also Avtalyon and Abtalion (Hebrew: אבטליון)
was a rabbinic sage in the early pre-Mishnaic era who lived at the
same time as Sh'maya.
A leader of the Pharisees in the middle of the first century BC
and by tradition vice-president of the great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem.
He was of heathen descent (Bab. Yoma, 71b; 'Eduy. v.6; iii.81b;
see Weiss, Dor Dor we-Dorshaw, i.1, and Landau, p. 319). Despite
this fact, Abtalion, as well as his colleague, Shemaiah, the president
of the Sanhedrin, was one of the most influential and beloved men
of his time. Once, when the high priest was being escorted home
from the Temple by the people, at the close of a Day of Atonement,
the Talmud (Yoma, 71b) relates that the crowd deserted him upon
the approach of Abtalion and his colleague and followed them. Abtalion
used his influence with the people in persuading the men of Jerusalem,
in the year 37 BC, to open the gates of their city to Herod the
Great. The king was not ungrateful and rewarded Abtalion, or, as
Josephus calls him, Pollion, with great honors (Josephus, Ant. xv.1,
§ 1). Although there is no doubt that, in this passage of Josephus,
Abtalion is meant by this name Pollion (the original form of the
name is presumably Ptollion, which explains both the prefixed A
in the Talmud and the omission of the t in Josephus), in another
place (Ant. xv.10, § 4), where this name recurs, it is doubtful
whether Abtalion is intended or not. Josephus relates there how
Herod exacted the oath of allegiance under penalty of death, and
continues: "He desired also to compel Pollion, the Pharisee,
and Sameas, together with the many who followed them, to take this
oath; they, however, refused to do this, but nevertheless were not
punished as were others who had refused to take it, and this indeed
out of consideration for Pollion." Since this episode took
place in the eighteenth year of Herod's reign (20 or 19 BC), this
Pollion can not have been Abtalion, who died long before, as we
learn from authoritative Talmudic sources, according to which Hillel,
the pupil and successor of Abtalion, was the leader of the Pharisees
about 30 BC. It is probable, therefore, that Josephus was misled
by the similarity of the names Shemaiah and Shammai, and so wrote
"Pollion and Sameas" instead of "Hillel and Shammai."
Very little is known concerning the life of Abtalion. He was a pupil
of Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetach, and probably lived for
some time in Alexandria, Egypt, where he and also his teacher Judah
took refuge when Alexander Jannaeus cruelly persecuted the Pharisees.
This gives pertinence to his well-known maxim (Ab. i.12), "Ye
wise men, be careful of your words, lest ye draw upon yourselves
the punishment of exile and be banished to a place of bad water
(dangerous doctrine), and your disciples, who come after you, drink
thereof and die, and the name of the Holy One thereby be profaned."
He cautions the rabbis herein against participation in politics
(compare the maxim of his colleague) as well as against emigration
to Egypt, where Greek ideas threatened danger to Judaism. Abtalion
and his colleague Shemaiah are the first to bear the title darshan
(Pes. 70a — meaning "preacher"), and it was probably by
no mere chance that their pupil Hillel was the first to lay down
hermeneutic rules for the interpretation of the Midrash; he may
have been indebted to his teachers for the tendency toward haggadic
interpretation. These two scholars are the first whose sayings are
recorded in the Haggadah (Mek., Beshallaḥ, iii.36, ed. Weiss.).
The new method of derush (Biblical interpretation) introduced by
Abtalion and Shemaiah seems to have evoked opposition among the
Pharisees (Pes. 70b. Compare also Josephus, l.c., Παλλίων
ό φαρισαιος, where
a title is probably intended). Abtalion and Shemaiah are also the
first whose halakot (legal decisions) are handed down to later times.
Among them is the important one that the paschal lamb must be offered
even if Passover falls on a Sabbath (Pes. 66a). Abtalion's academy
was not free to every one, but those who sought entrance paid daily
a small admission fee of one and a half tropaika; that is, about
twelve cents (Yoma, 35b). This was no doubt to prevent overcrowding
by the people, or for some reasons stated by the Shammaites (Ab.
R. N. iii. [iv.] 1).