Judah b. Tabbai and Simeon b. Shetach were the third of the “pairs” in the series of dual leadership. It is not clear which one of them was Nasi of the Sanhedrin and which one was head of the court. The name of Judah b. Tabbai is listed first whenever they are mentioned together which may lead to the conclusion that he was the Nasi. However, there exists an opinion that Simeon b. Shetach was Nasi and Judah b. Tabbai was head of the Court.1)חגיגה ט״ז ב׳.
They both lived in an unsettled period. The Sadducees were strongly entrenched in the government of Judea and the struggle with them was difficult and protracted. After the death of the High Priest Jochanan, the throne was assumed by his son Aristobulus and shortly after that it was ascended by his widow who married Alexander Jannai. This marked the beginning of a new epoch for the Pharisees. The new king, who is always referred to under the name of Jannai, was too preoccupied with matters of state to devote himself to the religious problems of the country during the first years of his reign. He therefore left these matters to the queen who referred them to her brother Simeon b. Shetach. Simeon could not free the country of the Sadducee leadership all at once and he therefore proceeded gradually. At first he was the only Pharisee in the Synhedrion. He made it a practice to challenge the decisions of the Synhedrion and to demand that such decisions be authenticated by the text of the Torah. Such proof had to be produced in the presence of the king and queen and he utilized these opportunities to point out that the Sadducees did not interpret the Torah correctly. One by one he managed to remove the Sadducees from the Synhedrion and to replace them with Pharisees.
The conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees thus reached a breaking point. The majority of the religious decisions which Simeon b. Shetach sponsored were largely a protest against the opinions of the Sadducees whose influence on Jewish life he tried to eradicate.
Alexander Jannai spent most of his time in extensive wars during which the freedom of the country was frequently threatened. When, upon his return from a victorious war, he realized that the Pharisees had gained the upper hand in the religious life of the land, he decided to humble them. During the festival of Succoth, as he was standing near the altar and preparing to pour water upon it (a custom much in favor with the Pharisees) he poured the water on his feet instead. Greatly enraged, the populace threw their ethrogim at the king and called him insulting names. The king evidently expected this reaction of the people for he previously stationed a number of mercenaries outside the temple. When the disturbance began the soldiers were called in and a terrible slaughter ensued. Later the king had eight hundred Pharisees, who escaped from the temple, also executed.
Many prominent Pharisees then fled from Jerusalem. Some of them sought refuge in Egypt where they were welcomed with open arms while others hid in the mountains and caves of Judea. Among those who hid in the country was also Simeon b. Shetach who realized that his sister, the queen, could defend him no longer.
Judah b. Tabbai sought shelter in Egypt. It is related that just as Simeon b. Shetach recalled Joshua b. Perachia during the first years of the reign of Alexander Jannai, he thus similarly recalled Judah b. Tabbai at a later date. In his letter recalling Joshua b. Perachia Simeon wrote: “From me, the holy city Jerusalem to you, my sister Alexandria. My master resides within you while I am deserted.” When Simeon invited Judah b. Tabbai he wrote: “From the great city of Jerusalem to the small Alexandria! How long will my bridegroom reside with you while I am sorrowing for him?”
Of the manner in which Simeon b. Shetach returned to Jerusalem from his hiding place it is told that once Alexander Jannai entertained foreign guests. When the assembled were merry with food and drink one of them said: “We remember that a few years ago you had here an old man who entertained us with his wise maxims. Where is he now? Will you call him here?” Jannai looked toward the queen and after he promised her that no harm would befall him, Simeon appeared before the king.
For a short time the persecution of the Pharisees ceased. The king desired to reconcile the people and he sent messengers to inquire of them what he should do to regain their devotion. But the people would not hear of reconciliation and answered that only the death of the king would eradicate the memory of the bloodshed. Some of the Pharisees were not satisfied with this reply and allied themselves with a foreign ruler to oust Alexander Jannai. This still further enraged Jannai against the Pharisees and when he defeated the foreign invader, he had a great number of Pharisees executed.
