Tag Archives: Nasi

Who Was the First Rabbi in History?

Tuesday evening marks the start of Chanukah. This is the only major Jewish holiday without a basis in the Tanakh. However, there is a scriptural Book of Maccabees—which recounts the history of Chanukah and the chronicles of Matityahu, Judah and the Hashmonean brothers—but it was not included in the Tanakh. Some say it was not included because by that point (2nd-century BCE), the Tanakh had already been compiled by the Knesset haGedolah, the “Great Assembly” which re-established Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Others argue that the Tanakh was not completely sealed by the Knesset, since it appears that the Book of Daniel may have been put together around the same time as the Book of Maccabees, but was included in the Tanakh, while later still the rabbis of the Talmud debate whether certain books (such as Kohelet, “Ecclesiastes”, and Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs”) should be included.

It is possible that the Book of Maccabees was not included for the same reason why there is no Talmudic tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a tractate for every other major holiday. (Chanukah is discussed in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat). Some argue that the events of Chanukah were so recent at the time that everyone knew them well, so having a large tractate for Chanukah was simply unnecessary. The other, more likely, reason is that although the Hashmonean Maccabees were heroes in the Chanukah period, they soon took over the Jewish monarchy (legally forbidden to them since they were kohanim) and actually adopted the Hellenism that they originally fought so valiantly against!

The first Hashmonean to rule was Shimon, one of the five sons of Matityahu. He was the only son to survive the wars with the Seleucid Greeks. He became the kohen gadol (high priest), and took the title of nasi, “leader” or “prince”, though not a king. Although he was a successful ruler, Shimon was soon assassinated along with his two elder sons. His third son, Yochanan, took over as kohen gadol.

Yochanan saw himself as a Greek-style king, and took on the regnal name Hyrcanus. His son, Aristobulus (no longer having a Jewish name at all) declared himself basileus, the Greek term for a king, after cruelly starving his own mother to death. Aristobulus’ brother, Alexander Jannaeus (known in Jewish texts as Alexander Yannai) was even worse, starting a campaign to persecute rabbis, including his brother-in-law, the great Shimon ben Shetach. Ultimately, Yannai’s righteous wife Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion) ended the persecution, brought her brother Shimon and other sages back from exile in Egypt, and ushered in a decade of prosperity. It was Salome that re-established the Sanhedrin, opened up a public school system, and mandated the ketubah, a marriage document to protect Jewish brides. After her death, the kingdom fell apart and was soon absorbed by Rome.

‘Alexander Jannaeus feasting during the crucifixion of the Pharisees’ by Willem Swidde (c. 1690)

Sadducees and Pharisees

While Alexander Yannai was aligned with the Sadducees, Salome Alexandra was, like her brother Shimon ben Shetach, a Pharisee. The Sadducees (Tzdukim) and Pharisees (Perushim) were the two major movements or political parties in Israel at the time. The former only accepted the written Torah as divine, while the latter believed in an Oral Tradition dating back to the revelation at Sinai. Thus, “Rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today is said to have developed from Pharisee Judaism.

Because the Sadducees only accepted the written Torah, their observance was highly dependent on the Temple and the land of Israel, since most of the Torah is concerned with sacrificial and agricultural laws. When the Romans ultimately destroyed the Temple and the majority of Jews went into exile, Sadducee Judaism simply could not survive. (Later, a similar movement based solely on the written Torah, Karaite Judaism, would develop.) Meanwhile, the Pharisees and their Oral Tradition continued to develop, adapt, and flourish in exile, resulting in the Judaism of today.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan states that the Sadducees get their name from one Tzadok, a student of the sage Antigonus. Antigonus famously taught (Pirkei Avot 1:3) that one should serve God simply for the sake of serving God, and not in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. It is this teaching that led to Tzadok’s apostasy. Indeed, we know that the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead or apparently any kind of afterlife at all. This makes sense, since the Sadducees only accepted the Chumash as law, and the Chumash itself never mentions an afterlife explicitly.

In that same first chapter of Pirkei Avot, we read that Antigonus was the student of Shimon haTzadik, the last survivor of the Knesset HaGedolah. Antigonus passed down the tradition to Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, who passed it down to Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai haArbeli, who passed it down to Shimon ben Shetach and Yehuda ben Tabai. This means that Shimon ben Shetach, brother of Queen Salome Alexandra, lived only three generations after Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly. This presents a problem since, according to traditional Jewish dating, the Great Assembly was about 300 years before the rule of Salome. (It is even more problematic according to secular dating, which calculates nearly 500 years!) It is highly unlikely that three generations of consecutive sages could span over 300 years.

The rabbinic tradition really starts with Shimon haTzadik, the earliest sage to be cited in the Talmud. He is said to have received the tradition from the last of the prophets in the Great Assembly, thus tying together the rabbinic period with the Biblical period of prophets. Yet, Shimon haTzadik himself is not called a “rabbi”, and neither is his student Antigonus, or Antigonus’ students, or even Hillel and Shammai. The title “rabban” is later used to refer to the nasi of the Sanhedrin, while the first sages to properly be called “rabbi” are the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader at the time of the Temple’s destruction by the Romans.

