Tag Archives: Rabbinic Judaism

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!

Purim: The First Jewish Holiday

Next Wednesday evening brings the festive holiday of Purim, the last in the Jewish calendar year. Most have heard the basic story: the Jewish people are dispersed across the vast Persian Empire, where an evil minister (Haman) has devised a plot to exterminate them all on one fateful day. Mordechai and the secretly-Jewish Queen Esther save the day. The whole narrative is recorded in Megillat Esther, a short text at the end of the Tanakh. While every Jew (and most gentiles) have heard of Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah, Purim remains among the lesser-known Jewish holidays. And yet, in several places across our holy texts, Purim is recognized as being essentially the greatest of holidays, and the only one to remain following the coming of Mashiach. For example, the midrash of Yalkut Shimoni (in Passage 944) states:

…כל המועדים עתידין ליבטל וימי הפורים אינן בטלים לעולם

“All the holidays are destined to be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified for eternity…”

An 18th-Century Megillah

An 18th-Century Megillah

Purim is not only the last holiday on the Jewish calendar year, but the last to remain in the future. What are we to make of such statements? What makes Purim so special that it stands alone among holidays that will be commemorated by Jews for eternity?

To properly answer this question requires first answering a more fundamental question: When did Judaism begin?

The First Jew

What is the starting point of Judaism? When can we say for sure that the Jewish people had their beginning? Who was the first Jew?

Some erroneously believe that Adam and Eve were the first Jews. This is, of course, grossly incorrect, as the Torah views Adam and Eve simply as the first civilized humans. More commonly, people point to Abraham as the first Jew. Though he is certainly the first of the forefathers, and the point at which the tradition – in some shape or form – begins, it is very hard to describe him as “Jewish”. After all, the Torah in its full form wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later. So, it must be Moses and the Israelites, who received the Torah at Sinai following the Exodus. Surely, they were the first Jews! Indeed, most people would pick that moment as the official start of the Jewish people.

Yet, the truth is that those Israelites were practicing a very different religion. There were no synagogues in those days, no amidah prayer and no tehillim, no volumes of Talmud to study, and the events of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Chanukah, Purim, and Tisha b’Av (among others) wouldn’t happen until far in the future. This was a religion centred on sacrificial offerings (the details of which we read in this week’s parasha of Vayikra, and the rest of the Torah’s third book).

Today, we have no korbanot, no pilgrimage festivals, no Temple or Mishkan, no death penalties, no polygamy, no prophecy, no slavery, no tithes, no priests, no Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites, or Amalekites. Though this Shabbat we will read parashat Zachor to remember the evil Amalekites and remind ourselves to destroy them, we have no idea who the “Amalekites” actually are in our times!

The Judaism of today – focused on Torah study, prayer, and halakhah – is completely different than the ancient Israelites’ religion of sacrifices, agricultural laws, and priestly laws. And, of course, those Israelites certainly weren’t known as “Jews”.

Having said that, we are undoubtedly bound by a chain of tradition, and there is a clear evolution from ancient Israelite to modern Jew. At which point did everything change?

The Birth of the Jewish People

Some 2500 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, together with its Holy Temple. While the previous destruction of the Kingdom of Israel resulted in most of its populace being scattered across the Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Judah did not suffer the same fate. Instead, the people of Judah (among them many Benjaminites and Levites, as well as refugees from the other Israelite tribes which fled to Judah when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed) were taken captive to Babylon.

The Temple, with all of its sacrifices and offerings, was gone, and so were the priestly rituals. The people were no longer farmers on their own lands; the many agricultural laws of the Torah no longer applied. Pilgrimages festivals in Jerusalem were no longer possible either. To survive, the religion had to undergo a major transformation.

In Babylon, offering sacrifices was not possible, so the people began to offer prayers instead. Making pilgrimages was not possible, so people gave the festivals new meanings, and celebrated them with feasts at home. In Babylon, observing the Torah’s laws directly was not possible, but studying the laws was, so this is what the people did, preserving the law in their hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, those who best knew the law were most respected. The priest gave way to the rabbi. And perhaps most importantly, across the Babylonian domain, as the various Israelite tribes blended together and assimilated, ancestral history became blurry, and everyone simply became known as a “Yehudi”, from the name of the most populous of the tribes, and the last surviving kingdom, Judah.

Thus, it is really at this point, in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples, where Judaism as we know it is born. And this is precisely the time of Purim.

The First Rabbi

Purim takes place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, and shortly before the construction of the Second Temple. It is in Megillat Esther that we are first introduced to the “Jews”:

There was a Yehudi man in Susa the capital city, and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (Esther 2:5)

'The Triumph of Mordechai' by Pieter Lastman (1624)

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

Mordechai is from the tribe of Benjamin, yet he is described as a Yehudi. As we continue reading, we see no more mention of any specific tribes of Israel. Rather, the text always refers to the people, wherever they were across the 127 territories of the empire, as Yehudim. They had now officially become, not Israelites or Hebrews, but Jews.

