Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Story of the Two Brothers – Revisited

King Solomon wanted to find a place build the Temple. A heavenly voice directed him from Mount Zion to a field that was once owned by two brothers. One of the brothers was a bachelor and the other was blessed with a wife and children. After the harvest each brother was concerned about the other. Under the cover of night the father kept adding to his brother's pile because he reasoned because he thought the bachelor had no children to support him in his old age. The bachelor added to the father's pile because he thought that with so many children his brother needed more grain. The brothers met in the middle of the field and embraced. This field, a manifestation of brotherly love, King Solomon reasoned this was best site for the Temple.[1]

In 1997, before Google searches and the wide-spread of digitalization out-of-print, a faculty member came into the library with a question about the source of the story about two brothers.  He was very learned in Talmud and other rabbinic sources, but his couldn’t find the source of the story.  He said that the story is so old that it must be from the rabbis. He thought that he remembered it from the Talmud, but couldn't quite remember the source. He wanted my help to find the source.

This article is both an update to the original and an examination of sources I didn’t have available then. 

The 1997 article is one of my most popular because it illustrates how people use stories without understanding their origins. I have referred people to this article because the Two Brothers story is so widely known.  In a recent rabbi’s sermon, the rabbi presented this story as if it was an old Jewish story.  Indeed it is a great example of familial love, honor and respect and how a place can have the honor of commemorate that story. The use of stories is an important part of speeches and sermons.  However, one can not represent a story for something it is not.

If a story is written as a parable to illustrate a point and if you claim the story has ancient, royal roots, it adds credence.   For example at the Yom Tov dinner table one guest told a story about a king who had a daughter who was so special that she was not allowed to have any contact with men before her wedding day. It took a long time for the king to find a groom who would marry the daughter without ever meeting her.  People at the table kept interrupting the storyteller saying, “That is terrible!”  “How can the king be so mean?”  The people listening were impatient.  The story was a parable.  It never happened, but was created to illustrate a point.  The king found a groom.  After the couple got to know each other, the groom asked for another wedding celebration, because at the first one he couldn’t fully understand the love of his life.  If the people listening to the story would have been patient, they would have learned the point to the story was that love is learned and does not happen by accident.

This story of brotherly love contrasts to the stories of brotherly rivalry such as the stories of: Cain and Abel, Yitzhak and Ishmael, Ya’akov and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.  A story of brotherly love is rare.  There is a 2300 year old Egyptian tale of two brothers; the younger, conscientious one is accused by his older brother of a proposal of adultery against his wife.[2]

The story of the two brothers sounds like it is very old because it mentions King Solomon. (Remember royal and ancient add credence.) Since the events seemingly happened in Biblical times, one should first check the Bible.  The story is not in the Bible.  Since the story happened hundreds of years before the Talmud, one would next reason that the story should be found in the Talmud, Midrash, or other rabbinic literature.

A search of the Talmud and Midrash found nothing. We tried Hebrew and English terms such as “two brothers,” “Temple of Solomon,” and Beit Mikdash but found nothing. We wanted to verify the story to be sure that we weren't imagining the story. We tried Bialik's Sefer HaAgadah[3] and Micha Joseph Bin Gorion's Mimekor Yisrael. [4]

Micha Joseph Bin Gorion retells the story as, “A story of the Temple.”   There are no comments or notes. This story was hard to find because the title does not mention “two brothers.”

We looked in the index of The legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953). The story is found on page 154 of volume 4. Ginzberg quotes Israel Costa in Mikweh Israel,[5] no. 59 which says that Berthold Auerbach refers to this legend in his [Black Forest] Village Stories[6]. Ginzberg further speculates that the author may have been drawing upon an oral tradition from the Jews of Russia or Germany. The legend seems to be a midrashic exposition of Psalm 133:1 (How good and how pleasant that brothers dwell together.). Ginzberg is not sure of the source. I was unable to verify the reference that Ginzberg made to Black Forest Village Stories, however I found another reference in a book about Berthold Auerbach[7] (1812-1882)  written by Anton Bettelheim (1851-1930.)   He remembers his mother (died 1852) telling him the story saying that she learned if from a rabbi who was her father’s neighbor.

