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Shemayah and Avtalyon


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An Unlikely Rise To Greatness

From the descendants of Sancherev, a heathen King of Ashur who attempted to destroy Yerushalayim, arose great teachers in Israel — Shemayah and Avtalyon. At an early age, they became proselytes and devoted their lives to the study of Torah. Eventually they became great scholars. Wher­ever they went, people followed them to hear them expound the living words of Hashem

One day, the Kohen Gadol came out of the Beis HaMikdash and began walking home. When people saw the Kohen Gadol they began following him. Soon a large multitude of people gathered behind him and one of the leaders called out: “Make way and give honor to the crown of priesthood!”

At that moment the Sages, Shemayah and Avtalyon, hap­pened to pass by. Immediately, the entire crowd left the Kohen Gadol and began to follow them. Again the leader’s cry rang out: “Make way and give honor to the crown of Torah!” The people thought more of the Sages than they did of the Kohen Gadol as they pressed close behind them to catch some pearls of wisdom.

 

Kohen Gadol Jealous When the Kohen Gadol saw the way the people honored the Sages, he became envious and angry. He kept his tem­per and ignored the Sages. The Sages, however, greeted the Kohen Gadol

“Greetings to you, Kohen Gadol,” they called out. “Will you be kind enough to give us a blessing?”

Angrily, the Kohen Gadol retorted:  “Let the descendants of our people go in peace and be blessed.”

The people heard this remark and they kept quiet. They realized that the Kohen Gadol was insulting the Sages by re­minding them of their heathen birth.

Shemayah and Avtalyon didn’t feel offended, and in a humble tone replied: “True, let the descendants of our people go and come in peace and be blessed, provided they follow in the footsteps of Aharon Kohen Gadol (who loved peace and pursued peace). But let not the son of Aharon go in peace, if he does not follow in his footsteps and emulate his good traits.”

The Kohen Gadol realized that he had committed a sin by insulting the Sages and he remained silent. The crowd, how­ever, began heaping insults upon the Kohen Gadol, who was forced to retire ignominiously; then they followed the Sages and ac­corded them the greatest honor.

Therefore, our Sages state: “A scholar, although he may be of illegitimate birth, takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol who is an ignoramus.”

 

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Rabi Shimon Ben Gamliel

Pride And Honor Chazal teach that a man should always be gentle and avoid honor and haughtiness. It was because this advice was not followed that a grave dispute arose amongst some of our Sages.

One day, the following mishna was taught in the Acad­emy: When the Prince (nasi) enters, all the people rise and do not resume their seats until he requests them to sit. When the Rosh Sanhedrin enters, the people occupying the two rows of seats facing the entrance rise and remain standing until he takes his seat. When the Chacham enters and remains stand­ing, everyone whom he passes rises until the Sage has taken his seat.

This mishna was taught during the time Rabi Shim­on ben Gamaliel was the nasi, Rabi Natan was the Rosh and Rabi Meir was the Chacham. When Rabi Shimon ben Gamaliel would enter, all the people would arise and remain standing un­til he took his seat. Likewise, the same honor was accorded to Rabi Natan and Rabi Meir.

Rabi Shimon, wanting to increase the prestige and influence of the prince’s office, said: “If all the people arise for all three of us, there is no difference between me and the others, and I would prefer that a distinction should be made to elevate the prince’s office.”

He thereupon issued a decree and enacted the rules laid down in the above mishna. However, he did so in the absence of Rabi Meir and Rabi Natan. They following day, when they entered the academy and saw that the people did not rise for them, they asked for a reason. They were told that Rabi Shimon had issued a decree order­ing these variations.

Rabi Meir became angry and he said to Rabi Natan, “I am the Chacham and you are the Rosh; let us also en­act some rules in our behalf.”

 

Attempt To Trap “What can we do?” asked Rabi Natan.

“Let us ask Rabi Shimon to teach us the Talmudic tract Uktzin. We are well aware that Rabi Shimon is not versed in this tractate and when he will not be able to answer our questions, we will say to him: ‘Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord?’ (Tehillim 106:2). He who can teach all of His praises. We will then depose him and you will take his place and become Prince and I will take your place.”

One of the disciples overheard this conversation and said, “G-d forbid that Rabi Shimon should be embarrassed; it would lead to the Prince’s disgrace.”

Feeling that it would be wrong to disclose the plot openly, he went and sat down outside of Rabi Shimon’s study and began expounding on Uktzin aloud, repeating it again and again.

Hearing this, Rabbi Shimon was perplexed. “What is going on?” he wondered. “Perhaps something is brewing at the college and this was done to call it to my attention.” He concentrated his attention on this tract and he soon knew it perfectly.

 

The Punishment The following day when the Rabi Shimon arrived, Rabi Meir arose and said, “Will the master teach us the tract Uktzin?” Rabi Shimon obliged and lectured on that subject. After he had finished, he said to them, “Had I not familiarized myself with this subject, you would have put me to public shame.” He thereupon gave the order to expel them. They did not take this lying down. They would write out questions on slips of paper and throw them into the beis medrash. When they could not be solved, they would write out the answers and send them back.

Rabi Jose arose and in an exasperated tone said, “The Torah is without (the knowledge is outside) and we remain within!”

Rabi Shimon, realizing that this might lead to open revolt, thereupon retracted his expulsion order and said, “Let them come back. However, they must be pun­ished that no halacha shall be reported in their name. They must not receive any credit for a law.”

Henceforth, Rabi Meir was named “Anonymous” and Rabi Natan, “Some say.” Sometime later, they both had dreams urging them to seek reconciliation with Rabi Shimon. Rabi Natan did so, but Rabi Meir did not, say­ing that dreams are not to be followed and are of no conse­quence.

When Rabi Natan finally came for reconciliation, Rabi Shimon said to him, “Granted that your father’s influence helped you to become the chief justice, but could it have helped you to become a prince?”

It was many years later that Rabi Shimon’s grandson returned the honor to Rabi Meir and quoted his name, say­ing, “It was said in the name of Rabi Meir.”

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