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.
Last week we continued with Rav Sherira’s Iggeret in which he quotes Rabbi inquiring whether he has a to bring the same korban that a king brings if upon sinning. The inquiry itself implies that Rabbi considered the possibility that his position of Prince was akin to that of a king of Israel. He subsequently learned, however, that only a king has absolute power over Israel, not a Prince.
Genesis 49:10 tells us that ‘The scepter shall not depart from Judah,’ referring to the Exilarchs in Babylonia who dominate the people with the scepter, while ‘nor a scholar from among his descendants’ refers to the Princes, descendants of Hillel who impart the Torah in Israel. These were two aspects of Judah’s governance of Israel: first, he would rule as a monarch with a scepter – with absolute authority – and second, he would serve as the leading Torah authority – the lawgiver of his people. Rav Sherira concludes that the Exilarchs are greater since they rule with the scepter, meaning they have absolute power over Israel.
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We conclude our citation from Rav Sherira’s Iggeret:
“It was in the days of Rabbi [Judah the Prince] that R. Huna passed away in Babylonia. The sages of the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketubot 12:3) explain that Rabbi was excessively humble and would say, ‘Whatever anyone will ask of me, I will do – except that which was done by the Sages of Beteira for my grandfather [Hillel]. They removed themselves from [contending for] the post [of Prince] and chose him. But were R. Huna the Exilarch to come here [to the land of Israel], I would place him above me. [Why?] Because he is from the tribe of Judah while I am from the tribe of Benjamin. [He clarifies:] For R. Huna is from the more important ones of Judah, [namely] the males, while I descend from [the lesser ones] the females.’”