Judah ben Tabbai

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Judah ben Tabbai (Hebrew: יהודה בן טבאי Yehuda ben Tabbai) was a Pharisee scholar, Chief Justice of the Sanhedrin (av beit din), one of "the Pairs" (zugot) of Jewish leaders who lived in first century BCE.[1]

Judah ben Tabbai was associated, by some medieval writers, with what later came to be known as Karaite Judaism.

Chief Justice of the Sanhedrin[edit]

To escape Alexander Jannaeus's persecution of the Pharisees, Judah ben Tabbai, who was already a prominent Pharisee scholar, fled to Alexandria.[2][3] After Jannaeus's death in 76 BCE, Salome Alexandra became queen of Judea. The Pharisees now became not only a tolerated section of the community, but actually the ruling class. Salome Alexandra installed as high priest her eldest son, Hyrcanus II, a man who was wholly supportive of the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin was reorganized according to their wishes. This body had hitherto been, as it were, a "house of lords," the members of which belonged to the highest rabbinical court. From this time it became a "supreme court" for the administration of justice and religious matters, the guidance of which was placed in the hands of the Pharisees.

As part of the reorganization, Salome appointed her brother Simeon ben Shetach as prince (nasi) of the Sanhedrin. Simeon ben Shetach wrote a flattering letter to Judah ben Tabbai, who was still in Alexandria, inviting him to return to Jerusalem to become the Chief Justice of the Sanhedrin (av beit din).

With the help of Simon [Judah] undertook the reorganization of the [Sanhedrin], the improvement of the administration of the law, the re-establishment of neglected religious observances, the furthering of education, and generally the fashioning of such regulations as the times required. Like Ezra and Nehemiah of old, these two zealous men insisted upon a return to the strictest form of Judaism; and, if they were often obliged to employ severe and violent measures, these are not to be accounted to any personal malice, but to the sterness of the age itself. They were indeed scrupulously strict in their own conduct, and in directing those closely connected with them. From the days of Judah ben Tabbai and Simon ben Shetach, the rule of Judean Law, according to the view of the Pharisees, may be said to have began, and it grew and developed under each succeeding generation. These two celebrated men have therefore been called "Restorers of the Law", who "brought back the Crown (the Law) its ancient splendor."

— Heinrich Graetz in History of the Jews[4]

Opposition to the Sadducees[edit]

According to the Torah, if a witness testifies falsely in court against a defendant, the punishment for the false witness is the same as the punishment would have been for the defendant had he been convicted (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). According to the Talmud,[5] the Sadducees held that the false witness is punished only if the defendant has already been punished. However, according to the Pharisees, the false witness could be punished even if the defendant was never punished.

Because Judah ben Tabbai opposed the Sadducees, in a particular capital case in which a false witness testified, he ordered that the false witness be executed even though the defendant was not punished. According to the Talmud, this was wrong, since, under Pharisaic rules, a false witness could only be punished if there were two or more false witnesses, and in this particular case, only one of the witnesses was deemed to be a false witness. Upon realizing this error, Judah spent time at the grave of the false witness that he ordered to be executed, crying and seeking forgiveness.[6][4]

Association with Karaism[edit]

According to medieval scholars,[7] such as Judah Halevi,[8] Moses ben Elijah Bashyazi,[9] and Solomon Jedidiah ben Aaron,[10] Judah ben Tabbai was the founder of Karaite Judaism. Because Alexander Jannaeus persecuted the Pharisees, and later Salome Alexandra expelled the Sadducees, once Simeon ben Shetach began restoring the Sanhedrin, there was little check on his power. As part of Simeon's reorganization of the Sanhedrin, he introduced new laws that were hitherto unknown, but which he claimed originated with Moses. These new laws came to be known as the Oral Torah. Judah ben Tabbai, on the other hand, continued to apply only the Written Torah, the written law which was known since ancient times. Thus, Simeon and his followers became the founders of Rabbinic Judaism, which is Judaism based on the new Oral Torah, whereas Judah and his followers, and all the Pharisees who continued to follow only the Written Torah, became the founders of Karaite Judaism. This split occurred in approximately 57 BCE.[10]


Among Judah ben Tabbai's students were the next zugot, namely, Shmaya[11] and Abtalion.[3][4]


In Pirkei Avot, Judah ben Tabbai is quoted as saying:

Do not act as an advisor among judges.

When the litigants are before you, see them as criminals.

And when the litigants have taken their leave, see them as innocent, should they have accepted the decision.

— Pirkei Avot 1:8[12]


  1. ^  Bacher, Wilhelm (1901–1906). "SIMEON BEN SHEṬAḤ". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. 11. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. p. 357.
  2. ^  Ginzberg, Louis (1901). "ALEXANDER JANNÆUS (Jonathan)". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. p. 352.
  3. ^ a b  Ginzberg, Louis (1901). "ABTALION, POLLION, or PTOLLION". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. p. 136.
  4. ^ a b c Graetz, Heinrich (2009-01-01). History of the Jews: From the Reign of Hyrcanus (135 B. C. E) to the Completion of the Babylonian Talmud (500 C. E. ). Cosimo, Inc. ISBN 9781605209425.
  5. ^ Makkot 5b
  6. ^ The William Davidson digital edition of the Koren Noé Talmud, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. Koren Publishers.
  7. ^ Astren, Fred (2004). Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 9781570035180.
  8. ^ Halevi, Judah (1905). Kitab al Khazari. Translated by Hirschfeld, Hartwig.
  9. ^ Revel, Bernard (1913). The Karaite Halakah and its relation to Sadducean, Samaritan, and Philonian Halakah : Part I. Philadelphia : Cahan Prtg. Co. (prs.).
  10. ^ a b ben Aaron, Solomon Jedidiah (2017). The Palanquin: Appiryon ‘Asa Lo. Translated by Mangoubi, Esther. Daly City, California: The Karaite Press. ISBN 978-0-9969657-6-7.
  11. ^  Jacobs, Joseph (1901–1906). "SHEMAIAH (SAMAIAS, SAMEAS)". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. 11. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. p. 268.
  12. ^ Mishnah, Seder Nezikin, Tractate Avot. Wikisource.
Jewish titles
Legal offices
Preceded by
Nittai of Arbela
Av Beit Din Succeeded by