Rabbi Shimon ben Shatah
In the person of Shimon ben Shatah, we find one of the most impressive men in history. Full of fervor for truth and justice, doing good with the most conscientious care, and opposing evil and injustice, Shimon ben Shatah found numerous occasions to demonstrate the greatness of his character. He knew no bounds when it came to placing himself on the side of truth and justice. Royal power did not intimidate him. The friendship or the respect he had for his friend or a revered leader did not make him bend. The kindness he displayed towards his subordinates could not stop him from taking action. The love he had for his own son could not influence him, and neither the fear of powerful evildoers could restrain him, nor the offer of riches sway his principles. He put truth and justice above everything, as the Torah demands. We shall endeavor to recount some stories of his life, stories that demonstrate some of Shimon ben Shatah’s great character traits.
The Sadducees taught that false witnesses could only be executed if the accused had actually been put to death. In order that there be a precedent, Yehudah ben Tabbai sentenced to death a single witness found to be lying. This sole witness would otherwise not have been able to cause the accused to be sentenced to death. It happened that Shimon ben Shatah, rising against him, said, “Truly this will be accounted to you as if you had shed innocent blood. For the Sages instruct, ‘False witnesses can only be sentenced to death if together they were both found to be lying.’ They can only be sentenced to the punishment of flogging if it is proved that both of them lied.” Immediately, Yehudah ben Tabbai recognized his mistake and henceforth assumed a secondary role in judgment, refraining from making a decision if not in the presence of Shimon ben Shatah. And from that day on, he lived the rest of his life in repentance and penitence. He visited the tomb of false witnesses executed by his order and there he cried so greatly that he could be heard from afar.
Shimon ben Shatah was a nasi (prince). His great dignity obligated him to undertake somber tasks. There was once a slave of King Yanai that had committed murder. The king therefore had to appear before the Sanhedrin. He had a throne brought into the antechamber adjacent to the Holy Temple, and on it he sat. Therefore Shimon ben Shatah told him, “Arise King Yanai, not before us, but before the Master of the world, Who has said, ‘Then the … men who have the grievance shall stand before the L-RD’ [Deuteronomy 19:17].” The king replied, “It is not what you say, son of Shatah, that I will do. I will do what the other judges decide.” The judges formed a semi-circle on both sides of the king. Shimon ben Shatah turned his attention to the right, but the judges on his right did not dare uphold the truth because of their fear of the king. They lowered their heads and looked to the ground. Shimon ben Shatah looked to the left, but those on his left also lowered their heads to the ground. Therefore Shimon ben Shatah said, “You fear a man more than G-d? Therefore may the One Who knows all thoughts bring upon you the punishment you deserve.” And thus G-d sent an angel and those judges who were afraid of the king immediately died. The new Sanhedrin formulated a religious decree according to which no king could henceforth be called before a court (Sanhedrin 19a).
Even before he became a prince, Shimon ben Shatah promised himself that if he ever attained this high position, he would remove evildoers who deserved death from among the people of Israel (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 6:6).
When he attained his goal, he put 80 female criminals to death. Their parents cried out for revenge and incited false witnesses to accuse the son of Shimon ben Shatah of a crime punishable by death. The young man was found guilty. When being brought to his execution, he said, “If I committed the crime of which I have been accused, may my death not atone for my sin.” The false witnesses later admitted that friends of the women that had been put to death had paid them. However it was too late (Rashi on Sanhedrin 44b).
As much as Shimon ben Shatah was strict as a judge, so too was he just and virtuous in his dealings with his fellow man. There was a time when Shimon ben Shatah was poor and involved in the hemp business. One day his students came to him and said, “Rabbi, we want to buy you a donkey on which to load your merchandise so that you won’t have to carry such heavy loads yourself.” And so they did. When they brought the donkey into his home, he noticed that it was carrying a precious collar of pearls around its neck. “See,” his students told him, “G-d has given you a treasure so that you can live in tranquility and devote yourself entirely to Torah study.” However, Shimon ben Shatah responded, “Return the collar, for it came into my possession without its owner’s knowledge.” And so the students did what their teacher had told them. When the previous owner of the donkey, a pagan, got back his precious collar, he cried, “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews, Who has commanded His people to be so honest!” Shimon ben Shatah’s students reported this to him, and he said, “Does such a glorification of G-d’s Name not have greater value than all the earth’s treasures?” (Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia 2:5).
