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Simeon ben Shetach or Shimon ben Shetach (ca. 120-40 BCE) was a Pharisee scholar and Nasi of the Sanhedrin during the reigns of Alexander Jannĉus (r. 103-76 bce) and his successor, Queen Alexandra Salome (r. 76-67 bce), who was Simeon's sister.[1] He was therefore closely connected with the court, enjoying, at least initially, the favor of Alexander.

Under Alexander Jannaeus

During the reign of Alexander the Sanhedrin consisted almost entirely of Sadducees; nevertheless he succeeded in ousting the Sadducean members and in replacing them with Pharisees.[2] Having accomplished this, Simeon recalled from Alexandria, Egypt the Pharisees who had been compelled to seek refuge there during the reign of John Hyrcanus, among these fugitives being Joshua ben Perachya, the former Nasi.[3] Joshua was elected president anew, and Simeon assumed the office of vice-president.[4] Upon the death of Joshua, Simeon became president and Judah ben Tabbai vice-president. The attitude of Alexander Jannĉus toward the Pharisees, however, soon underwent a change; and they were again compelled to flee, even Simeon himself being obliged to go into hiding.[5] About this time certain Parthian envoys came to Alexander's court and were invited to the king's table, where they noticed the absence of Simeon, by whose wisdom they had profited at previous visits. Upon the king's assurance that he would do the fugitive no harm, the queen caused her brother to return to the court. Upon his reappearance Simeon took his place between the royal couple with a show of self-consciousness which surprised the king; whereupon Simeon remarked, "The wisdom which I serve grants me equal rank with kings."[6]

Activity Under Alexandra

After his return Simeon enjoyed the king's favor, and when, upon the latter's death, Queen Alexandra succeeded to the rulership, Simeon and his party, the Pharisees, obtained great influence. Together with his colleague, Judah ben Tabbai, Simeon began to supersede the Sadducean teachings and to re-establish the authority of the Pharisaic interpretation of the Torah. He is therefore called "the restorer of the Law," who "has given back to the crown of learning its former brightness". [7] Simeon discarded the penal code which the Sadducees had introduced as a supplement to the Biblical code[8]; and almost all the teachings and principles introduced by him are aimed against the Sadducean interpretation of the Law. Of Simeon's enactments two were of especial importance. One consisted in the restriction of divorces, which were then of frequent occurrence. Simeon arranged that the husband might use the prescribed marriage gift ("ketubah") in his business, but that his entire fortune should be held liable for it.[9] Inasmuch as a husband of small means could ill afford to withdraw a sum of money from his business, Simeon's ruling tended to check hasty divorces. The other important act referred to the instruction of the young.

Founded Popular Schools

Up to Simeon's time there were no schools in Judea, and the instruction of children was, according to Biblical precepts, left to their fathers. Simeon ordered that yeshivot be established in the larger cities in which the young might receive instruction in the Holy Scriptures as well as in the traditional knowledge of the Law.[10]

Witch hunt and His Son's Death

Simeon was exceedingly strict in legal matters. In a significant case of early witch hunt, he on a single day sentenced to death eighty women in Ashkelon who had been charged with sorcery. The relatives of these women, filled with a desire for revenge, brought false witnesses against Simeon's son, whom they accused of a crime which involved capital punishment; and as a result of this charge he was sentenced to death. On the way to the place of execution the son protested his innocence in so pathetic a manner that even the witnesses were moved to admit the falsity of their testimony. When the judges were about to liberate the condemned man he called their attention to the fact that, according to the Law, a witness must not be believed when he withdraws a former statement, and he said to his father, "If you desire that the welfare of Israel shall be strengthened by thy hand, then consider me as a beam on which you may tread without regret."[11] The execution then proceeded. This sad event was probably the reason why Simeon issued a warning that witnesses should always be carefully cross-questioned.[12]


Simeon's fairness toward gentiles is illustrated by the following narrative: Simeon lived in humble circumstances, supporting himself and his family by conducting a small business in linen goods. Once his pupils presented him with a donkey which they had purchased from an Arab. On the neck of the animal they found a costly jewel, whereupon they joyously told their master that he might now cease toiling since the proceeds from the jewel would make him wealthy. Simeon, however, replied that the Arab had sold them the ass only, and not the jewel; and he returned the gem to the Arab, who exclaimed, "Praised be the God of Simeon ben Shetach!"[13]

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