FROM BOOK TEN, MYTHS
OF THE MESSIAH
PALACE OF THE MESSIAH
the beginning the Messiah was hidden in a heavenly palace known as the Bird’s
That is a secret place containing a thousand halls of yearning, where none may
except for the Messiah. It is there that the Messiah waits for the sign to be
time has come at last.
The palace is known as the Bird’s Nest
because of the wonderful bird of the Messiah,
has its nest in a tree near his palace.
On New Moons and holy days and Sabbaths,
the Messiah enters those halls of longing,
up his voice, and weeps. Then the Garden of Eden trembles and the firmament
until his voice ascends all the way to God’s throne. And when God hears his
God beckons the enchanted bird, and it flies from the Garden of Eden and enters
nest and begins to sing.
Now the song of that bird is indescribably
beautiful; no one has ever heard a music so
Three times the bird repeats its song, and then the bird and the Messiah ascend
high, to the very Throne of Glory. There God swears to them that He will
kingdom of Rome and will give His children all the blessings that are destined
them. After that the bird returns to its nest and the Messiah returns to his
again he remains hidden there, waiting.
longing and weeping of the Messiah are common images in Jewish lore. The
weeps out of his own frustration, as well as out of his awareness of the
the Jewish people that the messianic era still has not come. This mutual
is portrayed in a legend about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who is said to have had
encounter with the Messiah (Ma’aseh de-Rabbi Yehoshua
ben Levi in Beit
The Messiah said to him: “What is Israel doing in the world from which you
He replied, “They are waiting for you every day.” As soon as he heard this, the
lifted up his voice and cried.
LADDER OF PRAYERS
Ba’al Shem Tov was once praying with his Hasidim. That day he prayed with great
not only word by word, but letter by letter, so that the others finished long
he did. At first they waited for him, but before long they lost patience, and
Later the Ba’al Shem Tov came to them and
said: “While I was praying, I ascended the
of your prayers all the way into Paradise. As I ascended, I heard a song of
At last I reached the palace of the Messiah, in the highest heavens, known
the Bird’s Nest. The Messiah was standing by his window, peering out at a tree
I followed his gaze and saw that his eyes were fixed on a golden dove, whose
in the top branches of that tree. That is when I realized that the song
pervading all of
was coming from that golden dove. And I understood that the Messiah could
bear to be without that dove and its song for as much as a moment. Then it
me that if I could capture the dove, and bring it back to this world, the
sure to follow.
“So I ascended higher, until I was within
arm’s reach of the golden dove. But just as I
for it, the ladder of prayers collapsed.”
this Hasidic tale, “The Ladder of Prayers,” the Ba’al Shem Tov ascends into
a quest to capture the golden dove of the Messiah, certain that this will cause
Messiah to follow, initiating the messianic era. The failure of the Ba’al Shem
to provide the support needed for this great endeavor, as symbolized by the
of the ladder of prayers, causes him to lose the opportunity to bring the
makes this one more tale about why the Messiah has not come. Dozens of
such tales record lost opportunities to bring about the messianic era, or
force the Messiah’s hand, and hasten the End of Days.
This tale, and virtually the entire body of
rabbinic, kabbalistic, folk, and Hasidic
exists in a mythological framework. The ladder of prayers the Ba’al Shem Tov
was surely inspired by the heavenly ladder in Jacob’s dream. He climbs this
of prayers into Paradise, a mythological realm with its own order, its own
its own history, and its own inhabitants—not only God and the angels,
the Bride of God and the Messiah as well. It is understood that the Messiah is
for the sign to be given that the time has come for the messianic era. All the
Jewish mysticism contains the secret of how to hasten the coming of the
that the Ba’al Shem Tov has at his command.
In addition, this tale draws on a rich
tradition of tales about heavenly ascent, from
ascent of Elijah in a fiery chariot to the famous tale of the four who entered
“The Ladder of Prayers,” a Hasidic tale of eighteenth century origin, is a
descendant of the legend of the four sages, which dates from the second
did the four sages, the Ba’al Shem Tov ascends to heaven because he seeks
knowledge of the divine realm.
The Zohar tells
of a dove that makes its nest outside the palace of the Messiah in
That is why the palace of the Messiah is also known as the “Bird’s Nest.”
