The less than holy king who erected Judaism’s most sacred monument

King Herod was no darling of the rabbis but he was responsible for the Western Wall


Blessing of the Cohanim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem over Pesach (Getty Images)

On the first Intermediate Day of Pesach thousands of worshippers packed the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem to hear the Priestly Blessing chanted by dozens of Cohanim, tallitot draped over the head like an army of ghosts. Nothing perhaps more conveys the mystique surrounding this place of pilgrimage than the ceremony, which takes place there twice a year.

Since the site of the ancient sanctuary is out of bounds according to most traditional rabbinic authorities, the retaining wall of the Temple Mount remains Judaism’s most accessible shrine. Its white stones are like a screen on to which Jews continue to project their deepest hopes and yearnings.

But beneath the holy aura, its origins are commonly overlooked. It was constructed at the command of a figure who was anything but a spiritual paragon: Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from 37 to 4 BCE.

It was King David who had first wanted to build a house of God but who because he had “shed much blood” — according to the Book of Chronicles — had to leave the task to his son Solomon. The stones of the building were fitted — according to the Book of Kings — without the use of hammer or axe on site (as potentially tools of violence). So arose the legend that Solomon’s builders instead had to turn to one of Judaism’s fantastic beasts, the shamir, a magical, stone-gnawing worm.

King Herod, however, certainly had blood on his hands, if not as much as the villain of Christian lore who — according to the Gospel of Matthew — instigated the “massacre of the innocents” to prevent the prophesied birth of a new king. Maybe he was the first Jew demonised as a child-killer. Since there is no historical evidence to corroborate the incident and Herod’s life was more documented than most in antiquity, it was most likely mythical — a parallel to the biblical Pharaoh who ordered the killing of Israelite babies.

His paranoia over the security of his throne led him to put to death a number of relatives he suspected of plotting against him: including three of his sons, his favourite wife (at one stage he had more wives than Henry VIII and all at the same time) her mother and one of his uncles. His patron, the Roman emperor Augustus, is said to have quipped that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.

The king prided himself on his martial skills, taking part in various military ventures, and was a president of the Olympic Games (something that would hardly have endeared him to the later rabbis). He was a lover of classical culture who sent his sons to be educated in Rome and built a temple to Augustus in Paneion in the North.

So how did such a character become a champion of the Temple in Jerusalem, expanding and rebuilding the modest structure erected by Zerubbabel centuries before?

According to the Oxford scholar, Professor Martin Goodman, whose new biography of Herod has just been published: “Herod could not have emphasised more clearly to his Jewish subjects his wish to be identified as a Jewish king, dedicated like the Jewish kings of the distant past to preserving the divine protection which ensured the welfare of the nation.”

He also put up memorials to King David and to the matriarchs and patriarchs at their burial place in Hebron (apart from constructing the fortress at Masada and the port of Caesaria).

Whatever religious instincts he may have had, his monuments reflect the desire to prove to his subjects that he was worthy of their rule. As the son of an Idumean father — from a people south of Judea conquered by the Hasmoneans and probably forcibly converted to Judaism a century earlier — and a Nabatean Arab mother, Herod was an outsider. He probably would not have been allowed to marry in the United Synagogue. A client king of Rome, he wrested the crown from the Hasmoneans.

For the rabbis of the Talmud, he presented “a problem”, as Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein (a Talmud scholar at New York University) has explained in an essay on “On the one hand, he was a usurper, a murderer, and a vicious tyrant. On the other hand, he had the great merit of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple, the holiest place on earth, and did a magnificent job —numerous rabbinic traditions praise its spectacular beauty.”

As one sage remarked, “One who has not seen Herod’s building has not seen a beautiful building in his life.”

And so the rabbis produced an alternative history in which Herod carried out a massacre of all the Sages bar one, who then put it into the king’s mind to renovate the Temple as an act of atonement for his crime. There is no evidence in the historical records of any such act against the rabbis ( or rather their predecessors), although he did order the execution of two teachers of Torah who had incited their students to remove a golden eagle from the Temple gates — a tribute to Augustus that was regarded as sacrilegious by more devout Jews.

As the rabbis’ story portrays it, credit for redeveloping the Temple site ultimately goes to one of their own. 

Today the Kotel stands as the “symbolic heart of Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people”, in the words of the Jerusalem-based Orthodox rabbi, Alon Goshen-Gottstein.

The plaza is the open-air synagogue that brings Jewish visitors from all over the world to pray. In a sense, the Wall has transcended the more complicated history of its foundation, rising above the legacy of a flawed Judean king.

Herod the Great - Jewish King in a Roman World, Martin Goodman, Yale University Press is out now at £16.99

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