Their leader is Mordechai: not a priest, not a Levite, not a king, and not a prophet (at least, not according to the plain text, though later traditions suggest that he really was a prophet). Back in the land of Israel, the leadership used to be held firmly by the Kohanim in the Temple, and by the royal family in the palace. In Babylon, none of that mattered. Mordechai was simply a wise man, a respected communal leader and advisor. One may even argue that Mordechai is history’s first “rabbi” in the proper sense of the term.

Purim as Independence Day

By the time the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, and finally rebuild the Temple, they had become accustomed to their new religious ways. Soon, the Great Assembly compiled the Tanakh, and laid down the first texts of prayer and blessing. The Second Temple was not nearly what the First Temple had been; it was devoid of the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Tumim. The age of prophecy had ended, too, as did the monarchy. Though there was a return to Torah law, the law was superseded by imperial law, now that Israel was a vassal of the Persian Empire, and then the Greek, and finally the Roman.

A split among the Jewish people was slowly developing: There were those who wanted to return to the ways of ancient Israel, centred on the Temple, together with its priestly and agricultural laws. And then there were those who wanted to maintain the ways that had developed in Babylon. Ultimately, they would form two groups: the Tzdukim, or Sadducees, and the Perushim, or Pharisees. Their names reveal much:

Though it is thought that “Tzduki” comes from the name of their founder, Tzadok, it nonetheless shares a root with tzedek, as this group thought they were the correct ones, following the proper ancient way. Meanwhile, “Perushi” literally means “separatist”, as these were the “reformers” trying to change the ancient system. Not surprisingly, the Tzdukim were primarily composed of the priestly classes, who wanted to restore their central role among the people, while the Perushim were composed primarily of the scholarly class. Perhaps to distance themselves from the Perushim, the Tzdukim rejected any concept of an “Oral Tradition”, and stuck firmly to what is written in the Torah. The Perushim, meanwhile, maintained that there is an ancient tradition dating back to Moses.

As the priests, the Tzdukim controlled the Temple, and relegated the Perushim to the sidelines. Ironically, this sealed their doom, for when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Tzdukim and their faulty ideology collapsed with it. Not dependant on a Temple, the Perushim survived. Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah thrived along with them. And here we are today.

This entire chain of events was set in motion with the story of Purim, which describes the rise of the Jewish people, and their salvation from the brink of destruction. Had it gone another way, Haman would have finished off what Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar started; the Israelites would have perished, and Judaism as we know it would have never emerged. And so, Purim is a sort of “Independence Day” for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes Purim as the last of Jewish holidays because, ironically, it is really the first of Jewish holidays!

We can now better understand, beyond the chronological reasons, why the short Megillat Esther was included in the last sections of the Tanakh. What began at the birth of humanity with Adam and Eve, then progressed through Abraham and the start of monotheistic faith, and was propelled onwards by Moses and the prophets that followed, culminated with the final formation of the Jewish nation. The Tanakh thus presents us with a clear, sequential evolution from start to finish. Abraham was called Ivri, a Hebrew, and Jacob became Israel, with his twelve sons founding twelve tribes that ultimately came out Egypt. Those tribes settled in the Holy Land, but were later scattered across the successive Assyrian-Babylonian-Persian Empires. And it was in the Persian Empire that we truly became Jews. The Tanakh essentially ends on that note, its central narrative having been completed.

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

Sefer Yetzirah famously states the principle that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning is wedged in the end.” Based on this, we can see a far more profound reason for why Purim alone will be celebrated in Messianic times. As the story of the Jewish people’s official beginning, Megillat Esther also encodes within it the secret of the end.

The Megillah describes a world where Jews are scattered from East to West, fractured apart, assimilating. God is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Megillat Esther is unique in that it makes no explicit mention of God anywhere in the text, as if everything is simply up to chance, hence the name Purim, literally “lotteries”.

Indeed, the world we see today is a mirror of that described in Esther: Jews are once again scattered all over the world, fractured and assimilated, living in a seemingly Godless universe. Once again, we are confronted with intense hatred, and many seek our extermination. The rest of the world is blind to this, appeasing those very people who openly state their aims of annihilating the Jews. It goes without saying that, once again, Persia is at the centre of this threat. With everything that’s going on in the world, there seems to be little hope.

But Purim comes along and reminds us that God is with us, as hard as it might be to see. Salvation will surely come, and from the unlikeliest of places. In the final moments, everything will flip upside down. Just as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordechai, those who seek to eliminate the Jews will succumb to their own evil devices. And the Jewish people will once again have, to quote the Megillah (8:16), “light, joy, happiness, and honour.”