In Zev Vilnay's Legends of Jerusalem on page 77, he says that Israel Kosta (Mikwah Israel, 1851) relates a story of the two brothers. Vilnay says the legend first appears in the description of travels by Alphonse de Lamartine, Voyage en Orient, I, 1875.[8]

Both Vilnay and Ginzberg are unsure of the exact origin of the legend. The story is definitely not from Biblical or Rabbinic times. It may be a variant on a Russian or French non-Jewish legend. 

Compare this to the evidence in Tanakh (Bible). In II Chronicles 3:1 it says that Solomon built the Temple on Mount Moriah, which was revealed to David. Moriah is connected to Akedat Yitzhak (sacrifice of Isaac). Midrash Tehilim connects Adam and Noah to Mount Moriah. The site had kedushah [holiness] long before the time of King Solomon. This conflicts with the legend of two brothers.

Here are some additional published versions of the story.

Glass, Meredith A.  A tale of two brothers: a retelling of a Jewish folktale for young children.  New York, Bank Street College of Education, 1998.

Hebrew folklore from sidrach stories / edited by Steven M. Rosman. New York, UAHC Press, 1989 p. 19-20.
Smith, Cris, One city, two brothers. Cambridge, MA, Barefoot Books, 2007.

 “A tale of two brothers” in Stories Seldom Told: Biblical stories retold for children & adults / by Lois Miriam Wilson. Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 1997 p 55-56.  

“The two brothers” in The World Over story book / edited by Norton Belth.  New York, Bloch Publishing Company, c1952 p. 10-12. 

The answer to the bibliographic quest is the legend is not rabbinic and even goes against Biblical and rabbinic evidence. There is no recorded evidence of the story before 1835, however, by the time Ginzberg wrote his Legends of the Jews the story was well known. There is weak evidence that the legend is from Russian Jewish sources. We also learn that bibliographic references must be verified since Ginzberg and Vilnay made mistakes recording the titles of books. This is not the final word on the source of the legend because I have not yet located any sources of similar French, Russian or German legends. From this quest we learn that we should be careful about what we call ancient, Biblical, Talmudic or rabbinic.

[1] Sources for fuller versions of this story are listed end the end of this article.  

[2] The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures / edited by  James Bennett Pritchard, Daniel E. Fleming.  Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2010 p. 11.  (Page 12 in the 1958 edition.)  The British Museum web site has a summary of the story.   British Museum site has a picture of the papyrus scroll with the story :

[3] Full reference:  Bialik, Ḥayyim Naḥman. ספר האגדה : מבחר האגדות שבתלמוד ובמדרשים == Sefer ha’Agadah : mivḥar ha’agadot shebi-Talmud. vibamidrashim.  Tel Aviv, Diver, 1967 (and other dates)  English translation: The book of legends : sefer ha-aggadah : legends from the Talmud and Midrash   New York : Schocken Books,  1992.

[4] Mimekor Yisrael : classical Jewish folktales. Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1976.  Vol. 1 page 491-492, no. 270.

[5] Vilnay spells the name as “Kosta”.  Full reference: Costa, IsraelSefer Mikveh Yisrael : ve-hu sefer sipure musar le-ḥanekh et ha-nearim …  Livorno : Belforte, 1851.

[6] The book has several stories about brothers.  In one story the brothers are feuding over the estate of their mother.  They reconcile and live in peace on harmony the rest of their lives.  In another the brothers always helped each other.  In the last scene of the story the majesty of God’s glory descends on them.

[7]  Bettelheim, Anton, Berthold Auerbach; der Mann, sein Werk, sein NachlassStuttgart, Cotta, 1907 p. 13-14.  May be read on the Internet  Archive:

[8] Vilnay says that the story is on page 329 of the 1875 edition, but I was unable to locate this edition.  The book is a report of an 1832 journey that included the land of Israel, first published in Paris in 1835. I found via the Internet Archive (  an 1848 English translation published by D. Appleton and Company.  Front CoverThe title page is the picture at the beginning of this article. After the story de Lamartine comments on page 284:
 What a lovely tradition! How it breathes the unaffected benevolence of patriarchal morals! How simple, primeval  and natural is the inspiration leading men to consecrate to God a spot  on which virtue has germinated  upon earth!  I  have heard heard among the Arabs a hundred of such legends. The air of the Bible is breathed  in all parts of this Earth.

This was a widely circulated book in both the original French and translations.  Note that the story is identified as Arab, not Jewish.

