Mekhilta Deuteronomy 32:37-38

Titus in the Temple

3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Mekhilta Deuteronomy


Source(s) that the text is built upon (explicitly – quotations, references – or implicitly): 

Deuteronomy 32:37-38


This midrash discusses a few verses from Moses’s poem before his death: “Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people, have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone, neither bond nor free remaining. Then he will say: Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their libations? Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection! See now that I, even I am he; there is no god beside me” (Deuteronomy 32:37-39, NRSV). The midrash, which also has a parallel in Sifre Deuteronomy 327-328, brings teachings from Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Neḥemiya that expound these verses. According to rabbinic texts, the two sages were students of Rabbi Akiba, and were especially active after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the second century CE. In Section A, the midrash opens with the biblical lemma and then informs that there are two sages who offer different understandings of these verses. Although in the biblical context Moses ascribes these words to God, in the midrash these words are uttered either by Israel to the nations of the world (according to Rabbi Yehudah), or by the nations referring to Titus, who destroyed the Temple (according to Rabbi Neḥemiya). Thus, in this text, “the nations of the world” denote Rome.   

Section B presents Rabbi Yehudah’s reading that Israel would say this verse to the nations of the world in the future. According to Menahem I. Kahana, “Pages,” p. 171, the word alot denotes auxiliary battalions. This word originated from the Latin word ala (alae in plural) that refers to auxiliary battalions that included only cavalry. The sound of the word God in Hebrew, which in Deuteronomy 32:37 is written as “eloheimo,” resembles the word alot, thus the biblical verse is understood to mean that Israel asks the nations of the world: “Where are the Caesarean (imperial) regiments and the legions that raised Annona for you?” The midrash that was composed under Roman rule and hegemony imagines a future in which this military power will vanish. The passage specifically refers to the Caesarean battalions and to the legions, and connects them to the Annona. The Annona was a grain supply for the city of Rome, partly from the tax of the provinces. Later, towards the end of the second century and the beginning of the third, it also included the supply for the army, which was imposed on the local population. Here, there is an association between these taxes and gifts, and the Roman army. Thus, from a rabbinic perspective, the Annona is a tax that was collected for Rome and (especially the Roman army) and so are the gifts (dil’tome’, according to Kahana, “Pages,” p. 171, from the word delatum) and salary which are connected to the biblical words, “Who ate the fat of their sacrifices” (Deuteronomy 32:38, NRSV). Thus, Rabbi Yehudah concludes: “Let them rise up and help you” (Deuteronomy 32:38, NRSV). Interestingly enough, Israel’s words to the Romans include several Greek and Latin words: “Caesarean battalions (alae)”; legions; Annona; gifts (dil’tome’); and salaries (solariya’ probably from salarium).  

However, according to Section C of this midrash, Rabbi Neḥemiya attributed these verses to Titus in the sanctum of the Holy of Holies, the most consecrated section of the Temple. Titus is not presented here as the destroyer of the Temple during the Great Jewish revolt, but rather as the one who sinfully entered the place where only the Jewish high priest was allowed to enter once a year on Atonement Day. Titus is also described as blaspheming against God and as tearing the Temple’s curtains, which separated the holy from the sanctum of the Holy of Holies (Mishnah Yoma 5:1). In the midrash, Titus cites biblical verses to show the people of Israel that their God has no power and they were misled by Moses as their offerings have no impact. So Titus concludes his speech with the words: “Let them rise up and help you” (Deuteronomy 32:38, NRSV). Thus, as the words of Israel to the Romans in Section B are replete with Greek and Latin words the words of Titus include biblical verses. However, according to Rabbi Neḥemiya, God immediately punishes those who desecrate His name as indicated by the next verse: “See now that I, even I am he; [there is no god beside me],” (Deuteronomy 32:39, NRSV cf: Mark 13:6; 14:61; Luke 22:70; 24:39). Despite the fact that God would punish Titus for his actions and words, this section presents the idea – put in Titus’s mouth – that God did not help His sons (Israel) and that their cult did not help. While the later amoraic texts from the fifth century, such as Leviticus Rabbah 22:3, describe the punishment imposed upon Titus and his acknowledgment of God’s power, in the tannaitic texts these issues are not addressed.    

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