SHEMAIAH AND ABTALION succeeded Judah b. Tabbai and Simeon b. Shetach to leadership in Jewish life. Shemaiah became Nasi of the Sanhedrin and Abtalion occupied the post of head of the court.
Of their descent it is told that they were children or grandchildren of proselytes. But despite the fact that the position of the descendants of proselytes, even to the tenth generation, was not very favorable, they achieved the highest honors which Jews of that time could hope to attain. It is also necessary to remember that Shemaiah and Abtalion lived before the treason of the Idumeans and proselytes were therefore not viewed with suspicion.
We also do not know who chose these two scholars to their positions and whether their election was peacefully accomplished. It is possible that the king of Judea, who surrounded himself with mercenaries to protect himself from his subjects, purposely chose descendants of proselytes to head the Sanhedrin in the hope that they would side with the Sadducees. However, if that was his intention he was mistaken, for although Shemaiah and Abtalion were peaceful people who did not meddle in politics, they faithfully clung to the Pharisees and did not make the least change in the system of interpreting the commandments of the Torah as it was established by the previous scholars.
Shemaiah and Abtalion were influential during one of the unhappiest periods in Jewish history. Before her death, Salome, the widow of Alexander Jannai relinquished the throne to her son Jochanan Hyrcanus who was a peaceful retiring man. Jochanan’s brother, Aristobulus, did not approve of the arrangement and started a war against his brother which ended with a compromise. Aristobulus became king and Jochanan Hyrcanus assumed the High Priesthood. This arrangement may have proved to be lasting were it not for a friend of Hyrcanus, Antipater by name, who was a descendant of the forced Idumean converts, who were brought into the Jewish fold by Hyrcanus’ grandfather. Antipater sought to create discord between the two rulers. He tried to persuade Aristobulus that his brother was planning to regain the throne. But Aristobulus paid no heed to his accusation although there was some justification in it since Hyrcanus was the older of the two brothers and thus the rightful heir to the throne. Failing in this attempt, Antipater told Hyrcanus that Aristobulus wanted to be rid of him in order to unite the throne and the High Priest’s office in his person.*)The names of the princes of the Hasmonean family were constantly repeated. This must be borne in mind when one comes across similar names.
Antipater suggested that it would be easier to carry on a war against his brother from outside the city and advised that Hyrcanus leave Jerusalem. Hyrcanus accepted this advice and together with a host of followers he left the city. Hyrcanus established an alliance with a neighboring Arab king who was told that Aristobulus wished to annex his land and he was. promised considerable compensation for his aid in the forthcoming war against Aristobulus.
Reinforced by the Arab king, Hyrcanus besieged Jerusalem. This siege, however, was against the king only and not against the people and the besiegers decided to permit the daily sacrifice to be offered at the temple. Every day the priests within the city lowered a sum of money from the wall of the city and the besiegers hoisted up the animals required for the sacrifice.
One of the besiegers, a man who spoke Greek, told the soldiers to hoist up pigs instead of the usual animals because it would be impossible to take the city as long as the daily sacrifices were properly conducted. It is unknown where they obtained pigs in Palestine, but this act shocked the whole people who fantastically embellished the consequences of this horrible mockery. It was told that when the pigs stuck their nails (!) into the walls of Jerusalem the whole countryside shook for four hundred miles. A tornado accompanied by an earthquake swept the land. Darkness covered the land during midday and in one moment all the grain on the fields surrounding Jerusalem wilted. When it was later necessary to bring the “Omer,” the first ripened sheaf, there was none found near Jerusalem and it was necessary to bring one from a long distance.
The Sadducees had lost most of their influence by that time and when the inhabitants of the countryside about Jerusalem had to bring the Paschal lamb but could not enter the city, they went to offer this sacrifice in the temple of Onias in Alexandria.
Jerusalem continued to withstand the siege. The besiegers could not take the fortress by storm and the besieged would not surrender. Both contending brothers then appealed to the Roman general Pompey, who happened to be near Palestine, to arbitrate between them. Pompey arrived in Jerusalem with a large army. He removed Aristobulus and executed many of his followers and he appointed Hyrcanus High Priest with the title of Ethnarch, ruler of the land as representative of Rome. To impress upon Hyrcanus still further that he was not an independent ruler, Pompey appointed Antipater as his assistant in the secular government of the land. Antipater thus became virtual ruler of the country and Hyrcanus had to be satisfied with the High Priesthood and the official title of Ethnarch.
