Among the descendants of Sanherev, king of Ashur, who attempted to destroy Yerushalayim, were Shmayah and Avtalyon. At an early age, they converted and devoted their lives to the study of Torah. Eventually, they became great scholars and their names became famous throughout Israel.
One day the Kohen Gadol came out of the Bais HaMikdash and began walking home. When people saw him they began to follow. 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 kehunah!”
At that moment the sages, Shmayah and Avtalyon, happened to pass by. Immediately the entire crowd left the Kohen Gadol and began to follow the sages. 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.
When the Kohen Gadol saw the people paying homage to the sages he became envious and angry. He kept his temper and ignored the sages. The sages, however, greeted him.
“Greetings to you,” they called out, “will you be kind enough to give us a blessing?”
Angrily, he retorted, “Let the descendants of our people go in peace and be blessed.”
The people heard this remark and kept quiet. They realized that the Kohen Gadol was insulting the sages by reminding them of their birth.
Shmayah 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 HaKohen (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 realizing his error he remained silent. The crowd, however, began heaping insults upon him, and 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.”
Pride And Honor
Our sages teach us that a man should always be gentle and avoid honor and haughtiness. It was because of this advice that a great dispute arose among some of our sages.
“When the nasi enters, all the people rise and do not resume their seats until he requests them to sit. When the chief justice enters, the people occupying the two rows of seats facing the entrance rise and remain standing until he takes his seat. When the sage enters and remains standing, everyone whom he passes rises until the sage has taken his seat.”
This mishna was taught during the time of Rabi Shimon ben Gamaliel’s reign as nasi. Rabi Natan was the president of the Sanhedrin and Rabi Meir was the sage of the college. At that time, when Rabi Shimon would enter, all the people arose and remained 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 nasi’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, this was carried out in the absence of Rabi Meir and Rabi Nathan. The following day, when they entered the academy and saw that the people did not rise for them they asked for the 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 sage and you are the chief justice; let us also enact some rules in our behalf.”
Attempt To Trap The Prince
“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 fails to answer our questions we will say to him, ‘Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord?’ (Psalms 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, “God 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 the tractate aloud, repeating it again and again.
Rabi 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 following day, when Rabi Shimon arrived at the college, Rabi Meir arose and said, “Will the master teach us the tract Uktzin?” Rabi Shimon obliged and lectured on that subject. After he finished he said to them, “Had I not familiarized myself with the subject you would have put me to public shame.” He thereupon gave the order to expel them from the college. They did not take this lying down. They would write out questions on slips of paper and throw them into the college. 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 ben Gamaliel, realizing that this might lead to open revolt 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 Nathan “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 to reconciliation, Rabi Shimon said to him, “Granted that your father’s influence helped you become the chief justice, but could it have helped you 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.”