Simeon ben Shetaḥ

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SIMEON BEN SHETAḤ (first century b.c.e.), one of the most prominent of the scholars of the Second Temple period. He was active during the reign of Alexander *Yannai and Queen *Salome Alexandra (Sifra, Beḥukotai, ch. 1), who according to certain late aggadic traditions was Simeon's sister (Ber. 48a, cf. Gen R. 91, Eccles. R. 7). In the train of tradition he, together with Judah b. Tabbai, constitute one of the *zugot, succeeding *Joshua b. Peraḥyah and Nittai of Arbela (Avot 1:8; see Ḥag. 1:2). According to a tradition of R. Meir, Simeon was av bet din but the view of R. Judah (or the anonymous sages) is that he was nasi (Tosef., Ḥag. 2:8). According to one tradition (Tosef. Sanh. 6:6) Simeon b. Shetaḥ once criticized a halakhic decision of Judah b. Tabbai, who thereafter accepted upon himself "never to make a halakhic ruling without Simeon b. Shetaḥ's consent." The attempt in the Babylonian Talmud (Ḥag. 16b) to use this tradition to determine which of them was nasi and which av bet din was inconclusive. Moreover, in the parallel version of this story (Mekh. Nezikin, 20), the roles of Judah b. Tabbai, and Simeon b. Shetaḥ are reversed, and S. Friedman and others have shown that the version in the Mekhilta is the more original.

Tannaitic sources mention Simeon in a number of different contexts. In the Sifra (Behukotai, ch. 1, cf. tb Ta'an. 23a) "the days of Simeon ben Shetaḥ and Shlomẓu the Queen" are remembered as a time of extraordinary blessedness, when the rains were so plentiful that the "wheat was a large as kidneys, the barley as large as olives, and the lentils as large as gold dinari." The wheat of these legendary days was referred to in later times simply as "the wheat of Simeon ben Shetaḥ" (Ḥul. 119b). Similarly, Simeon ben Shetaḥ plays a role in the tannaitic aggadah concerning the wonder-working rainmaker, *Ḥoni ha-Me'aggel (Ta'an. 3:8, tb Ta'an. 23a). In this context Simeon threatens Ḥoni with excommunication, and in one place (Ber. 19a) the Bavli ascribes to Simeon a similar threat with regard to Todos of Rome, though it is clear from the parallel sources (Tosef. Beẓ. 2:15, ty Pes. 7:1, 34a, Beẓ. 2:7, 61c, mk 3:1 81d, tb Pes. 53a, Beẓ. 23a) that the association of Simeon ben Shetaḥ with the case of Todos is a late literary embellishment of an early tannaitic tradition. Both the Mishnah (Sanh. 6:4) and a tannaitic midrash (Sifre Deut. 221) mention a tradition according to which Simeon ben Shetaḥ "hanged 80 women in Ascalon on a single day," "because of the pressing need to make an example of them to others" (Sifre). No further information is reported in the tannaitic sources regarding this remarkable event, but the later aggadic tradition has woven around this tradition a number of fascinating legends concerning Simeon ben Shetaḥ and "the witches of Ascalon," involving spells and counter-spells, intrigues and counter-intrigues, false witnesses and revenge (ty Ḥag. 2:2, 77d–78a, ty Sanh. 6:6, 23c, Midrash Ten Commandments, end; cf. ty Sanh. 6:3 23b). Though not brought in the Babylonian Talmud itself, Rashi quotes this legend at length in his commentary to Sanh. 44b (cf. Rashi to Sanh. 45b). According to a Palestinian amoraic aggadic tradition (ty Ber. 7:2. 11b, Naz. 5:3, 54b, Gen. R. 91, Ecc. R. 7), Simeon ben Shetaḥ once came into conflict with King Alexander Yannai regarding a certain financial obligation which Simeon accepted upon himself, and which Yannai was led to believe that Simeon had failed to live up to. Simeon, fearing the king's anger, went into hiding, until a number of foreign dignitaries who were visiting Yannai requested Simeon's presence at court, in order to hear from him the words of wisdom for which he was famous. Simeon was then asked to lead the blessing over the meal, despite the fact that he had not himself partaken of the bread. In the version of this tradition found in the Babylonian Talmud (Ber. 48a–b), this minor incident is portrayed as all-out warfare between King Yannai and the Pharisees, of whom Simeon ben Shetaḥ was the leader. According to this tradition, Simeon ben Shetaḥ was summoned to court because Yannai "had killed all the sages, and there was no one left who knew how to perform the blessing after the meal." In a number of other places in the Babylonian Talmud, Simeon ben Shetaḥ is portrayed as playing a role in an ongoing, and frequently violent, conflict between the king and the sages (Sot. 47a, cf. ty Ḥag. 2:2, 77d, and Sanh. 6:6, 23c; Kid. 66a, cf. Meg. Ta'an., concerning the 28th of Tevet; Sanh. 19a–b), though there is little or no evidence for such a conflict in the earlier Palestinian talmudic tradition.

Tradition ascribes to Simeon b. Shetaḥ a number of takkanot in the spheres of domestic life and education. According to a tannaitic tradition, he introduced the stipulation that all the husband's property is pledged for the payment of the ketubbah (Tosef., Ket. 12:1 and parallels). He is credited with having pioneered education for the young by introducing school attendance for children (tj, Ket. 8:11, 32c), hitherto the education of children being regarded as the responsibility of the parents alone. According to another tradition, Simeon established schools in Jerusalem and in the district towns and obliged parents to send their children to them (cf. bb 21a). He is also credited with a decree concerning the ritual impurity of metal vessels (tj, Shab. 1:4, 3d, tb Shab. 14b).


H. Mantel, Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin (1962), index; S. Zeitlin, Rise and Fall of the Judaean State (1962), index; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees (1962), index; Weiss, Dor, 1 (19044), 127ff.; Hyman, Toledot, 1212–16. add. bibliography: S. Friedman, "If They Have Not Slain They Are Slain; but If They Have Slain They Are Not Slain," in: Sidra, 20 (2005).

[Yitzhak Dov Gilat /

Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]