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.



Zohar 2:8a-9a.





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.





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.