Alexander Yanai died while still young. When he felt his end was near, his wife Salome (whom certain texts call Sheltzion) expressed her fear that the Pharisees, in their desire to avenge themselves of Alexander Yanai’s persecutions, would press to have her children excluded from succeeding to the throne. However the king told her, “Do not fear the Pharisees, for they are pious men who fear G-d. They are incapable of avenging themselves or holding any grudge. And do not fear the Sadducees either, for they are my friends. Fear only those who are false: Hypocrites capable of committing crimes as heinous as Zimri, who asked for the wages of Pinchas” (Rashi on Sotah 22b).
The queen, who ruled as regent while her children were still young, supported the Pharisees, especially Shimon ben Shatah. The consequence of such a policy was that a period of happiness, peace, and prosperity existed in the country, a condition that our people have seldom known. Our Sages tell us, for example, that during the reign of Salome as regent with Shimon ben Shatah by her side, G-d miraculously blessed the produce of the earth. The rain fell just at the right time and harvests were so bountiful that they were remembered long afterwards.
Before we leave Shimon ben Shatah, let us again mention some of his takanot (legal institutions) that are decisive in three different areas. His first ruling consisted of strengthening matrimonial ties by making divorce harder to achieve. Up to that point, the sum of money specified by the Ketubah (the marriage contract that, among other things, fixes the amount that a Jewish wife receives when she becomes widowed or divorced) had been left with the parents of the woman. This had the effect that monetary considerations were seldom the cause for putting off a divorce. Simon ben Shatah gave the husband, on one hand, the right to do what he wanted with the dowry of his wife, but on the other hand obligated him to guarantee the value of this dowry in case of divorce. If, therefore, a man wanted to divorce his wife, he had to come up with this initial sum and give it back to her. Not only that, but this sum was guaranteed by the worth of the man’s own monetary possessions. The reasoning behind this injunction lies in the fact that if a man can benefit from his wife’s dowry, he will do so, investing it in his undertakings. This amount therefore becomes difficult to recoup. Hence in the case of divorce, where it must be recouped and given back to the woman, it will be difficult to do so, thus making divorce that much harder. These measures are still in effect today.
The opening of schools was, as well, of considerable importance in the life of the Jewish people and for the future of Israel. The Torah commands: “And you shall teach them [Divine Laws] to your children,” and this is a commandment that we recite twice each day in the Shema. A father has a sacred duty to instruct his children in the laws of G-d. This duty, however, is oftentimes neglected, and it is for this reason that Shimon ben Shatah decreed that schools be established and teachers selected so that all children can benefit from a common education. It is true that, from early times, schools have always existed, but these were primarily study halls for adults, where leaned men would assemble groups of disciples whom they would teach without receiving anything in return. But that children should be taught – and by instructors receiving remuneration for that purpose – was a great innovation that we must credit Shimon ben Shatah with.
The third takanot of this great scholar concerns an entirely different subject. The Torah specifies in what way (each time differently) vessels of metal or wood, pots of earthenware, and clothes of linen, wool, or fur can become impure. On the other hand, the Torah does not mention glass vessels because their invention came after the Torah was given.
Faithful to the advice of the Men of the Great Assembly – “Make a fence around the Torah,” which signifies the implementation of regulations in order that G-d’s laws should constantly be kept – Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan had tried to place glass vessels under the laws governing impurity. Yet the people did not pay attention to their legislation, and it was Shimon ben Shatah who managed to make the people accept this takanah (which explains why it bears his name). We see by this that the great men of Israel worried themselves over those ordinances that today we term, with a flavor of disdain, “ceremonial laws”. They cared about these ordinances as much as they did concerning the great principles of morality or education, and they devoted their lives to them (Yerushalmi, Ketubot 8:2).