The Conflict between Rav Shimon ben Shetach and Yanai HaMelech – Implications for our Relationship with Medinat Yisrael – Part 2 by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Last week we analyzed the formulation of a government
as dictated by the Torah and the status of governments not
fully committed to Torah principles. We then began to
examine our position as it relates to the story of Rav Shimon
ben Shetach and Yanai Hamelech on Sanhedrin 19a-b. This
week we will continue our analysis and discuss ramifications
for our relationship with Medinat Yisrael today. For those
who missed last week’s article, it is available online at
www.koltorah.org.
An Analysis of the Dispute between Rav Shimon ben
Shetach and the Dayanim
Rav Shimon ben Shetach and the Dayanim implicitly
debated whether Dayanim should risk their lives in an
attempt to impose Torah authority upon a non-cooperative
civil authority. This argument seems to be similar to other
debates between prominent Torah figures and Dayanim who
counseled submission to the civil authorities. A classic
example is Miriam’s criticism of her father Amram (whom
Chazal say was the Gadol HaDor, spiritual leader of the
generation) for divorcing his wife Yocheved in the wake of
Paroh’s decree to throw every Jewish newborn baby boy into
the Nile (Sotah 12a). Midrashim relates that the Sanhedrin
(Jewish Supreme Court) supported Amram’s submission to
Paroh’s decree (Midrash Rabbah 1:13 describes Amram as
the Rosh Sanhedrin and P’sikta Rabbati 43 s.v. Davar Acheir
Kee describes Miriam as presenting her complaint to Amram
and the Sanhedrin). Another example is the Midrash (cited
in the Torah Sh’leimah 17:21) that records that Dayanim
criticized Mordechai for refusing to bow to Haman, arguing
that this action gravely endangers all of the Jewish People.
Similarly, the commentators to the Torah argue whether
Yaakov Avinu was correct in his submission to his brother
Esav (Yaakov bowed no less than seven times to Esav,
Bereshit 33:3). The Ramban (introduction to Parshat
Vayishlach) criticizes Yaakov Avinu whereas the Seforno
(33:4) supports him. The “argument” between Rav Shimon
ben Shetach and the other Dayanim might be seen in light of
this dispute. Sometimes one should follow Yaakov Avinu’s
example of bowing to Esav and sometimes one should follow
the example of Mordechai refusing to bow to Haman. Rav
Shimon ben Shetach and the Dayanim were “arguing”
whether to follow the example of Mordechai or Yaakov Avinu
regarding Yanai. Yet another example is the debate (see
Gittin 56) between Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai and others as
to whether it was worthwhile resisting the Roman army in the
waning days of the Second Temple era. The Hasmoneans
had no choice other than to resist the Syrian-Greeks
because the stated aim of theses enemies was to eliminate
Judaism. We would not have survived as a people had the
Hasmoneans not engaged in their heroic fight against the
Syrian-Greeks.
It is interesting that the Halacha follows the opinion of
the Dayanim that it is best to avoid a confrontation with non-
Davidic kings. This illustrates an idea that I have heard from
Rav Hershel Schachter that the Torah believes that
sometimes one has to choose the less objectionable of two
bad choices (see Sotah 48a). Here Chazal felt that it is a better choice to avoid confrontation than to attempt
imposing Torah authority upon a recalcitrant king.
It is also very interesting that the Halacha follows
the opinion of the Dayanim and not Rav Shimon ben
Shetach even though the angel Gavriel (who of course
does not act independently, but only on Hashem’s orders)
supported Rav Shimon ben Shetach. Indeed, my student
Josh Berger noted that this seems to constitute another
example of “Lo Bashamayim Hee,” that Rabbanim make
Halachic decisions independent of divine guidance and
rulings.
This principle is recorded in the Gemara (Bava
Metzia 59b) where Rabi Eliezer tried to prove his position
in his debate with the Rabbis (regarding the ritual purity
status of a Tannur Shel Achnai) by supernatural means.
He even summoned a voice from heaven that proclaimed
that the Halacha follows Rabi Eliezer’s opinion. Rabi
Yehoshua then dramatically rose and proclaimed (citing a
Pasuk from Devarim 30:12) that “Lo Bashamayim Hee.”
The Gemara then records that Rabi Natan met Eliyahu
Hanavi who reported that Hashem was pleased with Rabi
Yehoshua’s reaction as Hashem “smiled” (of course that is
not meant to be understood literally, as Hashem has no
physical features) and proclaimed that “My children have
defeated Me, my children have defeated Me.” Chazal
seem to follow the rule of “Lo Bashamayim Hee” in our
case as well, as they disregard the heavenly ruling that
was in favor of Rav Shimon ben Shetach.
Implications for Medinat Yisrael Today
My Talmidim reacted to this story and felt that it
has great implications for the question of resisting the
current Israeli government’s plan to evacuate the Jewish
communities in the Gaza Strip. If one believes that such
an evacuation violates Halacha (see my Gray Matter, Part
One, where I devote two chapters to this question) then
perhaps one should follow the example of Rav Shimon
ben Shetach and resist its implementation, as my Talmid
Gershon Rossman reacted. My Talmid Avi Davidowitz,
though, thought that our Gemara teaches that it is not
worthwhile to impose Torah values on a government that
does not accept Torah authority. One could counter,
though, that the Gemara is speaking of Yanai who was a
ruthless dictator who murdered those who opposed him.
In a democracy, however, citizens enjoy the right to
engage in peaceful civil disobedience.
It seems, though, that this discussion has much
broader implications for the fundamental role of Religious
Zionism in Medinat Yisrael beyond the specific issue of
resisting the evacuation of Jewish communities. Religious
Zionism, from the inception of the modern Zionist
movement, has sought to ensure the Jewish character of
Medinat Yisrael, by promoting laws, such as the prohibition
of the sale of Chametz on Pesach and pork year round,
Shabbat and Kashrut observance in Tzahal and public
transportation not operating on Shabbat. Essentially, this
involves imposing Halacha on a civil authority that does
not (yet) accept Torah authority. Indeed, Religious
Zionists have sought to join almost every Israeli
government in order to be part of the civil authority and
ensure that Medinat Yisrael observes Halacha at least in regard to public matters (and has left the government
when they believe that this is a more prudent to
further their goals).
As we know, the implementation of this
policy has not always been simple. A prime example is
the authority that Medinat Yisrael grants to the State
Rabbinical Courts. Officially, the State Rabbinic
Courts have authority over all matters of personal
status for the Jewish residents of Medinat Yisrael.
Thus, marriage, divorce and conversion fall under their
exclusive jurisdiction. However, the Israeli civil
courts often strive to limit the authority of the State
Rabbinic Courts and often impede their
effectiveness, such as the Courts’ ability to resolve
situations of Igun. This phenomenon is documented by
Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz (who serves as a Professor of
Law at the University of Maryland) in his book
entitled The Plight of the Agunah and Rav Shlomo
Dichovsky (a highly regarded member of the
Supreme Rabbinic Court of Medinat Yisrael who has
made great efforts to reach out to the secular legal
establishment) in Techumin 24:51-70.
Our Gemara might provide guidance
regarding the efforts that Religious Zionists (who are
currently a minority in Israel) should make in
imposing Halachic authority on the majority of
Israelis who do not fully accept Torah authority. Our
Gemara teaches that it is sometimes imprudent to
impose Halachic authority although we enjoy the
Halachic right to do so (the Mashiach, for example, will
coerce all Jews to observe Halacha, see Rambam’s
Hilchot Melachim 11:4). We should note, though, that
there is actually quite a range of acceptance of Torah
authority in Israel, since, in addition to the religiously
observant population, many Jews consider
themselves Traditional and are quite content with the
current arrangement regarding religion and state in
Israel. At minimum, I believe that our Gemara in
Sanhedrin teaches that when we exercise our
religious authority over Jews who regard themselves as
secular, we should do so with utmost sensitivity (for
example, when conducting a wedding for a non-
observant couple). For further discussion of this
critical issue, see the aforementioned essay by Rav
Aharon Lichtenstein on Religion and State.
Post Talmudic Development
The Halacha requiring litigants and
witnesses to rise in Beit Din has undergone a very
interesting post-Talmudic development (although we are
not permitted to deviate from Talmudic norms, there is
some flexibility regarding certain very limited
matters). The Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin 21:5)
records the established practice of all Batei Din in the
post-Talmudic era to permit litigants and witnesses to sit
during Beit Din proceedings in order to avoid strife
“since we do not enjoy the authority to impose Torah
law.” The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 17:3)
codifies the Rambam’s assertion as normative.
The Shach (C.M. 17:7), however, cites the
Bach (both the Shach and the Bach lived in the
seventeenth century) who does not challenge the
ruling of the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. Rather, he 

