Shemaiah (Hebrew: שְׁמַעְיָה, also spelled Šəmaʿyāh; Koinē Greek: Σαμαίᾱς, Samaíās), or Shmaya in Modern Hebrew) was a rabbinic sage in the early pre-Mishnaic era who lived at the same time as Abtalion. They are known as one of the zuggot ("couples"): Shemaiah and Abtalion. Both Shemaiah and Abtalion were converts to Judaism and were both descendants of King Sennacherib of Assyria who destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel.
According to the Mishnah (Avot 1:9-10), both Shemaiah and Abtalion studied Torah under Simeon ben Shetach. The historian Josephus mentions Shemaiah by his Greek name Sameas (Greek: Σαμαίας), who led the Sanhedrin during the transition period between the Hasmonean dynasty and the rise of King Herod the Great. According to Josephus, Shemaiah was a disciple of Pollion the Pharisee, who, in rabbinic literature, is known as Abtalion. Herod held both Abtalion and Shemaiah in great honour.
He was a leader of the Pharisees in the 1st century BCE and president of the Sanhedrin before the reign of Herod the Great. He and his colleague Abtalion are termed in Pesahim, 66a the gedolei ha-dor (the great men of the age), and darshanim (exegetes) (ibidem, 70a). Grätz has shown (Geschichte iii. 171) that neither Shemaiah nor Abtalion was of Gentile descent, although both were Alexandrians. Of the political life of Shemaiah only one incident is reported. When Herod on his own responsibility had put to death the leader of the national party in Galilee, Hyrcanus II permitted the Sanhedrin to cite him before the tribunal. Herod appeared, but in royal purple robes, whereupon the members of the Sanhedrin lost courage. Only Shemaiah was brave enough to say: "He who is summoned here on a capital charge appears like one who would order us to execution straightway if we should pronounce him guilty. Yet I can blame him less than you and the king, since ye permit such a travesty of justice. Know then that he before whom ye now tremble will some day deliver you to the executioner." This tradition is found twice, in Josephus, and Antiquities of the Jews xiv. 9, sect. 4.
Of the private life of Shemaiah almost nothing is known, except that he was a pupil of Shimon ben Shtach.
Love work. Hate [having to assume] authority. Do not make yourself known to the government.
- Thunder from Sinai: Chapter 1, Mishna 10, Essay 13
- Josephus, Antiquities (14.9.4)
- Max Radin, "Roman Knowledge of Jewish Literature", The Classical Journal, vol. 13, no. 3 (Dec., 1917), p. 164 (note 2) concludes: "From the combination Pollio and Sameas, in the passage quoted, it is evident that Josephus had in mind the pair Abtalyon and Shemayah, who preceded Hillel and Shammai as heads of the Sanhedrin (Mishnah Avot 1)."
- Josephus, Antiquities (15.1.1). This view follows the opinion of Joseph Derenbourg (see Louis H. Feldman, "The Identity of Pollio, the Pharisee, in Josephus", The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 49, no. 1 [Jul., 1958], p. 53), unlike the opinion of others who thought that Pollion was to be identified with Hillel the Elder (see Abraham Rees, The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, vol. 18, London 1819, s.v. Hillel).
- The Guide to Israel, Zev Vilnay, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 539.
- editors, editors (1978). Six Orders of the Mishnah (Pirḳe Avot 1:10). Jerusalem: Eshkol.
- Mishnah, Avot 1:10
- Josephus, Ant. xiv-xv
- Heinrich Grätz, Geschichte iii. 171-207, and note 16
- Emil Schürer, Geschichte i. 348, 349, 399; ii. 202, 205, 355, 358
- http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=602&letter=S&search=Shemaiah (entry written by Joseph Jacobs & Schulim Ochser).
Simeon ben Shetach
65 BCE–c. 31 BCE
Hillel the Elder