After the death of Aristobulus, his two sons Alexander and Antigonos continued the struggle against Hyrcanus to regain the country. They formed an alliance with the Persians and with their aid Antigonos, the younger son of Aristobulus, succeeded in defeating Hyrcanus and he led him as a captive to Babylonia. Antigonos maintained himself in Jerusalem for three years. At the end of that time, Herod, the son of Antipater, appeared with a large Roman army. Antigonos was overthrown as a rebel against the Romans and the throne was occupied by Herod who recalled Hyrcanus to the High Priesthood.
These wars lasted for more than thirty years and caused endless suffering but scholarship and the learning of the Torah did not cease. For a short time the Sanhedrin were divided into five parts according to the division of Palestine under five governors. By means of this division the Romans wanted to weaken the power of the Sanhedrin; but as this attempt failed the Sanhedrin were again reunited in Jerusalem under the leadership of Shemaiah and Abtalion.
There is a legend that Shemaiah and Abtalion were descendants of Sancherib, king of Assyria. They did not interfere with the political affairs of the country and it is possible that as descendants of converts they did not feel very keenly the national humiliation which the Jews had to withstand in their own country. As long as they were permitted to observe the Torah according to the interpretations of the Pharisees and the temple was not disturbed, they interested themselves but little with the political storms which were agitating the land.
Two maxims of Shemaiah and Abtalion have come down to us. These sayings are not entirely clear and require some elucidation. Shemaiah said: Love work and hate mastery and do not mingle with the officials. Abtalion said: Wise men, take heed of your words lest you incur the guilt which is punished by exile and you shall be exiled to a place of evil water and the disciples that come after you will drink and die and the name of Heaven will be profaned.
It is evident that both of the sayings referred to the events of the time. All those who sought to rule met with misfortune and many of the scholars had to seek refuge in Egypt where their disciples absorbed many new ideas which were opposed to those current in Palestine.
Shemaiah and Abtalion sought to limit the number of students in their academy and instituted a fee of admission for some reason which has not been definitely established. Every one had to pay a half-penny to the gate keeper. This sum was considered quite large and at that time a person had to work half a day to earn it.
Since the downfall of Aristobulus, there remained small detachments of his army which roamed in the Galilee and conducted a guerilla warfare against the Syrians and Romans. Herod tracked them down with great cruelty until he finally captured their leader, Hezekiah, and killed him together with some of his men. The populace was enraged against Herod and, with the consent of Hyrcanus, he was summoned to appear for trial before the Sanhedrin. Herod appeared not as a defendant but as a great commander dressed in purple and armed with a sword. He was surrounded by a large number of warriors, all armed, who were ready to attack anyone that should attempt to touch Herod. The Sanhedrin was displeased but out of fear its members maintained silence. Shemaiah warned them not to spare the defendant, for if they showed fear Herod would convict them at some future time. Encouraged by Shemaiah’s words they began to question Herod and the witnesses. However, when Hyrcanus saw that the Sanhedrin might convict Herod he suggested postponing the sentence till the following day. On that night Herod fled from Jerusalem.
Later, when Herod became virtual ruler of the country, he remembered that the scholars dared to bring him to trial and he persecuted them. Many of them were killed but he spared Shemaiah and Abtalion. He was deeply impressed by Shemaiah’s courageous stand at that trial and he also feared to touch the most prominent Elders of the nation. He therefore waited until they died a natural death.
All the wrongs which the Hasmoneans ever committed against their people, their persecution of the Pharisees, their civil wars, their immorality and imitation of the Greek code of morals, all of these were visited upon the Hasmonean family and upon the people during that terrible time when they suffered the yoke of Herod. For Herod the people had no other appelation than the “Idumean slave.” Secretly the people admitted that they deserved this punishment because they permitted the House of David to be exterminated and allowed the priests to become the rulers.
Shemaiah and Abtalion exhibited their courage on still another occasion. Once, when the High Priest was returning home after the service of the Day of Atonement accompanied by the whole people, he met Shemaiah and Abtalion. The people thereupon left the High Priest to follow Shemaiah and Abtalion. Although he was angered, the High Priest said nothing at the moment. When Shemaiah and Abtalion later came up to greet him he said to them: “Let the children of the Gentiles go in peace.” This hint at their non-Jewish origin evoked the following response from Shemaiah and Abtalion: “Let the children of the Gentiles come in peace, for they do the deeds of Aaron who was a lover of peace, but let the son of Aaron not come in peace, for he does not follow in the ways of Aaron.”1)יומא ע״א ב׳.