Abtalion (Hebrew: אַבְטַלְיוֹן ʾAbhtalyôn) or Avtalyon (Modern Hebrew) was a rabbinic sage in the early pre-Mishnaic era who lived at the same time as Sh'maya. They are known as one of the zuggot ("couples"): Shmaya and Avtalyon. Both Avtalyon and Shmaya were converts to Judaism and were both descendants of King Sancheriv of Assyria who laid siege to Jerusalem, where according to the Book of Kings, the Angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian troops in one night.
A leader of the Pharisees during the 1st century BCE and by tradition vice-president of the great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. He was of heathen descent (Bab. Yoma, 71b; 'Eduy. v.6; Giṭ. 57b; Yer. M. Ḳ. iii.81b; see Weiss, Dor Dor we-Dorshaw, i.1, and Landau, p. 319). Despite this fact, Abtalion, as well as his colleague, Shemaiah, the president of the Sanhedrin, was one of the most influential and beloved men of his time.
Once, when the high priest was being escorted home from the Temple by the people, at the close of a Day of Atonement, the Talmud (Yoma, 71b) relates that the crowd deserted him upon the approach of Abtalion and his colleague and followed them. Abtalion used his influence with the people in persuading the men of Jerusalem, in the year 37 BCE, to open the gates of their city to Herod the Great. The king was not ungrateful and rewarded Abtalion, or, as Josephus calls him, Pollion, with great honors (Josephus, Ant. xv.1, § 1). Although there is no doubt that, in this passage of Josephus, Abtalion is meant by this name Pollion (the original form of the name is presumably Ptollion, which explains both the prefixed A in the Talmud and the omission of the t in Josephus), in another place (Ant. xv.10, § 4), where this name recurs, it is doubtful whether Abtalion is intended or not. Josephus relates there how Herod exacted the oath of allegiance under penalty of death, and continues: "He desired also to compel Pollion, the Pharisee, and Sameas, together with the many who followed them, to take this oath; they, however, refused to do this, but nevertheless were not punished as were others who had refused to take it, and this indeed out of consideration for Pollion." Since this episode took place in the eighteenth year of Herod's reign (20 or 19 BCE), this Pollion can not have been Abtalion, who died long before, as we learn from authoritative Talmudic sources, according to which Hillel, the pupil and successor of Abtalion, was the leader of the Pharisees about 30 BCE. It is probable, therefore, that Josephus was misled by the similarity of the names Shemaiah and Shammai, and so wrote "Pollion and Sameas" instead of "Hillel and Shammai."
Very little is known concerning the life of Abtalion. He was a pupil of Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetach, and probably lived for some time in Alexandria, Egypt, where he and also his teacher Judah took refuge when Alexander Jannaeus cruelly persecuted the Pharisees. This gives pertinence to his well-known maxim (Ab. i.12), "Ye wise men, be careful of your words, lest ye draw upon yourselves the punishment of exile and be banished to a place of bad water (dangerous doctrine), and your disciples, who come after you, drink thereof and die, and the name of the Holy One thereby be profaned." He cautions the rabbis herein against participation in politics (compare the maxim of his colleague) as well as against emigration to Egypt, where Greek ideas threatened danger to Judaism. Abtalion and his colleague Shemaiah are the first to bear the title darshan (Pes. 70a — meaning "preacher"), and it was probably by no mere chance that their pupil Hillel was the first to lay down hermeneutic rules for the interpretation of the Midrash; he may have been indebted to his teachers for the tendency toward haggadic interpretation. These two scholars are the first whose sayings are recorded in the Haggadah (Mek., Beshallaḥ, iii.36, ed. Weiss.). The new method of derush (Biblical interpretation) introduced by Abtalion and Shemaiah seems to have evoked opposition among the Pharisees (Pes. 70b. Compare also Josephus, l.c., Παλλίων ό φαρισαιος, where a title is probably intended). Abtalion and Shemaiah are also the first whose halakot (legal decisions) are handed down to later times. Among them is the important one that the paschal lamb must be offered even if Passover falls on a Sabbath (Pes. 66a). Abtalion's academy was not free to every one, but those who sought entrance paid daily a small admission fee of one and a half tropaika; that is, about twelve cents (Yoma, 35b). This was no doubt to prevent overcrowding by the people, or for some reasons stated by the Shammaites (Ab. R. N. iii. [iv.] 1).
- The Guide to Israel, Zev Vilnay, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 539.
- Monatsschrift, i. 118-120
- Heinrich Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, 2d ed., iii. 187 et seq., 617-618
- Landau, in Monatsschrift, vii, 317-329
- Levi Herzfeld, ibid. iii. 227; idem, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, ii. 253
- Joseph Derenbourg, Essai, pp. 116, 117, 149, 463
- Isaac Hirsch Weiss, Dor, i. 148 et seq., 152, 153
- Nehemiah Brüll, Mebo ha-Mishnah pp. 25–27
- Hamburger, R. B. T. ii., s.v. Semaya
- Lehman, J. (1892) in Rev. Ét. Juives, xxiv. 68-81.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Louis Ginzberg (1901–1906). "Abtalion, Pollion". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
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