This last act of revenge stilled the king’s anger against the Pharisees and he persecuted them no more. On the contrary, he became convinced that in order to possess the throne securely, a Jewish sovereign could have no subjects more loyal than the Pharisees. On his death bed he admonished the queen to fear neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees but only to beware of those who pretend to be Pharisees and commit the acts of Zimri while they demand the reward of Pinchas.2)סוטה כ״ב ב׳.
Jannai died at the age of 49 after a reign of twenty seven years. Before he died he appointed the queen to rule the country and asked her to keep his death a secret as long as possible. She fulfilled his wish and appointed their son Hyrcanus High Priest. Simeon b. Shetach resumed his post as head of the Synhedrion (or of the court) and directed all his energies to the struggles with the Sadducees whose teachings he was determined to eradicate. He introduced the law of the “dissenting elder” which prescribed the death sentence for any member of the Synhedrion who opposed a majority in interpreting the law even if the dissenter held to a more severe interpretation or attempted to add to the laws enjoined by the Torah.
Nothing is known of the activities of Judah b. Tabbai during this time. He is mentioned only once as having permitted the execution of a false witness whose testimony would have caused a death sentence to be passed on the defendant if it had been accepted. The Pharisees held that in such a case the false witness should be executd even though the defendant was not put to death. The Sadducees, on the other hand, maintained that as long as the defendant was not put to death the false witness too should not be executed. It was also accepted to pass the same sentence on both witnesses of the prosecution.
When Judah b. Tabbai thus sentenced a single perjured witness to death, Simeon b. Shetach told him that he had caused the blood of an innocent man to be shed because the testimony of two witnesses was required to condemn the defendant. One false witness could under no circumstance cause a death sentence to be passed. Judah b. Tabbai realized his error and thenceforth refused to pass sentence in the absence of Simeon b. Shetach. He frequently visited the grave of the executed witness where he wept bitterly. It was said that whoever heard Judah b. Tabbai weep thought that he heard the weeping of the slain man.3)חגיגה ט״ז א׳.
The following maxim of Judah b. Tabbai has come down to us: “Do not make yourself as one of the advocates; when the suitors are before you let them be as wrongdoers in your sight and when they have departed let them be as innocent men in your estimation seeing they have accepted the sentence.”
Simeon b. Shetach used to say: “Examine thoroughly the witnesses and be careful in your words lest through them they may learn to lie.”
Judah b. Tabbai was noted for his modesty. To illustrate the harm which success may bring to a person he used to tell the following: If someone would have told me before I attained greatness that I would succeed I would have become his enemy for life. Now that I have attained greatness, were someone to tell me that I will lose it, I would be ready to pour boiling water on him.4)אָבות דרבי נתן פרק י׳.
There is a story related of the sojourn of Judah b. Tabbai in Egypt which is very similar to the one told about Joshua b. Perachia. Praising the generosity of the proprietress of his hostelry, he said to his disciples: Do you remember the proprietress who treated me so generously? To this one of his pupils remarked: Rabbi, she had diseased eyes. Judah b. Tabbai said to him: With one statement you have commited two wrongs. You suspected me of having considered the beauty of that woman and I also see that you carefully looked at her face while I only beheld her good deeds.5)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק ב׳ הלכה ב׳.
Witchcraft was commonly believed in Palestine at that time and many people fell under the influence of so called witches who undermined their religious beliefs. Although Simeon b. Shetach did not himself place any faith in the power of the “witches” he nevertheless realized that they were a pernicious influence and lead many to immorality. He therefore had eighty “witches” captured and hanged on the same day. Ordinarily he would not have permitted so many women to be executed on the same day even though the Bible commands that witches be put to death. But he defended his action on this occasion on the ground that the condition of the country required that this plague which was devouring the people like a contagious disease had to be uprooted.6)סנהדרין מ״ו א׳.
