected and revealed the location. In their version, this revelation immediately follows the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13) where they have additional verses that say that Har Gerizim will be the location of the permanent altar.
10. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 79:6) points out that the Temple Mount, together with Me’arat Hamachpelah and Shechem, are the three places whose Jewish ownership no one can question because, according to the Bible, they were purchased at full price by King David, Avraham and Yaakov, respectively.
11. This tradition is mentioned in the Book of Jubilees (18:13) and Josephus (e.g., Antiquities I:13:224, 226). Rashi makes this connection as well. When Avraham names the site of the Akeidah “Hashem Yir’eh,” Rashi states, “The Lord will see: Its simple meaning is . . . God will choose and see for Himself this place, to cause His Divine Presence to rest therein and for offering sacrifices here” (Bereishit 22:14).
12. See Bereishit Rabbah 55:9; Yerushalmi Berachot 4:5, Yoma 54b; Rambam’s Hilchot Beit Habechirah 2:1-2, among many other similar midrashim.
13. The Zohar (Acharei Mot) sees the two brothers in this verse as representing the two keruvim above the aron.
14. See my previous article “What’s the Truth about . . . the Cause of the Destruction of the Beit Hamikdash?” Jewish Action (summer 2004), 52-54.