Tuesday, October 14, 2014

That Time When the Cohen Gadol Was Pelted With Etrogim

(Photo reproduced from The Temple Institute. All rights reserved to The Temple Institute)

Jewniverse has a witty blog post about an incident that is mentioned in Tractate Sukkah 48B

"תנו רבנן, מעשה בצדוקי אחד(! ) שנסך על גבי רגליו ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהן ואותו היום נפגמה קרן המזבח והביאו בול של מלח וסתמוהו וכו'" (סוכה, מח' ב').

The Talmud describes a Kohen Gadol who openly mocked the mitzvah of nisuch hamayim, the water libations by pouring the golden pitcher of water on his feet rather than on the altar. The incensed crowd (who evidently were composed mostly of Perushim[cf. Josephus that most of the common folk were perushi sympathizers]) began pelting him with their etrogim and on that day a corner of the altar was damaged and required repair.

Now this story requires some elucidation:

1. Is there another aspect to this story, other than the obvious Zadoki disdain for what they perceived to be a made-up mitzvah?

2. Etrogim are hardly the stuff that would cause damage to a solidly built altar made of metal. What gives?

To understand the background to this strange and macabre tale, one must understand the mindset and beliefs of the Sadduccees/Zadokim, a Second Temple sect who rejected much of what we consider Torah Shebaal Peh and championed belief solely in the Torah Shebiktav.

The commandment of water libations are indeed never explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Chazal deem this Halakha L'moshe Misinai and bring several verses that are an 'asmakhta' see here
This became a sticking point (one among many) between the Zadokim and the Perushim. And on one occasion it led to the outright violence described in the story under discussion.

So how did the altar incur such severe damage from the shower of citrons? Rashi and the Aruch L'ner offer that it wasn't just etrogim that were thrown but rather rocks. The Aruch L'ner writes that the crowd threw their citrons and when they were done with that, they picked up rocks and began throwing them in the direction of the Kohen who was still standing on the altar (some commentators claim that he was etrogged to death but this doesn't seem to have been the case, as will be seen later).

This event was so traumatic that the Rabbis instituted new protocols for the performance of this mitzvah. From then on, the Kohen Gadol was supposed to raise his hands high--in order to provide the crowd with a good view--while performing the libation.
"ולמנסך אומר לו הגבה ידך, שפעם אחד נסך אחד על גבי רגליו ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהן" (סוכה צ"ז).

Who was this renegade Kohen Gadol? He seems to have been no other than the Hasmonean Monarch Alexander Yannai. Josephus in Antiquities describes the episode thus:

"בימים ההם קשרו היהודים על ינאי המלך קשר ובחג הסוכות בעלות המלך (בתפקידו ככהן גדול) על מזבח הפנימי להקריב עולת החג השליכו עליו רבים מבני העם את האתרוגים אשר בידם, ויחרפוהו ויתנו עליו בקולם: "צא, צא בן חללה! לא לך לגשת אל מזבח השם כי אמך הייתה חללה (השווה קדושין סו' א'), 
ויקצוף המלך מאד וחמתו בערה בו ויט ידו מעל המזבח ויקרא: "חרב, חרב על פרושים! " וישלפו גדודיו שומרי ראשו את חרבותיהם ויהרגו בעם כששת אלפים איש מעדת הפרושים, ויצו המלך לנגוח חומת עץ בבית ה' להבדיל בין חצר העם לבין חצר הכוהנים הפנימי לבל יוסיפו עוד המורדים להרגיזו בבואו לעבוד את עבודת הקודש. גם שכר לו אנשי צבא מבני פיזיציה וקיליקיה להיות תמיד סביב לו ולשמרו בכל אשר ילך" (קדמוניות היהודים יג),

As to Alexander, his own people were seditious against him; for at a festival which was then celebrated, when he stood upon the altar, and was going to sacrifice, the nation rose upon him, and pelted him with citrons [which they then had in their hands, because] the law of the Jews required that at the feast of tabernacles every one should have branches of the palm tree and citron tree; which thing we have elsewhere related. They also reviled him, as derived from a captive, and so unworthy of his dignity and of sacrificing. At this he was in a rage, and slew of them about six thousand.