Ladder of Prayers” builds on the earlier legendary accounts of the golden dove,
an attempt by the Ba’al Shem Tov to ascend on the ladder of prayers of his
into Paradise to capture the dove. The failure of the Ba’al Shem’s Hasidim to
the spiritual support needed for this great endeavor, as symbolized by the
of their ladder of prayers, is offered as the reason for the failure to bring
in their generation. Thus the tale illustrates the interdependency of the Tzaddik
his Hasidim. This attempt to capture the golden dove and its failure marks one
basic types of mystical tales, those concerning an attempt to hasten the coming
Messiah. Several such tales are found in the Talmud. See, in particular,
End,” p. 496. Subsequently such tales are found in virtually every generation,
that there is a potential Messiah who, had all gone well, would have served
Messiah ben Joseph, preparing the way for Messiah ben David. In this tale of
Shem, however, he ascends directly to the palace of Messiah ben David,
initiate the End of Days. For a variant of this tale, see “The Messiah and the
Shem Tov,” following.
Ribesh Tov; Or
ha-Hokhmah, Parashat Beha’alotekha.
the time to come God will prepare a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of
and the Ziz, as it is said, He prepared a lavish
feast for them (2 Kings 6:23).
will say to them, “Do you want cider or citrus or grape wine?” Then God will
glorious throne, and sit with them. Who will be seated at the table? The
along with scholars and distinguished students. The rest of Leviathan will be
the walls of Jerusalem, and its radiance will shine from one end of the world
So too will God make a sukkah for
the righteous with the skin of Leviathan.
Others say that God will serve the
Messiah-ox and messianic wine at the banquet. The
makes its home in Paradise, where it waits to fulfill its destiny when the
comes. Then it will be slaughtered and served at the messianic banquet. Then
will bring the righteous wine that had been preserved from grapes from the six
Creation. Only once before has it been served: when Jacob served wine to his
at the time he brought the food that Rebecca had prepared. Since Jacob had no
with him, an angel provided some for him, and the angel brought that messianic
And he gave it into Jacob’s hand, and Jacob handed it to his father, and he
Of all the patriarchs, why is it that it
will be Jacob who will join them at the feast?
the children of Israel sin, only Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah feels defiled.
the gladness of redemption comes, Jacob will rejoice in it more than any of the
patriarchs, for he alone will be called to the feast.
This myth describes a great feast, prepared
by God, that will take place after the
of the Messiah. It finds its origin in this messianic prophecy in Isaiah 25:6: The
of Hosts will make on this mountain for all the peoples a banquet of rich
viands, a banquet
choice wines—of rich viands seasoned with marrow, of choice wines well refined.
deserving will taste the flesh of Leviathan. Here the righteous are described
and distinguished students, reinforcing the notion that study of the Torah is
most important occupation of all. In addition, they will be joined by the
The inclusion of Jacob alone suggests the tendency to elevate Jacob to great
because of the identification of Jacob and Israel. See “Jacob the Angel,” p.
“Jacob the Divine,” p. 366.
The Book of Paradise,
a midrashic satire by Itzik Manger, has the blind Isaac, living in
mark his portion on the Messiah-ox, which will be slaughtered when the
comes. This satirizes Isaac’s apparent love of the taste of venison. In one
someone plays a trick on the Messiah-ox by telling it that the Messiah has
therefore it is about to be slaughtered. In terror the ox runs out of Jewish
into Christian heaven—heaven consists of three parts, according to Manger,
third being Muslim heaven—and the Christians refuse to give him back. This
series of messages between King Solomon and Saint Paul, who rule Jewish
Christian heaven respectively. Eventually, the Messiah-ox is returned in
but it is badly underfed, and there is some question about whether it is fit to
at the messianic banquet.
In the frame story of Manger’s satire, the
angel Shmuel Abba is commanded to be
and he manages to get the angel who is to deliver him to earth drunk by
him messianic wine. On the day the angel is born, he sits up in the cradle and
tells the history of his life in Paradise to his astounded parents and all
to hear him.
Pseudo-Yonathan 27:25; B. Bava
Batra 75a; Midrash
Tehillim 14:7; Seder
B) in Beit ha-Midrash 3:131-140.
From Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
Copyright © 2004 by
All Rights Reserved
None of these myths
or commentaries may be reprinted without permission
of the publisher,
Oxford University Press.