The Chayyei Adam (67:20) writes that it is
forbidden for parents to be excessively demanding of their
children, as this will cause them to violate the Mitzvot of
honoring and fearing one’s parents. Rather, writes the
Chayyei Adam, parents should be “Mocheil on their
Kavod” (waive the honor and fear due them) as permitted
by Halacha (Kiddushin 32a). We might add that the same
applies to Rabbanim, Rebbeim and teachers. One of the
sources of the Chayei Adam’s ruling seems to be the
Gemara we discussed in this week’s Halacha column that
teaches that it is sometimes prudent to waive the honor
that one is due.
However, children have the obligation to do their
best to fulfill their obligation to honor and fear their
parents. Families should strive to create a healthy
balance where parents avoid causing their children to
violate their obligations to honor and fear their parents,
and children do their best to fulfill their obligations to their
parents. It seems that the Mishnah Berurah’s urging
(239:9) all to be Mocheil offenses committed against them,
every evening before they go to sleep, should be
understood in light of the Chayyei’s Adam’s ruling and our
discussion of the conflict between Rav Shimon ben
Shetach and Yanai.
challenges all Jews “who have the fear of God in their
hearts and whose ancestors stood at Mount Sinai (and
accepted the authority of Torah Law)” to be concerned for
the honor due to Torah and fulfill the Mitzvah requiring
witnesses and litigants to stand in Beit Din. The Bach
writes that the litigants and witnesses should tell the Beit
Din that they wish to stand out of respect for the Beit Din
and Hashem who is present during its proceedings.
Interestingly, the Aruch Hashulchan (C.M. 17:5),
writing in the late nineteenth century, records the practice
of many Batei Din where the litigants and witnesses rise
respectfully without any strife emerging as a result. The
Aruch Hashulchan thus records a transformation that
occurred among many Jewish communities where lay
Jews heeded the words of the Bach and Shach and
restored the honor of Torah without the coercion of the
Rabbanim.
Conclusion

The story of the conflict of Rav Shimon ben Shetach
and Yanai teaches us the risks involved in attempting to
impose Torah law on a civil authority that does not accept
Torah authority. It seems to teach that it might be prudent for
Rabbanim to sometimes exercise restraint in imposing
Halachic authority. However, the Shach and Aruch
Hashulchan teach that it is the obligation of the lay
community to create a grassroots movement to respect
Rabbanim and Torah authority.

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