Rosh Hashanah 19

Rabbinic diplomacy.

On today’s daf, the Gemara describes what seems to be one of the first peaceful political protests in Jewish history. And, remarkably, it is successful!

Continuing our calendrical discussions, the rabbis are now discussing Megillat Taanit (The Scroll of Fasting), an early Jewish calendar that lists dozens of minor holidays, including Hanukkah and Purim, as days of rejoicing on which it was forbidden to declare a public fast. (As we will see when we get to Tractate Taanit, fasts could be declared at any time in response to communal emergencies.) Megillat Taanit predates the Talmud, having been composed either during the Second Temple period or, as some argue, during the Jewish revolt against Rome in the 1st century C.E. Megillat Taanit was not a closed text. Celebrations — most of which are no longer observed — were added to the list well into the second century.

Our Gemara begins by quoting Megillat Taanit which describes a celebration commemorating the end of anti-Jewish decrees. It is concise:

On the 28th of Adar the good tidings came to the Jews that they need not turn away from the Torah. 

What were they commemorating on the 28th of Adar, midway between Purim and Passover? Quite likely, it was the end of the Hadrianic decrees from the period of the Bar Kochba revolt (circa 129-138 C.E.) that suppressed Jewish life and practice. The Gemara explains: 

For the wicked kingdom issued a decree against Israel that they should not occupy themselves with Torah, and that they should not circumcise their sons, and that they should desecrate Shabbat. What did Yehuda ben Shammua and his colleagues do? They went and took advice from a certain Roman matron (matronita) whom all the prominent men of Rome would visit regularly. She said to them as follows: “Come and cry out (hafgginu) at night.”

They went and cried out at night, saying: “O Heavens! Are we not your brothers; are we not children of one father; are we not children of one mother? How are we different from every other nation and tongue that you issue such harsh decrees against us?” And indeed the decrees were annulled, and they made that day a festive day. 

Yehuda ben Shammua is a relatively unknown hero. The Gemara explains that he is a student of Rabbi Meir, who was one of a small group to survive the Hadrianic persecutions and to continue the work of his teacher Rabbi Akiva, who risked (and incurred) death rather than cease teaching Torah in public. Interestingly, another student of Rabbi Akiva, who was also killed for resisting these decrees, is one Rabbi Elazar Ben Shammua — possibly Yehuda ben Shammua’s older brother. 

The plan that Yehuda ben Shammua and his friends hatch stands in stark contrast to the forms of resistance of earlier generations. Against foreign oppressors Jews have taken up arms; at other times they studied Torah and performed mitzvot in secret, and at times courted martyrdom. But Yehuda ben Shammua’s approach is peaceful and public.

The group consults with a matronita, a wealthy Roman woman of stature who is a staple character throughout the Talmud. The matronita is inquisitive, at times derisive toward Jewish ideas, but she is always imagined in dialogue with the rabbis. In our story, the matronita acts as an advocate for the Jews, helping them strategize about the decrees and the ways of the Romans. She doesn’t tell them to revolt with arms or to risk death by learning Torah, nor to go underground with their books. Rather she suggests a political demonstration: They should make their presence felt, le’hafgin, literally “to externalize,” to vocalize their troubles (in modern Hebrew it comes to mean “to protest”).

Yehuda ben Shammua and his associates march through the streets at night, shouting a chant: As humans, we are just like you, we deserve better! Why are you persecuting us more than other conquered nations? Their chant resonates with other mishnaic statements that all human life is valuable because we descend from a single ancestor, Adam. A millennium later, Shakespeare’s Jewish character Shylock from the Merchant of Venice would make a similar point: “If you prick us do we not bleed?” 

While the Roman history books don’t record a dramatic protest of this sort, shortly following Hadrian’s death, the anti-Jewish decrees were indeed recalled. And it may just be that Yehuda ben Shammua, the younger brother of a martyr, ushered in a new period of political diplomacy.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 28th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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