In Studies in Jewish and World Folklore by Haim Schwartzbaum (Berlin, Walter DeGruyter, 1968)  on page 462 are listed more sources.  Schwartzbaum says that the story appeared in the Arabic book of legends, Kalib wa-Dimnah in the prologue attributed to Abdallah ibn Al-Muqaffa (died circa 760).   I was not able to find an English translation of this book online or in an accessible library.

Note:  Nov. 1, 2015  

This article seems to have a lasting effect on people  I was at a lecture this morning and I introduced myself to the person next to me.  He said that he knew me because he has often referred people to this article.  


Anonymous said...

Daniel, as a storyteller and a college librarian, I want to thank you for sharing your careful research into this tale. Something I wonder about: if "The Story of the Two Brothers" does have its roots in European, non-Jewish folklore, what might the content of this variant say about the audiences who responded positively to the story? Why does it continue to speak to us today? --Jennie Kiffmeyer

Daniel D. Stuhlman said...

Daniel, as a storyteller and a college librarian, I want to thank you for sharing your careful research into this tale. Something I wonder about: if "The Story of the Two Brothers" does have its roots in European, non-Jewish folklore, what might the content of this variant say about the audiences who responded positively to the story? Why does it continue to speak to us today?

--Jennie Kiffmeyer



Thanks for your comment.I tried to find French and Russian sources but was unsuccessful. Perhaps the story will ring some bells in a reader in France or Russia?

The research on the story points in several directions – first it is a story of brotherly love. Much of folklore contains stories of conflict. Look at the tales that the Grimm Brothers recorded. How many are tales of familial conflict. On the second level is the bibliographic search for evidence. With the Internet Archive it is now possible to search millions of books and documents and read them online. One does have to be careful when repeating stories. One can’t claim a story is from an ancient source when it isn’t.

Daniel Stuhlman

Daniel D. Stuhlman said...

Changes made to note 8 on May 31, 2012.

may said...

Hi Mr. Stuhlman,
We grew up listening or reading this story in Korea. I cut & pasted the Korean version below from the Korea tourism site:

The Yesan County website has the photo of this monument.

Thank you for sharing your research story!

The story of ‘The Good Brothers’ is the true story of two brothers who lived in the village long ago. There once were two brothers who were very caring and always tried to look after each other. One day, after completing the day’s harvest, the brothers gathered the rice into two equal piles (as was their custom), one for each brother. After looking at his younger brother’s pile, the elder brother decided that his younger brother needed more rice than he did, so he secretly moved some of his rice to his younger brother’s pile. Meanwhile, the younger brother who had been thinking exactly the same thing as his elder brother - that his elder brother would need more rice than he did – moved his rice to the elder brother’s pile. After coming back home, they both found that their own pile looked the same as it had before, despite their efforts. Puzzling as it was, both brothers shrugged it off and continued their work throughout the night. At daybreak, the two brothers ran into each other on their way to and from the rice piles. As the two brothers suddenly realized what had been going on, they were moved to tears by the other’s thoughtfulness and selfless love, falling into each other’s embrace in the middle of the pathway. Later the King honored the two brothers as the perfect examples of brotherly love and filial piety. To this day in Yesan, there stands a statue of these good brothers from the Joseon Dynasty-style, with a plague bearing the title ‘Yesan Yi Seong-Man Good Brothers Monument.’

storydevi said...

a wonderful exploration of a story and its journey! People's like the Jews who lived in many different countries adapted stories and made them their own. One has only to look at the travels of the Jataka tales into Arabic animal tales and Aesop fables. Why we love it, is because it roots us in wisdom delightfully.. and the truth reveals something to us that makes us feel richer. That it was retold by someone in EAstern Europe and said to be a rabbinical tale is so typical of how a story travels from person to person or group to group. maybe within this journey we find our common ground with others in the appreciation and need for wisdom teachings that generate compassion, faith in blessings and goodness.. L.

Ora said...

The Arabic book of legends is "Kalīla wa Dimma", which itself is a translation of an Indian book called the Panchatantra. It was translated (through Hebrew) into English as the "Fables of Bidpai".

I did not find the story of the two brothers, but here's a few more links to aid in the search:

Ora said...

The story which appears in Black Forest Village Stories (Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten) by Berthold Auerbach is called "the Hostile Brothers", and is very different. It does end with the reference to the verse from Psalms.

It's online in English here: