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Q & A: ‘The Scepter Shall Not Depart From Judah’ – Redux (Part IV)

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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.

Yehuda T.
(Via E-Mail)

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.

* * * * *

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.’”

In order to understand this last statement of Rabbi, we refer to the commentaries of the Pnei Moshe and Korban Ha’edah to the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketubot ad loc.), who explain Rabbi’s statement as follows: If R. Huna, the Exilarch, would come to Eretz Yisrael, I would place him above me because he is from Judah while I am from Benjamin; he is from Judah from his father’s side, but I descend on my father’s side from Benjamin. I descend from Judah, from the House of David, only on my mother’s side. R. Huna’s lineage is therefore more esteemed than mine.

Thus we see that Rav Sherira Gaon not only testifies to Rabbi’s Davidic lineage – albeit from a maternal line – but to his excessive humility as well. He describes Rabbi’s strictness in adhering to the honor of his station, which he would cede to no one else, save for R. Huna.

Further verification of Rabbi’s royal lineage comes from a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud about Moshiach (Sanhedrin 98b) which assumes him to be a scion of the house of David. R. Nachman states: “If he is from the living, then he is like me, as the verse (Jeremiah 30:21) states: ‘ve’haya adiro mimenu u’moshlo mikirbo yetze – his leader will be from his midst and his ruler will emerge from within him.’” Rav states: “If he is from the living then he is like Rabbi; however, if he is from the dead, then he is like Daniel [the prophet and sage].”

Rashi (Sanhedrin ad loc. sv “Iy min chayei…”) explains Rav’s statement: If Moshiach is presently living, he is Rabbi because of all the illnesses he suffered and his extreme piety. However, if he is from the dead, then he is Daniel who underwent much suffering and was also extremely pious. Rashi clarifies: Moshiach won’t come from the dead; rather, if we had to compare him to someone from an earlier generation, we would compare him to Daniel.

The Maharsha (on Sanhedrin 98b) notes regarding R. Nachman’s statement and the verse in Jeremiah that he cites: Moshiach has to not only come from the house of David, but must also rule even in the exile – like R. Nachman (a son-in-law of Rabban Gamliel) who apparently descended from the house of David. He also notes that Rabbi ruled in the days of the Roman Emperor Antoninus. Similarly, Daniel ruled in exile under Nebuchadnezar.

Thus, we see that even the Babylonian Talmud agrees that Rabbi’s Davidic lineage was sufficient for him to have possibly been Moshiach ben David. Therefore, he had reason enough to protest the Hasmoneans (who didn’t descend from David) ruling the Jewish people and reason enough to omit mentioning them – or the events leading to their ascent to power (i.e., the story of Chanukah) – in the Mishnah.

Let us hope that through this discussion of Moshiach we will merit his arrival, speedily in our days.

Rabbi Yaakov Klass

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

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