Shimon HaTzaddik

14 Jun 2006

“Shimon HaTzaddik,” or Shimon the Pious, is identified in Pirkei Avot (1:2) as “among the last of the Great Assembly.” That institution, the Men of the Great Assembly, or the “Anshei Knesset HaGedolah,” provided leadership for the Jewish People between the Biblical Period, that ended with Ezra HaSofer, and the Talmudic Period, that began approximately with Shimon HaTzaddik and his cohorts. As “among the last” of that group, he was either one of the earliest of the Tannaim, a Scholar of the Mishnah, or one of the last of the pre-Tannaitic Torah Scholars.

One of his frequently used statements is quoted in the Mishnah cited in Avot, “The world depends on three things: on study of the Torah, on Service of HaShem and on the performance of kind deeds.” It is known that he was the “Kohen Gadol,” the High Priest of the Jewish People, during the reign of Alexander the Great, the world-conquering Greek Emperor. Yoma 69a presents a dramatic account of a confrontation between Shimon and Alexander. Alexander stood at the Gates of Jerusalem, with evil intentions regarding it, that caused the city’s inhabitants to tremble with fear. Shimon donned the “Bigdei Lavan,” the White Garments that he wore on Yom Kippur when he entered the Holy of Holies, and went out to meet Alexander.

When the great Emperor saw Shimon HaTzaddik, he dismounted and prostrated himself on the ground before Shimon. When his generals, very puzzled, asked him why he was bowing to the Jew, he replied that every night before a victory, he would see in a dream a figure that looked exactly like the Jewish High Priest, who would advise him on tactics to use the following day. And that advice had never failed him.

Shimon HaTzaddik took Alexander the Great on a tour of the Temple. Alexander, very impressed, requested that a marble image of himself be placed in the Temple. Shimon demurred, saying that it was forbidden for the Jews to have images, and certainly not in the Temple. He suggested an alternative way of memorializing the occasion of the Emperor’s visit to the Holy City of the Jews. That would be that all male babies born that year would receive the name “Alexander.” The Emperor liked the idea, and that is how the name “Alexander” became part of the set of names conferred upon Jewish male babies.

Shimon HaTzaddik was “Kohen Gadol” for forty years. It is known that during those years, the “Anshei Knesset HaGedolah” was quite active. The rituals of Kiddush and Havdalah were introduced, blessings were formulated over various kinds of food, and the reading of the Haftarah was added to the Service on Shabbat and the Festivals.