Despite this, the title “rabbi” is often applied retroactively to earlier sages, including Shimon ben Shetach, Yehoshua ben Perachiah, and others, all the way back to Shimon haTzadik, the first link in the rabbinic chain. Who was Shimon haTzadik?

The Mystery of Shimon haTzadik

The most famous story of Shimon haTzadik is recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 69a). In this story, Alexander the Great is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, so Shimon goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle.

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

While it is highly doubtful that the egomaniacal Alexander (who had himself declared a god) would ever bow down to anyone, this story is preserved in a number of texts, including that of Josephus, the first-century historian who was an eye-witness to the Temple’s destruction. In Josephus, however, it is not Shimon who meets Alexander, but another priest called Yaddua. Yaddua is actually mentioned in the Tanakh (Nehemiah 12:22), which suggests he was a priest in the days of the Persian emperor Darius. Of course, it was Darius III whom Alexander the Great defeated. It seems Josephus’ account is more accurate in this case.

In fact, in Sotah 33a, the Talmud tells another story of Shimon haTzadik, this one during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula. We know that Caligula reigned between 37 and 41 CE—over three centuries after Alexander the Great! The Talmud thus gives us three different time periods for the life of Shimon haTzadik: a few generations before Shimon ben Shetach, or a few centuries before in the time of Alexander the Great, or centuries after in the time of Caligula. Which is correct?

The First Rabbi

The Book of Maccabees (I, 2:1-2) introduces the five sons of Matityahu in this way:

In those days, Matityahu ben Yochanan ben Shimon, a priest of the descendants of Yoariv, left Jerusalem and settled in Modi’in. He had five sons: Yochanan, called Gaddi; Shimon, called Thassi; Yehuda, called Maccabee; Elazar, called Avaran; and Yonatan, called Apphus.

Each of the five sons of Matityahu has a nickname. The second son, Shimon, is called “Thassi” (or “Tharsi”). This literally means “the wise” or “the righteous”, aka. HaTzadik. It was Shimon who survived the Chanukah wars and re-established an independent Jewish state. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 14:41-46) tells us:

And the Jews and their priests resolved that Shimon should be their leader and high priest forever until a true prophet should appear… And all the people agreed to decree that they should do these things to Shimon, and Shimon accepted them and agreed to be high priest and general and governor of the Jews…

Apparently, Shimon was appointed to lead the Jews by a “great assembly” of sorts, which nominated him and, after his acceptance, decreed that he is the undisputed leader. The Book of Maccabees therefore tells us that Shimon the Maccabee was a righteous and wise sage, a high priest, and leader of Israel that headed an assembly. This is precisely the Talmud’s description of Shimon haTzadik!

Perhaps over time the “great assembly” of Shimon was confused with the Great Assembly of the early Second Temple period. This may be why Pirkei Avot begins by stating that Shimon haTzadik was of the Knesset haGedolah. In terms of chronology, it makes far more sense that Shimon haTzadik was Shimon Thassi—“Simon Maccabeus”—who died in 135 BCE. This fits neatly with Shimon ben Shetach and Salome Alexandra being active a few generations later, in the 60s BCE as the historical record attests. It also makes sense that Shimon haTzadik’s student is Antigonus, who carries a Greek name, just as we saw earlier that following Shimon the leaders of Israel were adopting Greek names.

Thus, of the three main versions of Shimon haTzadik in the Talmud, it is the one in Avot that is historically accurate, and not the one in Yoma (where he is placed nearly three centuries before Shimon ben Shetach) or the one in Sotah (where he is in the future Roman era).

‘Mattathias of Modi’in killing a Jewish apostate’ by Gustav Doré

Furthermore, we must not forget that Shimon the Maccabee was one of the instigators of the revolt against the Greeks and their Hellenism. He was the son of Matityahu, a religious, traditional priest, who fled Jerusalem when it was taken over by Hellenizers (as we quoted above, I Maccabees 2:1). Shimon was certainly aligned with the traditional Pharisees, and it was only his grandson Alexander Yannai who turned entirely to the more Hellenized Sadducees and began persecuting the Pharisees. As Rabbinic Judaism comes directly from Pharisee Judaism, it makes sense that the tradition begins with Shimon the Maccabee, or Simon Thassi, ie. Shimon haTzadik.

Interestingly, the Book of Maccabees states that Matityahu was a descendent of Yoariv. This name is mentioned in the Tanakh. I Chronicles 24:7 lists Yoariv as the head of one of the 24 divisions of kohanim, as established in the days of King David. The same chapter states that Yoariv was himself a descendent of Elazar, the son of Aaron the first kohen. Thus, there is a fairly clear chain of transmission from Aaron, all the way down to Matityahu, and his son Shimon.