Among the executed “witches” there were many whose relatives sought to avenge their deaths. These bribed false witnesses to testify that the son of Simeon b. Shetach committed a crime that was punishable by death. The Synhedrion, after hearing the testimony, condemned the young man to be put to death. But as he was being led to execution, the witnesses confessed their perjury. Simeon wanted to accept their recantation but his son said to him: “If you would have the teachings of the Pharisees accepted without question then you must not permit witnesses to repudiate their testimony. You must therefore accept this as my fate to become the means for the attainment of your ends.”7)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק ו׳ הלכה ו׳.
Simeon’s son was concerned lest it should become impossible to punish false witnesses if they were given the right to repudiate their previous testimony. Whether Simeon made other attempts to save his son and whether he was successful remains unknown.
Another time, it is told, Simeon saw a man with a knife in his hand pursuing another man into a ruin. Simeon followed him inside where he saw blood upon the knife and the other man wounded and expiring in agony. Simeon addressed the murderer: “Wicked man, it is clear who murdered this man, but you are lucky that I can do nothing to you for the Torah says that two witnesses are required to condemn a criminal while I am the only one who witnessed the crime.8)סנהדרין ל״ז ב׳.
That the relations between Simeon b. Shetach and king Jannai were never cordial even when they were together is amply illustrated by numerous stories concerning the two men. Once, it is told, a man was killed by a slave of the king. (Probably one of the king’s mercenaries.) The Synhedrion informed Jannai of the crime and the king sent his servant to face judgment by the court. But the court demanded that the king appear in person since in the eyes of the law a slave was like any other livestock for which its owner is responsible. When Jannai appeared before the Synhedrion he sat down and Simeon b. Shetach said to him: “King Jannai, stand on your feet, not to honor us but in honor of the Creator of the universe.” To this Jannai replied: I will stand only if your colleagues will also demand it. But all the members of the Synhedrion remained silent. Simeon turned to his right and he saw them lower their eyes; he turned to his left and he met the same sight. Simeon thereupon said: Let him who can read your thoughts punish you for your thoughts at this moment.9)סנהדרין י״ט א׳. Since that time the law was established that a king could not judge nor could he be judged; he was not to be called as a witness nor was anyone to bear testimony against him.10)סנהדרין י״ט ב׳.
One of the important regulations instituted by Simeon b. Shetach concerned the ״כתובה״ (marriage certificate) of a woman. Until that time women had no right over the property of their husbands. The husband gave to the father of the bride a sum mentioned in the Kethubah. When a man wanted to divorce his wife he said to her: Go and take the money of the Kethubah from your father. Simeon b. Shetach ruled that the husband should retain the sum specified in the Kethubah. In this manner the wife became a partner to all his possessions which served as her guarantee. Indirectly it also made it more difficult to obtain a divorce.11)שבת י״ב ב׳.
Simeon b. Shetach also ruled that every father must engage a teacher for his children. Previously it was customary for a parent who wanted his son to acquire knowledge to send him to the academies of the great scholars; otherwise the children grew up in ignorance and came in contact with religious training only on the rare occasions when they visited Jerusalem.12)ירושלמי כתובות פרק ח׳ הלכה י״א.
Simeon b. Shetach lived in poverty most of his life. During the time that he was in hiding to save his life from the wrath of his royal brother-in-law, he could not utilize his scholarship to gain a livelihood. He then became a flax merchant. Once he bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite. When he brought his donkey home, his disciples found a diamond in a little bag tied around the animal’s neck. They said to their teacher: God’s blessing has made you rich. But Simeon answered: I only bought the animal but not the diamond. When he returned the diamond to the Ishmaelite the latter exclaimed: Praised be the God of Simeon b. Shetach.13)ירושלמי בבא מציעא פרק ב׳ הלכה ה׳.
After his death, Alexander Jannai was succeeded by his widow Salome, the sister of Simeon b. Shetach, who ruled for nine years until her death at the age of 73. The date of Simeon’s death remains unknown.