The Decree Of 1587
“Two Kabs Of Dinars Were Given…To King Yanai”
Rare is the teshuvah that lists the names of 300 rabbanim one by one. Yet just such a teshuvah was written by the Avnei Nezer regarding a ban against purchasing a rabbinic position (Avnei Nezer, Y.D. 465).
The Rabbinic Convention
Approximately 400 years ago, in the year 5347 (1587), the greatest Torah luminaries of the time convened to decree that “no rabbi may endeavor to acquire a rabbinic position by offering loans or gifts, or having others offer loans or gifts on his behalf.” This decree was enacted in response to the proliferation of unqualified rabbis who had secured their positions by bribing community leaders. These unqualified rabbis served in place of real talmidei chachamim who would have encouraged Torah study and mitzvah observance in the community. Naturally, rabbis should not be appointed based on bribes proffered. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch rules: “If a judge was appointed through silver or gold [i.e., bribes], it is forbidden to bring a case before him. Furthermore, it is a mitzvah to disgrace him” (Choshen Mishpat 8).
Thus, the greatest leaders of Ashkenazic Jewry signed a decree against this practice with the penalty of cherem attached to it. Among the signatories were Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (author of Levush), Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal), Rabbi Yehoshua Polk (author of Sma), Rabbi Meir of Lublin (the Maharam), Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Aidles (the Maharsha), and Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (author of Shnei Luchos HaBris).
Until the Urim V’Tumim
The enactment was to be binding “for all generations to come until the kohen will stand wearing the Urim V’Tumim.” Nevertheless, about 300 years later, in the year 5665 (1905), it became necessary to reaffirm it since it had been neglected. On the new decree were hundreds of signatures of rabbinic greats in Poland, including the Avnei Nezer, the Imrei Emes of Gur, and the Yismach Yisroel of Alexander. In a teshuvah discussing the decree, the Avnei Nezer lists all these rabbanim by name – presumably to strengthen the observance of the decree.
Dismissing a Rav
The Avnei Nezer was asked what should be done with capable and qualified rabbanim who were appointed to their positions in exchange for money or favors in violation of the original enactment. Should they be dismissed from their positions even though they are qualified? The Avnei Nezer responded that since the decree had almost been forgotten, these rabbanim should be allowed to keep their posts. However, communities should take strict measures to ensure this does not happen again, he said.
Kohen Gadol Appointed Through Bribes
In the original pronouncement, the hiring of unqualified rabbanim was compared to the practice during Bayis Sheini of appointing kohanim gedolim based on how much money they offered for the job (see Yoma 8b). The authorities ruling Eretz Yisrael would accept such bribes and, as a result, about 300 kohanim gadolim served during Bayis Sheni since so many of them died when entering the Kodesh Kodashim on Yom Kippur.
Yehoshua ben Gamla
Our sugya discusses something similar. It relates that Martha bas Baytus, a rich matron of renown, gave a purse full of gold coins to King Yannai to appoint her husband, Yehoshua ben Gamla, kohen gadol. The Gemara calls this a “conspiracy of the wicked.”
The Bach (C.M. ibid.) cites this Gemara as proof that even a qualified person may not buy a spiritual leadership position (e.g., kohen gadol or rabbi) since Yehoshua ben Gamla was clearly qualified seeing that the Gemara says that the Torah would have been forgotten from Klal Yisrael had it not been for his efforts to educate Jewish children. (Bava Basra 21a). And yet, the Gemara calls the attempt to install Yehoshua ben Gamla via a bribe, a “conspiracy of the wicked.”