Shimon continued to pass down the tradition, not to his son Yochanan—who was swayed by the Greeks and became John Hyrcanus—but to his student Antigonus. (Depending on how one reads Avot, it is possible that Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan were also direct students of Shimon haTzadik.) It appears we have found the historical Shimon haTzadik, and closed the gap on the proper chronology of the Oral Tradition dating back to Sinai.

If this is the case, then Chanukah is a celebration of not only a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greeks, but of the very beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, with one of Chanuka’s central heroes being none other than history’s first rabbi.

Chag sameach!

The Talmud on America’s Solar Eclipse

NASA image from the August 21st solar eclipse

Earlier this week, people across America experienced a unique event that has not occurred there in a century: a coast-to-coast, total solar eclipse. While partial solar eclipses are generally visible from somewhere on Earth twice a year, a total eclipse is harder to catch—the last one in the US was forty years ago, and the last to be visible across the entire span of the country was in 1918.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is a regular phenomenon, and one that can be predicted long in advance, the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) seems to suggest it is a sign of human misconduct:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable: To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became angry with them he said to his servant, “Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark”.

Our Sages suggest that God brings about eclipses (or more accurately, total eclipses, the only kind that would bring about the kind of darkness described above) when He is unhappy with man’s sinful ways. This apparently contradicts the notion that eclipses are a cyclical, recurring event. Yet, the Talmud is full of discussions illustrating the astronomical expertise of our Rabbis, who could perfectly calculate the arrival of new moons, knew the cosmos like the backs of their hands, and accurately estimated the number of stars in the universe centuries before scientists came up with the same numbers (see Berakhot 32b).

In fact, the current Hebrew calendar that we use was affixed by the Talmudic sage known as Hillel II (not to be confused with Hillel the Elder), who calculated the months far into the future, and was only able to accurately do so by taking into account the dates of predicted solar and lunar eclipses. That means that the sages of the Talmud were certainly well aware of the fact that eclipses are a regular, predictable phenomenon. This was also long known by Greek and Roman astronomers. So, how could the Talmud state that eclipses depend on man’s ways?

Map showing the paths of solar eclipses over a 25 year period. Most do not pass through inhabited areas.

To deal with this conundrum, multiple answers have been proposed. One of these is that the Sages are referring to visible eclipses only. The Torah tells us that the luminaries were created, in part, to serve as signs for humans (Genesis 1:14). If God wanted to make known that He is unhappy, we would obviously have to be able to see the eclipse. Although eclipses can happen multiple times a year, they are seldom visible from habitable locations. Some 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water, so eclipses are most likely to be visible only from some marine location in the middle of the ocean. Further still, of the remaining portion of Earth that’s covered by land, only 10% is actually inhabited by humans. There could be other factors as well, like cloudy weather. Or, the moon simply does not cover enough of the sun for people to even notice. (As anyone not in the path of the total eclipse probably learned on Monday, when they were unable to look at the sun for more than a split second because it was still way too bright without eclipse glasses—which no one had in Talmudic times.) This is indeed what the Talmud later clarifies:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun. If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west…

An eclipse is a bad sign only for that specific place where the eclipse is visible. In His Infinite Wisdom, God pre-programmed Creation so that eclipses would be visible at the precise time and place where they are necessary to give people a wake-up call. As such, it isn’t surprising that America had a coast-to-coast eclipse precisely at this moment, with everything that’s recently been going on in the country.

What exactly is it that God is unhappy about when an eclipse occurs?

Our Rabbis taught: On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an av beit din who died and was not mourned properly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out loud in the city and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time.

The United States has been plagued with all of these things: fellow American citizens—brothers—at each other’s throats, “shedding” each other’s blood for silly ideological reasons; the rampant sexual immorality; the tremendous amount of injustice and apathy, where there is seemingly no one to save a “troubled maiden”.

And what of the av beit din? In early Talmudic times, the leader of the Jews was the nasi, the “president” of the Sanhedrin, and his “vice-president” was the av beit din, literally “head of the court”, the top judge of the land. (Appropriately, this week’s parasha is Shoftim, “judges”.) Last year saw the mysterious sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death was unexamined and quickly swept under the rug, triggering a flood of conspiracy theories. This is a sign of far greater societal issues. All of the above is reminiscent of a famous Talmudic prophecy (Sotah 49b) describing the time before Mashiach’s coming:

In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality. Galilee will be destroyed, and Gablan desolate, and the “people of the border” will go about from place to place without anyone to take pity on them. The wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.

With everything that’s happening around us right now, it certainly feels like there is none left to rely upon but our Father in Heaven. It is quite fitting that the solar eclipse happened at the end of the Hebrew month of Av, literally “father”, which is precisely meant to remind us of our “Father in Heaven”. As long as we recognize this, and take upon ourselves to be good “children”, there is no need to fear, as the Talmudic passage on solar eclipses concludes:

… When Israel fulfils the will of the Omnipresent, they need not have fear of all these [omens] as it is said, “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them”—the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed.


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