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January 16, 2017 / 18 Tevet, 5777
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The Curse Of A Great Man

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The relatives of the 80 witches whom Rabi Shimon ben Shetach brought to the gallows vowed vengeance as they bided their time for an opportune moment to strike back at the Nasi of the Sanhedrin. It was not long afterwards that their chance arrived.

One day Rabi Shimon was walking in the field outside the city when he noticed a man running after another with the intention of killing him. He ran after them with the intention of saving the victim, but he was too late, for when he arrived on the scene the victim was laying on the ground.

“You murderer!” he cried at the other man. “Why did you have to take the law in your own hands and murder a fellow man? But, alas, I cannot bring you to trial to receive your just punishment for I am only one witness and the law requires that two witnesses see the act committed.

“But let the Almighty G-d, the one who knows the innermost secrets of the heart, punish him who willfully takes the life of his neighbor!”

No sooner had Rabi Shimon uttered these words than a huge serpent appeared on the scene. The snake twined itself around the murderer and strangled him to death.

The Plot The following day, the bodies of the two victims were found. Not realizing the circumstances, the people began to seek the murderer, but he was nowhere to be found.

The relatives and friends of the witches now saw their opportunity to get revenge on Rabi Shimon ben Shetach. They persuaded two of their friends to testify falsely that they saw the son of Rabi Shimon kill one of the men and when his companion objected, he strangled him.

“If you will be questioned as to why you didn’t aid the victims, say that it happened so suddenly.”

Accuse An Innocent Man

Accordingly, the two plotters appeared before the judges and testified that the son of Rabi Shimon ben Shetach committed the murders.

“When we called upon him to halt, he ran away,” they said. “And although we pursued him he managed to elude us.”

The judges and all of the people were shocked. It was unbelievable that the son of the Nasi of the Sanhedrin, who was known to be as pious as his father, should commit such a crime.

They issued orders to arrest him. When he appeared in court before the witnesses, they immediately shouted, “Yes, this is the very man whom we saw in the field attack and kill the innocent men.”

The Trial

Rabi Shimon ben Shetach was grieved. He knew that the witnesses were false as he himself had seen the murderer, but he was prohibited from saying anything, as he was the only witness.

“My son” said Rabi Shimon, “even if the court should adjudge you to be guilty, I will not allow them to execute the sentence until the truth of this matter comes out. I know that they have been put up to it by the relatives of the witches in order to get revenge for what I did against them.”

The son replied, “No, my dear father, do not delay my trial, lest people will begin to say that you are taking advantage of your high office to save your son. Show the nation that you observe the Torah to its minutest detail, even when it involves your own flesh and blood.”

With a heavy heart, Rabi Shimon ben Shetach turned his son over to his court to hold trial. The witnesses reiterated their oath that they saw the young man kill and murder his companions. The evidence was conclusive and the court, of which Rabi Shimon was the chief judge, found his son guilty of murder and they sentenced him to death.

Led To His Execution

As the convicted young man was being taken out for execution, followed by the witnesses and the judges and a huge multitude of people, he said, “If I actually committed the crime that I am sentenced for, let not my death atone my sins. But if l am not guilty of this crime, then let my death atone for all my sins!”

The witnesses, moved by the pathetic manner in which the young man protested his innocence, turned around to the judges and said, “Stop the execution! We admit that we falsified our testimony. We now desire to withdraw our statement for we did not see this man commit the crime we accused him of.”

Refuses The Reprieve

When Rabi Shimon heard this he ordered the officials to stop the execution and to return his son to the court for a retrial.

But the son turned to his father and to the judges gathered around him and said, “My worthy father and judges! You well know that according to the law a witness must not be believed when after convicting a man he recants his testimony.”

Then turning to his father, he said, “Father, if you desire that the welfare of Israel be strengthened by your hand, then consider me as a threshold upon which you may step without regret. Fulfill your duty and do not lower the respect for the Torah.”

Fulfills The Verdict

The father began to cry with bitter tears as he gave the order to the executioner to proceed with his duties. The falsely accused man was accordingly executed. Rabi Shimon never consoled himself after this tragic event and he then issued his famous edict, “Be thorough in the interrogation of witnesses and be careful in thy words, lest from them they learn falsehood” (Avot 1:9). (Never rely on evidence alone until it is too late to refute it.)

Rabbi Sholom Klass

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