The ensuing slaughter can easily be seen as the cause for the safeguards put in place later, probably under the reign of his successor: his wife-- a friend of the Pharisees, the Queen Salome Alexandra (Shlomziyon).

But there is an added dimension to this story that I believe has been overlooked by scholars. Namely the symbolism of the citron. Interestingly, there is no mention of lulavim being thrown (though one may imagine that one could do more damage with its prickly jaggedy leafs). This, in my opinion, is because in addition to the Zadoki opposition to nisukh hamayim, the former also objected to the taking of the arba minim in hand. They interpreted the Torah's mandate to take the four species in order to construct booths (it is a legitimate lone opinion cited in Tractate Sukkah--albeit in addition to taking them in hand). Therefore, the crowd pelted him with the citrons, thus demonstrating that they knew what he did there and they had his number.

**Hebrew citations from Talmud are provided courtesy of the Daat website. With special thanks to them


1.) On references to the identification of 'peri eitz hadar' with the etrog in Rabbinic literature see here (better yet, read Zohar Amar's book).

2). On various sectarian interpretations of the four minim, see here and here

What I found particularly interesting is the Ethiopian Jews who do not take the four minim in hand yet  follow the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees on most important matters of religious law.

 There are special prayers but the Falashas do not make the booths required by scriptures. The reason given for the disregard of this ordinance is that the huts in which they live may be regarded as booths symbolical of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. They spread leaves of various trees, such as palm and a variety of weeping willow, over the floor of their houses and the Synagogue.
…..The first and last days are called holy and no work is allowed during the whole festival. On the last day, the priests or the deacons carry the Torah in the Synagogue and the people dance…

(Falasha Anthology, p. xxxii).

On Sukkot, Jubilees has this to say:

ספר היובלים ט"ז כ"ט-לא: "על כן הוקם בלוחות השמים על ישראל כי יהיו עושים את חג הסוכות שבעת ימים בשמחה בחודש בשביעי ויהי לרצון לפני ה' חק עולם לדורותם בכל שנה ושנה. ואין לזה קץ הימים כי לעולם הוקם לישראל לעשותו וישבו בסוכות ושמו כתרים על ראשם ולקחו ענף עץ עבות וערבי נחל. ויקח אברהם לבות תמרים ופרי עץ הדר וסבב מדי יום ביומו את המזבח בענפים שבע ליום ובבוקר יהלל ויודה לאלוהיו על הכל בשמחה".
For this reason it is ordained on the heavenly tables concerning Israel, that they shall celebrate the feast of tabernacles seven days with joy, in the seventh month, acceptable before the Lord--a statute for ever throughout their generations every year. 2 30. And to this there is no limit of days; for it is ordained for ever regarding Israel that they should celebrate it and dwell in booths, and set wreaths upon their heads, 3 and take leafy boughs, and willows from the brook. And Abraham took branches of palm trees, and the fruit of goodly trees, and every day going round the altar with the branches seven times

Interestingly enough the Karaite polemicist, Daniel Al-Qumisi mocked the modern-day custom of circling the tebha/bima (Hoshaanot) with the four minim:

"והכרתי פסילך". כי כל עבודתך אשר לא מן התורה הם כפסילים. וכן כל #בראני#. "ומצבותיך". איה היום מצבות בין ישראל חוץ מן התבות אשר בכל כנסיות בגלות. ומציבים לנגדם להשתחות לפניה וקוראים בשם ארון. וגם בימי חג הסכות לוקחים לולב ומסובבים סביב. וגם נשאים על כתפם בהודות והלל סביבות הכניסת במועדים. ולולי הוא כדברי איהם מצבות בישראל.

(I heartily thank my good friend Shawn Lichaa for providing me with this source).

3). Notice how Dr. Lawrence Schiffman (an Orthodox Jew) seems to infer that Rabbinic tradition about the usage of the four minim does NOT conform to Nehemiah but is a result of midrashic exegesis. Pretty radical..


At Sunday, October 16, 2016 3:40:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

You provided no source for your contention that the esrogim thrown at him didn't kill him.


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