The Fights of The Rabbis:
The Rise and Fall of the Sadducees
Descent within the Jewish people is not a new thing. It goes back to the very inception of our nation. Just 40 days after the mass revelation at Mt. Sinai, when every Jew was raised to the level of Prophecy, several Jews participated in the Golden Calf. At the time, the Almighty wanted to wipe out the Jews and start over with Moshe, not because they were involved in idol worship, rather because they were an Am K’shei Oref – a stiff-necked nation. Since time immemorial, this has been both our blessing and our curse. On one hand, it is one of the national traits that has helped us stand up to all on the long list of tormentors of our history, and not be swayed. On the other hand, it has caused us so much trouble with our leaders on one side, and Hashem himself on the other.
Those who survived the Golden Calf continued to bombard Moshe in the desert ranging from complaining about the menu, to out and out mutiny in the form of Korach and the spies. Entering the land of Israel did not change things. While most stayed true to Toras Moshe, there were always notable groups that rebelled against the Torah and gave in to the temptation to worship idols. With patience far more than any mortal man will ever understand, the Almighty gave the Jewish People every chance possible to correct their ways and to wake them up. Alas, our obstinance won out and it was necessary to destroy the Temple and to send us into the Babylonian exile. If you didn’t know anything about Jewish history, you might think that would be enough of a wakeup call for the nation of Israel, but we all know the opposite is true. Since the destruction of the first temple, the Jewish people have had one fight after another. In this new series, we will explore many of the greatest fights in the past 2,000 years of Jewish history.
Something changes in the fights of the Second Commonwealth and beyond. Until this point in Jewish history, the dissenters are usually a minority, yes a loud and sometimes influential minority, but a minority nonetheless. It is quite often the job of the whole Jewish people to pay the price for the minority because as our sages tell us, Kol Yisroel Arevim Zeh L’zeh – Every Jew is a guarantor for one another.1Shavuos 39a. This changes during the second temple.
Around the year 250 BCE2This was during the Greek reign over Eretz Yisrael, before the Hasmonean revolt. is when things took a turn for the worse. It was at this time that the Septuagint3The infamous Greek translation of the Torah, by the 72 elders. was translated and the fateful interaction between Antigonus Ish Socho and two of his students took place. The former is a tragedy that we mourn on the fast day of Asara B’Teves because it became a conduit for the Jewish people into Greek culture. As long as the Jews didn’t speak the language of the Greeks, there was a divide. The Septuagint helped the Jews to learn Greek as much as it helped the Greeks to understand the Torah.
Antigonos Ish Socho took over as the head of the Sanhedrin when Shimon HaTzadik passed away. Though he was a great leader of men, there was a tragedy with his students Tzadok and Boethus.4Avos 1:3 Pirush HaMishnayos L’Rambam. According to Avos D’Rabbi Nosson, the tragedy was perpetrated by his student’s students.5Avos D’Rabbi Nosson 4:2. The great Rabbi taught ‘Don’t be like a servant that only serves his master for a reward.’ The students (or student’s students) mistakenly concluded that there was no reward and no world to come. They in turn rejected the entire Torah, but when the masses would not be convinced of this theology, they modified it to only be a rejection of the Oral Torah.6Tosfos Yom Tov 1:11. At first, this was just a fringe movement that will only gain momentum after subsequent events.
These two tragic events lead to the piercing of the wall of Torah protecting the Jewish people. The ideas of Hellenism are going to overwhelm the Jewish people in Israel, mainly the upper class, and upwards of 30-40% of the commonwealth are going to come under the influence of Hellenism. This onslaught was resisted, pushed back, and in essence eradicated by the Chashmonayim. After the initial successes of the Chashmonayim, and through the 40-year war between the Greeks and the Jews, it was politically incorrect to be a Jewish Hellenist. With that, the movement, on the surface, dies out. But, the sentiment and philosophies would only resurface merged together with that of the Sadducees–Tzaddukim.
The infused Sadducees now waged an all-out war against the Sages, who were known as the Perushim. They would gain success in their efforts when the Hasmonean Dynasty comes under their influence. 7See “Shlomtzion HaMalka: The Unsung Heroine Who Guaranteed the Jewish Future”. Kankan Journal Issue 10, Nissan 5780, for an in-depth discussion of this topic. While they never gain the support of the populace, the rich, powerful, and priest class become Sadducees in droves.8Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. 13.10.6
If we would stop the story now, many would say that the Sadducees would win this fight. They had the Monarchy, they had the aristocracy, they had the Kohanim. So, how did the Perushim win the war?
From a historical perspective, it was the conscious decision of the Perushim to begin forming a state within a state at this time. They created a culture where the Torah would reign supreme, and even if the throne, the Kehuna, and even part of the Sanhedrin were occupied by heretics, the supremacy of Torah would always come out on top. This was the beginning of the time period of the Tanaim – the Rabbis of the Mishnah. This is not just a random period of time. With Hillel and Shamai and the schools that they build, the organization of the Torah She ba’al Peh in a form that will endure beyond destruction begins to take form.
On a more philosophical level, R’ Yaakov Emden writes in the introduction to his Siddur that the greatest miracle on the map of world history is the fact that the Jewish people are still here, after all, that we have been through, observing Toras Hashem. What’s more, is that it was all prophesied by Moshe in his last will and testament to the Jewish people – Sefer Devarim.
Moshe tells the Jewish people in his last days:
When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which Hashem has banished you, and you return to Hashem, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then Hashem will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where Hashem has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there Hashem will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And Hashem will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it, and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers.9Devarim §30:1-5.
Who do you think this promise is directed towards? Who will be saved and preserved in exile only to return to our ancestral homeland? Those who abandon the Torah and do not heed the words of Moshe or those who remain true to the Toras Hashem? Throughout history, there are many dissenters. Like the Sadducees, they often have all the power, all the numbers, and all the money. Yet, they lack one thing, the Torah, and with that, they lack the eternal guarantee.
Sure enough, the Sadducees are destroyed with the destruction of the Second Commonwealth. Due to the Chochma (and Siyata d’Shmaya) of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the Perushim live on,10Gittin 56 a,b. and this is solidified 130 years later with R’ Yehuda HaNasi and the publishing of the Mishna.11Tanchuma, Ki Sisa §34.
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