When the sages prevented Alexander Yannai, king of Yehuda, from becoming Kohen Gadol, he ordered that all the sages of Israel be killed. Many were; those not caught, fled. The greatest sage of them all, Rabi Shimon hen Shetach, was saved by his sister, Queen Shlomit Alexandra, who sheltered him in a secret hiding place.
After some time the king began to see the harshness of his decree. When he and the queen dined there was no sage present to entertain them with words of wisdom from the Torah.
“There is not even a person here to lead us in the blessing recited over the meal,” mused the king as he regretted his hasty action. At that moment a group of Parthian envoys arrived bearing gifts from their king. When King Yannai heard of them he was delighted.
“Bring them in and let them dine with me,” said the king.
The envoys bowed to the king and joined him at the table. During the meal, the Parthian envoys remarked, “O sire, on our previous visit one of your sages was present at court and we enjoyed his great wisdom. We profited a great deal from his profound knowledge. Where is he now? We would be greatly pleased to hear him again.”
Promises No Harm
Yannai told them what had happened to the sages and the envoys expressed great regret at the unfortunate occurrence. The queen noticed the expression of grief on the countenance of the king and taking advantage of this opportunity, she said, “O king, if you will give me your assurance that no harm will befall him, I shall produce Shimon ben Shetach.”
The king thereupon answered with great delight, “Yes, I give my solemn promise that no harm will befall the fugitive, only let him appear to please my guests.”
The Sage Returns
Queen Shlomit Alexandra sent word that her brother be brought to the palace immediately, and when he appeared before the king and his guests, he was given a very warm reception. The king invited him to take his seat between he and the queen and then remarked, “See what great honor I bestow upon you.”
“O sire,” replied Rabi Shimon, “it is not you who bestows honor upon me, but the Torah. For the wisdom that I offer grants me equal rank with kings. It was Ben Sira who said, ’It raises you and places you amongst the leaders and kings.’”
Turning to the queen, the king remarked, “He still has not learned to appreciate me. He talks in a haughty manner.” Then turning to Rabi Shimon he said, “Take a cup of wine and lead us saying grace after the meal.”
When the cup of wine was given to Shimon ben Shetach, he rose and said, “Blessed is He of whose sustenance Yannai and his companions have eaten.”
The king looked surprised and asked, “Is this the proper way to make a blessing? I have never heard it said this way before.”
“Do you expect me to say it otherwise if I have not eaten a morsel of food here?” replied Rabi Shimon ben Shetach.
Taking the hint, the king ordered his servants to bring out food and drink. When he finished the meal, Rabbi Shimon arose and said, “Let us now bless the Almighty on the wonderful food which He has provided us with!”
The Deep Impression
The Parthian envoys then expressed their wish that the sage discuss with them some topics from the Torah. Rabi Shimon agreed and so deep was the impression he made upon them that when they were about to leave, they said, “Of all the great things we saw and heard in this wonderful city of Jerusalem, nothing made such a deep impression on our minds as the wise words of the great teacher, Shimon ben Shetach.”
After that the king appointed Rabi Shimon to the position of head of the Sanhedrin.
Changing the Sanhedrin
Shimon ben Shetach was grieved to see that the king had replaced all the sages of old with Sadducees, who did not follow in the ways of Chazal. Inasmuch as he couldn’t tell the king to discharge them, he decided to find a way to replace them.