5th Candle: Shimon Ha-Tzadik and the Encounter with Greece, Part I

According to the Gemara (BT Megillah 11a) Shimon Hatzaddik was instrumental, along with Matityahu and the Hasmoneans (see the Gemara and Maharshal, ad loc, for some interesting textual variants), to God’s salvation of the Jewish people during the Ionian (=Yevanim – Fred will like that) domination. This is curious because Shimon lived at least a century before the events of Chanukah occurred.

[Note: All chronological references to the times of the 2nd Temple in this post will presume Chazal’s memory of that chronology. The goal is to understand how Chaza”l themselves related to and memorialized those events, and the historicity of the actual events is a moot point. In other words, I’m concerned with how Chaza”l viewed Shimon Ha-Tzadik, and not at all concerned about the actual historical figure. This shouldn’t be a shock to regular readers of this blog]

According to the genealogy in the first few mishnayot of Avot, Shimon Ha-tzadik is the link between the era of the Prophets and the Hellenistic era. His main pupil, Antigonus of Sokho, betrays Greek influence by his very name (not that Antigonus was himself a Hellenist – insert requisite # of ‘chas ve-shalom’s here – but that Jewish culture was already being penetrated by Ionian culture). Chaza”l therefore saw him as a crucial figure in shaping the Jewish response to Hellenistic penetration.

There are two Talmudic narratives that involve Shimon Ha-tzaddik. Both narratives have parallels in non-Rabbinic sources. By constructing these narratives around the figure of Shimon Ha-tzaddik, Chaza”l teach us something about the collision between Jewish and Ionian culture and an appropriate Jewish attitude/response to that collision.

a) Shimon Ha-tzadik and Alexander: A Reading of BT Yoma 69a

[When the Samaritans had obtained permission from Alexander to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, messengers] came and informed Shimon Ha-tzadik. What did he do? He dressed in the Priestly vestments, and wrapped himself in the priestly vestments. Some of the distinguished men of Israel were with him, and they had torches of light in their hands. All night, these were walking in this direction, and those were walking in that direction, until the dawn broke. Once the dawn broke, he asked them, “Who are they?” They replied, “The Jews, who have rebelled against you.” When they reached Antipatris the sun rose, and they confronted each other. When he saw Shimon Ha-tzadik, he descended from his chariot and bowed before him. They said to him, “A great king such as yourself bows to this Jew?” He replied, “The image of this man’s visage triumphs before me when I go into battle!”

This narrative was a later addition to the early Rabbinic work ‘Megillat Ta’anit’, a list of ancient Jewish holidays (which, incidentally, is the earliest record of the celebration of Chanukah). The original text, in Aramaic, consisted of a date and a very brief description of the date (like January 1st – New Year’s Day; February 6th – Groundhog’s Day; June 14th – Flag Day, etc.). Later, much longer narrative descriptions of the significant events which occurred on those days were added to the work. This excerpt is the later addition to the original, which simply stated “The 25th [of Tevet] is Mt. Gerizim Day, and it’s forbidden to eulogize on it.” This narrative is clearly a literary construction, as will be demonstrated, first of all, by comparing it with Josephus Flavius’ account of the same event in “Antiquities of the Jews”:

Now Alexander, when he had taken Gaza, made haste to go up to Jerusalem; and Jaddua the high priest, when he heard that, was in an agony, and under terror, as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience… whereupon God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage, and adorn the city, and open the gates; that the rest should appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without the dread of any ill consequences… And when he understood that [Alexander] was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations…Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest. The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about; whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind. However, Parmenio alone went up to him, and asked him how it came to pass that, when all others adored him, he should adore the high priest of the Jews? To whom he replied, "I did not adore him, but that God who hath honored him with his high priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea thither, for that he would conduct my army, and would give me the dominion over the Persians; whence it is that, having seen no other in that habit, and now seeing this person in it, and remembering that vision, and the exhortation which I had in my dream, I believe that I bring this army under the Divine conduct, and shall therewith conquer Darius, and destroy the power of the Persians, and that all things will succeed according to what is in my own mind."

While the central elements of the stories – the High Priest and the Priestly vestments, Alexander at the head of a conquering army, threatening Judea, and Alexander’s dream and it’s role in the salvation of Judea – are identical in both, there are significant differences. It’s within these differences that Chaza”l’s contribution lies.

Whereas Josephus writes like a chronicler, giving names of people and places and vast amounts of detail (much of which I left skipped with ‘…’), the Gemara is much more terse. The Gemara employs literary devices – the interplay of night and day and darkness and light chief amongst them. In Josephus, the Jews of Jerusalem passively await Alexander’s arrival, whereas in the Gemara, the two groups are marching toward each other. Finally, the High Priest in Josephus’ account is Jaddua, whereas in the Gemara it’s Shimon Ha-Tzaddik. If I’m correct that Shimon, for Chaza”l, is a paradigm for encounter with Ionia, then his appearance in this narrative is more than simply a miracle-tale of salvation; it’s an account of the initial collision between these two great civilizations. It’s no longer an historical or quasi-historical story; it’s mythic.

To be continued – it’s 4 minutes before licht bentchen…

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