Why are the kings of Israel [not judged]? Because of an incident that occurred. The slave of King Yannai killed a person. Shimon b. Shetach said to the Sages, “Set your eyes on him and let us judge him.” They sent [a message] to [King Yannai]: Your slave killed a person. [Yannai] sent [his slave] to them. They sent [another message] to Yannai: You come here also, [because concerning], [the ox] and its owner (Exodus 21:29) Torah stated that the owner should come and stand [trial] with his ox. [Yannai] came and sat. Shimon b. Shetach said to him, “King Yannai, stand on your feet and [witnesses] will bear witness against you. It is not before us that you stand, but rather you stand before the One Who Spoke and the World Came Into Being, as it says, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before Adonai (Deuteronomy 19:17).” [Yannai] said to him, “I will not [comply] when you [alone] tell me, but rather only if your colleagues say so.” [Shimon b. Shetach] turned right. [The judges to his right] forced themselves to look down at the ground. He turned to the left. [The judges to his left] forced themselves to look to the ground. Shimon b. Shetach said to them [i.e., all the judges], “You are masters of thought. May the Master of Thought punish you.” Immediately, [the angel] Gabriel came and struck them to the ground and they died. At that moment, [the Rabbis] said: A king does not judge [others] and [others] do not judge him. He does not testify [against others] and [others] do not testify against him. (BT Sanhedrin 19a,b)
Torah expresses deep reservations about Israel’s desire to be ruled by a king out of concern for the potential, or perhaps likelihood, that a king would abuse his power. Deuteronomy 7:14–20 restricts a king’s wealth, military power, and ability to make personal alliances with other nations through marriage. At the same time, Torah assigns to the Levites the exclusive right to interpret the law. The Rabbis considered themselves the rightful inheritors of levitical authority and, accordingly, run the courts.
Tractate Sanhedrin delineates the structure, organization, and procedures rabbinical courts must follow. Without explanation, mishnah 2:2 specifies, “The king may neither judge nor be judged; may not give testimony nor may others testify against him…” The Gemara explains this by means of a narrative concerning an occasion when Shimon b. Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, attempted to summon to court the second Hasmonean ruler, King Yannai (AKA Alexander Jannaeus), in the late second century BCE. Although Yannai initially complies, things do not proceed smoothly. The action quickly focuses on the underlying conflict between Shimon b. Shetach’s authority and King Yannai’s power.
The Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court, is called upon to adjudicate a case of murder. Shimon b. Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, summons the accused, a slave belonging to King Yannai, to court via a message to the king. Yannai initially complies. The sage then demands that the king, himself, appear alongside his slave, citing a law in Torah that holds the owner of an ox responsible for damage wrought by his animal. The analogy of the slave-king to an ox-owner relationship implies that just as the ox should be supervised and controlled at all times by the owner or the owner’s agent, the king should do likewise vis-a-vis his slave and bears responsibility for crimes committed by the slave. Given that the slave is a human, not an animal, this argument is dubious at best. Initially, Yannai appears compliant. As the action unfolds, however, we find ourselves amidst a pitched battle between Shimon b. Shetach’s authority and King Yannai’s power. Shimon b. Shetach demands that the king stand in court, a posture of deference and respect that is generally the inverse of the usual posture whereby a king sits on his throne and others stand before him. The sage specifically notes that the king must stand not before the sages who serve as justices, but before God, the ultimate power and authority of the universe. Yannai, whom we easily picture brimming with contempt, neither stands nor utters a word in response. Rather, he stares menacingly at the rabbi-justices arrayed to Shimon’s right and left. They all look down at the ground, signaling submission to the king’s superior power. The story does not end with either King Yannai’s conviction or exoneration, but rather with Shimon b. Shetach castigating his colleagues, whom he condemns as having failed in their duty as “masters of thought” on the model of the Divine “Master of Thought.” Heaven apparently concurs in this judgment and carries out the ultimate punishment: the justices who deferred to the king all die.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Do you think that King Yannai initially appears in court to show deference to the Rabbis, or intends all along to intimidate them with a show of steely confidence in his superior power in the very location where they exert their authority and thereby issue a warning?
- Did Shimon b. Shetach exercise his authority properly? If a king is beholden to the laws of the Torah no less than any other citizen, should the courts try him for violations of the law or summon him as a witness to a crime? Does the conflict between King Yannai and Shimon b. Shetach center on law or the practical reality of the uneven distribution of power between the ancient Jewish “executive” and rabbinic judiciary? Do you find parallels today?
- The rabbi-justices meekly submit to Yannai’s power. Should we understand this as tacit agreement that Shimon b. Shetach is overreaching in his attempt to call the king as a witness or try him for murder (as the “owner of the ox”)? Or, are the sages thoroughly intimidated and terrified by the king? Might their fate at the hands of Heaven be considered middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”): they looked down to the ground in acquiescence to human power, rather than up to heaven in obedience to the divine authority invested in the Sanhedrin? Can you envision another outcome for the situation described in the narrative?