“And when Agrippa arrived at: “You may not appoint a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), tears flowed from his eyes. The entire nation said to him: Fear not, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother.” (Sotah 41a)
In the discussion on our daf about the king reading from the Torah at the Hakhel ceremony, we have this fascinating story about King Agrippa. The Mishnah relates that he stood during the ceremony even though he was a king (the Gemara explains that that was because he was not from the house of David). When he reached the verse that forbids appointing a non-Jewish king, he started to cry, presumably since he was not fully Jewish. The crowd comforted him by saying אל תתירא אגריפס, אחינו אתה, אחינו אתה! Do not fear Agrippa, you are our brother, you are our brother!
The story suggests a number of things: that Agrippa’s Jewish ancestry was in doubt, that he was a righteous man and that he had public support. The question is, who was Agrippa?
We know that Agippa was a king from the house of Herod, who also had Hasmonean lineage. Rashi states these facts and adds that he was king at the time of the destruction of the Temple. But is this correct? There was more than one Agrippa who was king at the end of the Second Temple period, which one was this story about?
The problem begins with the fact that Herod and his family loved to re-use the same names over and over and also loved to marry their cousins. To sort out the puzzle, have a look at (part of) Herod’s family tree:
Herod’s parents were Antipater, a converted Edomite, and Cypros, a Nabatean princess. Although Herod identified as a Jew, by halakhic standards he was a problematic one. Herod had a sister named Salome, from the same parents. Herod and Miriam the Hasmonean had a son Aristobulus – not only Jewish but of Hasmonean lineage. Aristobulus married Berenice, daughter of Salome (not Jewish) and Costobar (Edomite). Their son is Agrippa I (ruled from 41-44 CE). Jewish or not Jewish? His mother was not Jewish, while his father was Miriam’s son, making him a rather complicated mixture. He seems to have lived fully in both worlds, the Jewish and the Roman. After a misspent youth in Rome he returned to Judea to rule.
And who was the second Agrippa? Agrippa I married his cousin Cypros, daughter of Miriam’s daughter Salampsio. Their son was Agrippa 2 who ruled from 50-70 CE and was king during the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple. Agrippa II seems to have a stronger case of halakhic Jewishness. His mother was Jewish and Hasmonean. Perhaps this is why Rashi choses him as the Agrippa in our story. However, many scholars prefer Agrippa I as our hero, because of his connection to the Temple and the Jews. Agrippa 2 has a more complicated connection to the Jews, as we shall see.
Agrippa 1 began the building of the third wall around Jerusalem, the one that encompassed the new northern neighborhoods. Agrippa 2 may have been the builder of a fabulous palace in the Banias up north. Eventually it was used by the Romans as an opulent bathhouse. Today only the “basement” layer of tunnels and aqueducts is left.
Which Agrippa is a likelier fit for our story and for a story in Mishnah Bikkurim (3:4) that tells how King Agrippa would bring his first fruits to the Temple? Agrippa 1 is usually the choice of scholars. Not only does he have a questionable Jewish ancestry, leading to the need to call him our brother, but he seems to have had a very positive relationship with the Jews. He was the first Jewish king in half a century (Roman governors were appointed with the decline of Herod’s kingdom) and he interceded on behalf of the Jews during his short reign. He lived in Jerusalem and seems to have been sensitive to Jewish laws. He had close relationships with both Pharisees and Sadducees and preferred Jews over non-Jews and over Jewish Christians in legal disputes. If anyone should be called a brother, he would be the one.
Coin depicting Agrippa 1
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Professor Zeev Safrai however prefers Rashi’s choice of the second Agrippa. He explains that most if not all of the stories about the Temple that we find in the Mishnah relate to the very end of Temple times, the final generation before the destruction. Agrippa 1 is too early and in any case, the Hakhel in his time period was in the year 43 when it seems he was in Rome. In addition, the Tosefta as well as the Gemara continue in a much less positive vein and say that because the Jews flattered Agrippa, the Temple was destroyed. Why would he be criticized so strongly if he was a righteous king? And why link the flattery with the Temple’s destruction unless the two events happened at around the same time?
And yet, the choice of Agrippa 2 is not without its problems. While the Gemara does not like the flattery, there is no denying that the Jews call the king “our brother.” We know from Josephus that Agrippa 2 gave a heartfelt speech attempting to persuade the Jews not to revolt against Rome in 66 CE. His entreaties were ignored and he then chose to join the Roman forces, fighting against the Jewish rebels in Jerusalem and in the north. Could a king who fought against his people really be remembered as “our brother?”
While we have not solved the puzzle of the two Agrippas, we can relate a different story when the heartfelt cry of “you are our brother” was (perhaps) repeated. When the first British High Commissioner to Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, arrived in Jerusalem in 1920, he was invited to the Hurva synagogue for Shabbat Nahamu. He was called up to say the blessing on the haftarah and there was great excitement – not only was the reading all about redemption, but Sir Herbert was a Jewish Zionist who would be the leader of Palestine – surely the Messiah was on his way! Some say that after he said the blessing, the crowd called out אחינו אתה, אחינו אתה! – you (too) are our brother!
Sign on King George Street in Jerusalem, mentioning Sir Herbert Samuel
Gila Brand, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons