FROM BOOK TEN, MYTHS OF THE MESSIAH
617. THE PALACE OF THE MESSIAH
From the beginning the Messiah was hidden in a heavenly palace known as the Bird’s
Nest. That is a secret place containing a thousand halls of yearning, where none may
enter except for the Messiah. It is there that the Messiah waits for the sign to be given that
his time has come at last.
The palace is known as the Bird’s Nest because of the wonderful bird of the Messiah,
which has its nest in a tree near his palace.
On New Moons and holy days and Sabbaths, the Messiah enters those halls of longing,
lifts up his voice, and weeps. Then the Garden of Eden trembles and the firmament
shakes until his voice ascends all the way to God’s throne. And when God hears his
voice, God beckons the enchanted bird, and it flies from the Garden of Eden and enters
its nest and begins to sing.
Now the song of that bird is indescribably beautiful; no one has ever heard a music so
sublime. Three times the bird repeats its song, and then the bird and the Messiah ascend
on high, to the very Throne of Glory. There God swears to them that He will destroy the
wicked kingdom of Rome and will give His children all the blessings that are destined
for them. After that the bird returns to its nest and the Messiah returns to his palace, and
once again he remains hidden there, waiting.
The longing and weeping of the Messiah are common images in Jewish lore. The
Messiah weeps out of his own frustration, as well as out of his awareness of the frustration
of the Jewish people that the messianic era still has not come. This mutual
waiting is portrayed in a legend about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who is said to have had
an encounter with the Messiah (Ma’aseh de-Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in Beit ha-Midrash
2:50). The Messiah said to him: “What is Israel doing in the world from which you
came?” He replied, “They are waiting for you every day.” As soon as he heard this, the
Messiah lifted up his voice and cried.
620. THE LADDER OF PRAYERS
The Ba’al Shem Tov was once praying with his Hasidim. That day he prayed with great
concentration, not only word by word, but letter by letter, so that the others finished long
before he did. At first they waited for him, but before long they lost patience, and one by
one they left.
Later the Ba’al Shem Tov came to them and said: “While I was praying, I ascended the
ladder of your prayers all the way into Paradise. As I ascended, I heard a song of indescribable
beauty. At last I reached the palace of the Messiah, in the highest heavens, known
as the Bird’s Nest. The Messiah was standing by his window, peering out at a tree of great
beauty. I followed his gaze and saw that his eyes were fixed on a golden dove, whose nest
was in the top branches of that tree. That is when I realized that the song pervading all of
Paradise was coming from that golden dove. And I understood that the Messiah could
not bear to be without that dove and its song for as much as a moment. Then it occurred
to me that if I could capture the dove, and bring it back to this world, the Messiah would
be sure to follow.
“So I ascended higher, until I was within arm’s reach of the golden dove. But just as I
reached for it, the ladder of prayers collapsed.”
In this Hasidic tale, “The Ladder of Prayers,” the Ba’al Shem Tov ascends into Paradise
on a quest to capture the golden dove of the Messiah, certain that this will cause
the Messiah to follow, initiating the messianic era. The failure of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
Hasidim to provide the support needed for this great endeavor, as symbolized by the
collapse of the ladder of prayers, causes him to lose the opportunity to bring the Messiah.
That makes this one more tale about why the Messiah has not come. Dozens of
other such tales record lost opportunities to bring about the messianic era, or attempts
to force the Messiah’s hand, and hasten the End of Days.
This tale, and virtually the entire body of rabbinic, kabbalistic, folk, and Hasidic
lore, exists in a mythological framework. The ladder of prayers the Ba’al Shem Tov
ascends was surely inspired by the heavenly ladder in Jacob’s dream. He climbs this
ladder of prayers into Paradise, a mythological realm with its own order, its own
geography, its own history, and its own inhabitants—not only God and the angels,
but the Bride of God and the Messiah as well. It is understood that the Messiah is
waiting for the sign to be given that the time has come for the messianic era. All the
same, Jewish mysticism contains the secret of how to hasten the coming of the Messiah,
secrets 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
the ascent of Elijah in a fiery chariot to the famous tale of the four who entered Paradise.
Indeed, “The Ladder of Prayers,” a Hasidic tale of eighteenth century origin, is a
direct descendant of the legend of the four sages, which dates from the second century.
As did the four sages, the Ba’al Shem Tov ascends to heaven because he seeks
greater knowledge of the divine realm.
The Zohar tells of a dove that makes its nest outside the palace of the Messiah in
Paradise. That is why the palace of the Messiah is also known as the “Bird’s Nest.”
“The Ladder of Prayers” builds on the earlier legendary accounts of the golden dove,
reporting an attempt by the Ba’al Shem Tov to ascend on the ladder of prayers of his
Hasidim into Paradise to capture the dove. The failure of the Ba’al Shem’s Hasidim to
provide the spiritual support needed for this great endeavor, as symbolized by the
collapse of their ladder of prayers, is offered as the reason for the failure to bring the
Messiah in their generation. Thus the tale illustrates the interdependency of the Tzaddik
and his Hasidim. This attempt to capture the golden dove and its failure marks one of
the basic types of mystical tales, those concerning an attempt to hasten the coming of
the Messiah. Several such tales are found in the Talmud. See, in particular, “Forcing
the End,” p. 496. Subsequently such tales are found in virtually every generation,
explaining that there is a potential Messiah who, had all gone well, would have served
as Messiah ben Joseph, preparing the way for Messiah ben David. In this tale of the
Ba’al Shem, however, he ascends directly to the palace of Messiah ben David, determined
to initiate the End of Days. For a variant of this tale, see “The Messiah and the
Ba’al Shem Tov,” following.
Midrash Ribesh Tov; Or ha-Hokhmah, Parashat Beha’alotekha.
646. THE MESSIANIC BANQUET
In the time to come God will prepare a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Behemoth,
Leviathan, and the Ziz, as it is said, He prepared a lavish feast for them (2 Kings 6:23).
God will say to them, “Do you want cider or citrus or grape wine?” Then God will leave
His glorious throne, and sit with them. Who will be seated at the table? The Patriarch
Jacob along with scholars and distinguished students. The rest of Leviathan will be spread
on the walls of Jerusalem, and its radiance will shine from one end of the world to the
other. 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
Messiah-ox makes its home in Paradise, where it waits to fulfill its destiny when the
Messiah comes. Then it will be slaughtered and served at the messianic banquet. Then
God will bring the righteous wine that had been preserved from grapes from the six days
of Creation. Only once before has it been served: when Jacob served wine to his father,
Isaac, at the time he brought the food that Rebecca had prepared. Since Jacob had no
wine with him, an angel provided some for him, and the angel brought that messianic
wine. And he gave it into Jacob’s hand, and Jacob handed it to his father, and he drank.
Of all the patriarchs, why is it that it will be Jacob who will join them at the feast?
When the children of Israel sin, only Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah feels defiled. So
when the gladness of redemption comes, Jacob will rejoice in it more than any of the
other 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
coming of the Messiah. It finds its origin in this messianic prophecy in Isaiah 25:6: The
Lord of Hosts will make on this mountain for all the peoples a banquet of rich viands, a banquet
of choice wines—of rich viands seasoned with marrow, of choice wines well refined. Those
most deserving will taste the flesh of Leviathan. Here the righteous are described as
scholars and distinguished students, reinforcing the notion that study of the Torah is
the most important occupation of all. In addition, they will be joined by the Patriarch
Jacob. The inclusion of Jacob alone suggests the tendency to elevate Jacob to great
heights because of the identification of Jacob and Israel. See “Jacob the Angel,” p. 364
and “Jacob the Divine,” p. 366.
The Book of Paradise, a midrashic satire by Itzik Manger, has the blind Isaac, living in
heaven, mark his portion on the Messiah-ox, which will be slaughtered when the
Messiah comes. This satirizes Isaac’s apparent love of the taste of venison. In one
episode, someone plays a trick on the Messiah-ox by telling it that the Messiah has
come—and therefore it is about to be slaughtered. In terror the ox runs out of Jewish
heaven into Christian heaven—heaven consists of three parts, according to Manger,
the third being Muslim heaven—and the Christians refuse to give him back. This requires
a series of messages between King Solomon and Saint Paul, who rule Jewish
and Christian heaven respectively. Eventually, the Messiah-ox is returned in Manger’s
novel, but it is badly underfed, and there is some question about whether it is fit to be
served at the messianic banquet.
In the frame story of Manger’s satire, the angel Shmuel Abba is commanded to be
reborn, and he manages to get the angel who is to deliver him to earth drunk by
giving him messianic wine. On the day the angel is born, he sits up in the cradle and
he tells the history of his life in Paradise to his astounded parents and all those who
assemble to hear him.
Targum Pseudo-Yonathan 27:25; B. Bava Batra 75a; Midrash Tehillim 14:7; Seder Gan Eden
(version B) in Beit ha-Midrash 3:131-140.
From Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
Copyright © 2004 by Howard Schwartz
All Rights Reserved
None of these myths or commentaries may be reprinted without permission
of the publisher, Oxford University Press.