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The Decree Of 1587
“Two Kabs Of Dinars Were Given… To King Yanai”
(Yevamos 61a)



Rare is the teshuva that lists the names of 300 rabbonim one by one. Yet just such a teshuva was written by the Avnei Nezer, regarding a ban instituted long ago against purchasing a rabbinic position (Avnei Nezer, Y.D. 465).


The Rabbinic Convention

Approximately four hundred years ago, in the year 5347 (1587), the greatest Torah luminaries of the time convened to institute a new cheirum. Together, they decreed 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 the real talmidei chachomim, who would otherwise have served to encourage Torah study and mitzvah observance in the community. This practice directly contradicts the halacha in Shulchan Aruch, “If a judge was appointed through silver or gold (bribes), it is forbidden to bring a case before him. Furthermore, it is a mitzvah to disgrace him” (Shulchan Aruch, C.M. 8).

The convention of Torah leaders decreed that anyone who would violate this new enactment would be placed in cheirum. The greatest leaders of Ashkenazic Jewry signed the decree, including 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 strengthen this decree, which had fallen into disuse. An edict was once again issued forbidding the purchase of rabbinic positions. Hundreds of leaders of Polish Jewry signed the new decree, including the Avnei Nezer, the Imrei Emes of Gur, and the Yismach Yisroel of Alexander. In a teshuva discussing the decree, the Avnei Nezer lists all these rabbonim 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 rabbonim who were appointed to their positions in exchange for money or favors in violation of the 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 rabbonim should be allowed to keep their posts. However, communities should take strict measures to ensure that this does not happen again.


Kohen Gadol Appointed Through Bribes

In the original pronouncement, the hiring of unqualified rabbonim was compared to a similar practice that existed during the time of the second Beis HaMikdash. The Gemara (Yoma 8b) tells us that Kohanim would bribe the authorities who ruled over Eretz Yisrael for the right to serve as Kohen Gadol. (About 300 Kohen Gadols were appointed during the Second Temple, most of whom did not survive the first year of their service).


Yehoshua ben Gamla

In our own sugya, we find a similar incident, in which 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, as Kohen Gadol. The Gemara calls this a conspiracy of the wicked.

From here, the Bach (C.M. ibid) proves that it is forbidden to buy a position as Kohen Gadol or rabbi, even if one is perfectly qualified for the position. In this case, Yehoshua ben Gamla was not a wicked person. On the contrary, he was an outstanding Torah scholar who toiled tirelessly to encourage Torah study among children. The Gemara says that if not for him, Torah would have been forgotten from Klal Yisrael (Bava Basra 21a). Nevertheless, the Gemara calls it a conspiracy of the wicked to pay to be appointed Kohen Gadol.

Rashi, however, writes that this was considered a conspiracy of the wicked because Yehoshua ben Gamla was unfit for the position. This implies that if he had been fit, it would have been permitted to buy the position. Why was he disqualified? Tosefos (Bava Basra, ibid) writes that although he was a righteous Torah scholar, there were others greater than him who should have been made Kohen Gadol instead. Tosefos Yeshonim writes that this was not the same Yehoshua ben Gamla, the Torah scholar mentioned in Bava Basra. It was a different person also named Yehoshua ben Gamla, who was entirely unfit to be Kohen Gadol.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.