Editor’s note: From 5-17-13 to 6-21-13 we answered an e-mail from Menachem who had asked whether Rabbi Yehudah the Prince purposely omitted any mention of the Hasmonean kings from the Mishnah. Menachem had heard that Rabbi Yehudah, as a descendant of King David, perhaps omitted them to indicate that they had improperly crowned themselves, ignoring the Biblical rule that all Jewish kings are supposed to come from the tribe of Yehudah. The following query challenges the very basis of Menachem’s question.
Question: The famous Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon references Yerushalmi Kilaim 9:3 and Kesubos 12:3 and states that Rabbi Judah the Prince descended from Hillel who, in turn, descended from the tribe of Binyamin – not Yehudah. The Iggeret also discusses how the Mishnah was written and how Rabbi Judah worked on it. Had Menachem read this Iggeret by Rav Sherira Gaon – who, incidentally, was a direct descendant of King David – I don’t think he would have asked his question.
Summary of our response up to this point: Last week we looked at Ketubot 62b, where we learned that Rabbi Yehudah the Prince investigated his family’s genealogy and determined that they descended from King David’s son Shephatiah b. Abital. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:2) states that a genealogical scroll was found that proclaimed that Hillel also descended from King David. The Etz Yosef explains that the nessi’im – the princes of Israel – descend from Hillel. Genesis 49:10 refers to the princes when it says: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” Finally, Rashi on Tractate Avot (1:16-2:2) recounts the genealogy of Rabban Gamliel, the son of Hillel, showing that he is a forefather of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince.
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In his Iggeret, Rav Sherira Gaon notes as follows: “When Ezra, Zerubabel and the exiles went up from Babylonia [to the land of Israel] and [re]built the Temple, they found that there were heads of the Sanhedrin, such as Shimon the righteous, Antignos of Socho, and the rest of those pairs, most of whom went up from Babylonia. Hillel the Elder went up with them from Babylonia. Even so, they [in Babylonia] spread the teaching of the Torah here [to the exiles in Babylonia] and they had [as their leaders] the Exilarchs who were from the house of David. However, heads of the academies and Sanhedrin were not among them, because that could only be from the place [Jerusalem] that G-d chose (Deuteronomy 17:10).
“Until the passing of Rabbi [Yehudah the Prince], the Exilarchs ruled [over the exiles] in Babylonia, but not [over] the heads of the academies and the Princes who were the heads of the Sanhedrin in the land of Israel. They were as enumerated in Avot (chapters 1-2) up to the time of Hillel and Shamai, following Hillel was his son Shimon, following him was his son Rabban Gamliel the Elder, followed by his son Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel [who served] before he was killed prior to the destruction of the Temple. And Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha was the High Priest. These four generations are included in the one-hundred-year [period] that is mentioned in [chapter] Yetziot HaShabbat (Shabbos 15a) [which states] that Hillel, Shimon, Gamliel, and Shimon held the position of prince prior to the destruction of the Temple for 100 years.
“After Rabbi Shimon b. Gamliel was executed with the others [i.e., the harugei malchut, the 10 martyrs executed by the Roman authorities] Rabban Yochanan b. Zakai [served as leader even though he was not a descendent of the house of Hillel], who was in the period of the Temple’s destruction, after having escaped the city [Jerusalem, which was controlled by the baryonim (rebels) via subterfuge. Aided by his two students R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, he] came before the Caeser Aspasinus [who offered to grant him one request]. He asked: Give me the city of Yavneh and its scholars and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel. [His intention was the restoration of the Princely rule to Hillel’s house (Gittin 56b).] Once Rabban Yochanan b. Zakai and the sages were settled in Yavneh they instituted 10 enactments, as it says (Rosh Hashana 29-31): ‘When the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakai enacted…’