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It’s Good to be the King

鈥淗erod was a slave in the house of the Hasmoneans.鈥 (Bava Batra 3b)

With this laconic introduction the Gemara begins the story of one of the most famous personalities of Second Temple Judea, Herod (72 BCE 鈥 4 BCE). In true Talmudic fashion, Herod is only brought up by the way, as part of a conversation about building walls and how the Second Temple differed from the First. But it is here in Bava Batra that we get an inside look into this amazing builder, ruler and despot.

The Gemara relates that Herod was of lowly origins and came to power by getting rid of his enemies, the rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty and the rabbis who opposed a Gentile鈥檚 rule. This version of the tale has truth to it, but only tells one piece of the story. We need to add to it the version provided us by the Jewish historian Josephus. He tells us of Herod鈥檚 background: a son of an Edomite named Antipater who chose conversion to Judaism and alliance with the Hasmonean king Johanan Hyrcanus as a way to bring himself to power:

鈥淏ut there was a certain friend of Hyrcanus鈥檚, an Idumean, called Antipater; who was very rich, and in his nature an active and a seditious man: who was at enmity with Aristobulus; and had differences with him on account of his good will to Hyrcanus..鈥 (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14:1:3)

Josephus continues the story in his book The Jewish War:

鈥淣ow this Antipater married a wife of an eminent family among the Arabians, whose name was聽Cypros, and had four sons born to him by her, Phasaelus, and Herod who was afterwards king, and, besides these, Joseph and Pheroras; and he had a daughter whose name was聽Salome.鈥 (Josephus, The Jewish War, 1:8:9)

The remains of the Phasael tower in Jerusalem

Pazit Polak from Basel, Switzerland, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

As we can see from this geneaology, Herod was not a slave but rather from a prominent family. However, he clearly was not Jewish by halachic standards, nor was he an heir to the throne in any conventional manner 鈥 not from the house of David or even from the Hasmonean dynasty. This is the background to our story about Herod needing the Hasmoneans and the rabbis out of the way:

鈥淥ne day that man, Herod, heard a Divine Voice that said: Any slave who rebels now will succeed. He rose up and killed all his masters, but spared that girl. . .

Herod said to himself: Who expounds the verse: 鈥淥ne from among your brothers you shall set as king over you鈥 (Deuteronomy 17:15) It is the Sages. He then rose up and killed all the Sages,鈥 (Bava Batra 3b)

The murder of a generation of rabbis affected the Jewish world, see here for an expansion of that idea: 聽But whose version of the story is correct? Josephus and the Gemara can complement rather than contradict each other. Each one shows us a man with a complex identity 鈥 not halachically Jewish, culturally Roman but ethnically identified with and ruling over Judea. His many projects reflect that blend 鈥 he built to please his Roman patrons, naming Caesaria, Antonia and others after them. But he also needed to play to his base and therefore he (re)built the magnificent Temple.

The reason for this particular project may have been Herod鈥檚 instincts as a politician but our Gemara wants to provide him with an additional motive. The story continues with Herod trying in vain to get Baba ben Buta to curse him but Bava ben Buta remains discreet. Herod finally admits that perhaps he erred in killing the rabbis. He asks what he should do to atone for this act. Bava ben Buta answers him:

鈥淗e who extinguished the light of the world [by killing the Sages,] as it is written: 鈥淔or the mitzva is a lamp, and the Torah is light鈥 (Proverbs 6:23), should go and occupy himself with the light of the world, [the Temple]鈥 (Bava Batra 4a)

It is fascinating to see how the Gemara spins this story. Clearly Herod is a bad man, against Torah learning and an enemy of the rabbis. On the other hand, the Temple is the focus of Jewish life and indeed the place of God鈥檚 presence in this world. How can it be built by a sinner? In a neat twist, the Temple, the main place where people seek repentance, is to be built as an act of repentance.

Herod’s Temple as recreated in the Holyland model of Second Temple Jerusalem

Ariely, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

For a very long time Herod was vilified in the Jewish world (as well as the Christian one, since they mistakenly assumed he was the king who wanted to murder the baby Jesus. In fact, Herod died four years before Jesus was born). Traditional Jews hated how he murdered the rabbis, while in the modern era Zionism despised his allegiance to Rome and his turning Judea into a vassal state. There are no streets named for Herod in Israel and it took until the early 2000s for the Israel Museum to mount a major Herod exhibit. And yet, if you look at Herod鈥檚 legacy there are many positive elements to it. The Gemara seems to be channeling some of the complexity of his character into the way they tell this story.

Herod was cruel, paranoid and killed any and all enemies including his brother-in-law, wife and some children. He also created a thriving economy, kept the peace with Rome and built some of the most beautiful and enduring structures this country had ever seen. He raised Judea鈥檚 status from a frontier backwater to one of the spectacular places in the Roman world. Ships from all over the Mediterranean passed through his magnificent port at Caesarea, tourists came to gape at his fabulous Temple in Jerusalem, and the second in command to Augustus Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, was wined and dined at Herod鈥檚 desert palace of Herodion.

Theater at Caesarea

Gilad Topaz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

This last site has been excavated and restored in recent years and today it is the premier showcase of Herod鈥檚 aesthetic talents. Herodion was built as a perfect, luxurious and difficult to reach palace/fortress on the edge of the Judean desert. It boasted a fantastic home theater that was redecorated in honor of Marcus Agrippa鈥檚 visit as well as a bathhouse, courtyard and dining room. Eventually Herod chose Herodion as the site of his monumental mausoleum.

It took millennia for these glorious structures to be exposed. Archaeologist Ehud Netzer searched for Herod鈥檚 tomb for decades, finally discovering it in 2007. Then he unearthed the perfectly preserved theater, buried when Herod decided to build his tomb. The theater was notable for the exquisite paintings on its walls. Unlike in Herod鈥檚 other palaces, where he was careful not to offend Jewish sensibilities with imagery, here we have depictions of animals and even people. The rich colors are apparent two thousand years later, as are the tromp l鈥檕eil pillars and decorations on the walls.

Herod: lowly slave or crafty king? Enemy of Judaism or preserver of Judea? A complicated man deserves a nuanced telling of his tale.

The private theater at Herodion



Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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