Alexander Yannai, the second king of the Hasmonean dynasty, ruled in Judea during the first half of the 1st century BCE and is a main character in a story that is told on today’s daf.
There are a few things you should know about him: First, as his predecessor had done, he claimed not only the title of king but also that of high priest. This was a great way for him to consolidate his political and religious control, but was controversial with religious authorities. Traditionally, these were separate offices and the king came from the line of King David and the high priest came from the line of Moses’ brother Aaron.
Alexander Yannai is remembered also for ruthless expansion of the Jewish state, forcing conversion on those he conquered. In his quest for dominance, he had a penchant for murdering political rivals and anyone else who stood in his way.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes, when it came to his subjects, he was favorably disposed toward the Sadducees, a Jewish religious sect whose chief rivals, the Pharisees, are considered to be predecessors of the rabbis. (A major difference between the two was the Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah purveyed by the Pharisees.) You may sense already why the Talmud considers Yannai to have been an evil king.
The tale begins at a feast that King Yannai is holding to celebrate his military victories and territorial expansion to which he invited members of the Pharisees to join him. But they were not alone.
And there was one person present, a scoffer, a man of an evil heart and a scoundrel called Elazar ben Po’ira.
Elazar suggests to the king that the Pharisees are detractors and must be dealt with. Not sure about his next move, the king turns to Elazar for advice as to how he might test the loyalty of the Pharisees. Elazar advises him to appear at the banquet wearing the headdress of the high priest, ostensibly as a way to check if the community of sages accepted his dual role as political and religious leader of the nation. The story continues:
There was a certain elder present called Yehuda ben Gedidya who said to King Yannai: King Yannai, the crown of the monarchy suffices for you. Leave the crown of the priesthood for the descendants of Aaron.
Without missing a beat, Yehuda ben Gedidya walks into the trap Elazar had prepared for him, declaring that Yannai might be the king, but legitimate high priest he is not. As the Gemara explains, this was due to a rumor about Yannai’s mother had once been taken captive and was therefore under suspicion of having had sexual relations with her captors. As a result, King Yannai’s lineage is potentially flawed and he is ineligible to be the high priesthood. But:
The matter was investigated and was not discovered (i.e., they sought witnesses for that event but none were found). And the sages of Israel were expelled in the king’s rage, due to this rumor.
(This, by the way, is why the story is found here, as part of a conversation about presumptive status — in this case that of King Yannai and his mother — when we lack evidence or testimony to provide clarity.)
Fanning the flames, Elazar ben Po’ira suggests that being expelled is not a strong enough penalty for the Pharisees and encourages the king to put them to death. Yannai seems to have a moment of doubt.
Yannai countered: But what will become of the Torah?
Elazar retorted: Behold, it is wrapped and placed in the corner. Anyone who wishes to study can come and study.
Yannai recognizes the Pharisees, as purveyors of Torah, have value. But Elazar counters that sages are not needed to expound the Torah, which is available to anyone who wishes to read it. His argument carries the day and the Pharisees are executed.
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak wishes for an alternative ending to the story, one in which Yannai, instead acquiescing to Elazar ben Po’ira, turns to him and says:
This works out well with regard to the Written Torah, but what will become of the Oral Torah?
Yes the Written Torah is available for all to study, but the key to unlocking it is contained in the Oral Torah. If King Yannai had known this, the sages would have survived. But this was not to be the case. And this was not the end of Oral torah, because:
The world was desolate of Torah until Shimon ben Shatah came and restored the Torah to its former glory.
While this chapter ends tragically, the Talmud knows that Torah will once again have its day when Shimon ben Shatah (Yannai’s brother-in-law, incidentally) brings it back. But that is a story for another daf.