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: The Gemara (Ketubot 62b) states 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.
In his Iggeret, Rav Sherira Gaon discusses the Exilarchs – the Jewish rulers over the exiles in Babylonia. Although they descended from the house of David, they did not rule over the heads of the academies and the Princes, the heads of the Sanhedrin in the land of Israel. He describes the generations of princes starting with Hillel, including Shimon, Gamliel and Shimon, all of whom held the position of Prince prior to the destruction of the Temple. He also recounts the story of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakai who was granted one request by Caeser Aspasinus and asked to save the city of Yavneh and its academies, including the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel.
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Now continuing with Rav Sherira’s Iggeret:
“Following him [Rabban Gamliel], his son Rabbi Shimon [the father of Rabbi – i.e., Judah – became Prince]. And following him [as Prince] was Rabbi [Judah] who was in Zephori and Beit She’arim.
“In the days of Rabbi [during his tenure as prince] Rav Huna the first was the Exilarch in Babylonia. And this is what is said (Horayot 11b), ‘Rabbi inquired of R. Chiyya: Should someone like me [as Prince in the land of Israel] bring a male goat [if I sin as is the law regarding any ruler or king of Judah or Israel? The Gemara – Horayot ad loc. – derives from Leviticus 4:22-24 that the male goat offering referred to there is one that is offered only by a king over all Israel – that is, one who has none above him in authority. The Gemara also notes that this applies equally to the kings of the house of David – i.e., Judah – as well as the kings of Israel, for neither was subordinate to the other. Not so the princes of the land of Israel, as the Gemara continues:] R. Chiyya answered him: However, your rival is in Babylon [i.e., Rav Huna].’ ”
It is clear from this exchange that though Rabbi was the prince, he nevertheless sought the counsel of R. Chiyya, whom he respected. It is also clear that Rabbi considered the possibility that his position of Prince was akin to that of a king of Israel; otherwise, what was his question about?
We continue with Rav Sherira’s Iggeret: “R. Safra (Horayot 11b) taught that this is what was told to [Rabbi]: There [in Babylon] is the scepter and here [in the land of Israel] is the lawgiver, as we were taught in a baraita [based on Genesis 49:10]: ‘Lo yasur shevet mi’yehudah u’mechokek mi’bein raglav – The scepter shall not depart Judah nor a scholar [i.e., lawgiver] from among his descendants.’ ‘The scepter shall not depart from Judah’ refers to the Exilarchs in Babylonia who dominate the people with the scepter, while ‘nor a scholar [lawgiver] from among his descendants’ refers to the grandchildren of Hillel [who impart the Torah in public – i.e., in the land of Israel]. Consequently, we conclude that those [rulers of the Jews] in Babylonia [i.e., the Exilarchs] are greater [i.e., supersede] since they rule with the scepter.”