Parsha Halacha

Parshat Miketz

Shabbat Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh

Yochanan Kohen Gadol

His Identity and History

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In the Ve’al HaNissim prayer which we recite during the prayers and in the Grace after Meals on Chanukah, we mention that Matityahu was the son of Yochanan Kohen Gadol. (The title “Kohen Gadol” is referring to Yochanan and not to Matityahu, who never served as the Kohen Gadol.) It is well known that Matityahu began the rebellion against the wicked Syrian Greeks and that his five sons completed that miraculous venture. But the identity of Matityahu’s father is somewhat unclear. As such, this article will discuss who he was and how he ties in to the Chanukah story.

Three Yochanan Kohen Gadols

It seems that there were three men by the name of Yochanan who held the position of Kohen Gadol in the era of the second Beit HaMikdash.

  • Father of Matityahu

The first was the father of Matityahu who was the Kohen Gadol after Shimon HaTzadik.[1] The Book of the Maccabees (which was not incorporated into the Tanach and is therefore not considered authoritative) writes[2] that Yochanan was the son of Shimon Hatzadik. But it is unlikely that he was the actual son of Shimon since the Talmud[3] records Shimon as having only two sons, Chonyo and Shimi. Chonyo cannot be the same person as Yochanan Kohen Gadol since Yochanan was a righteous man whereas Chonyo built a temple in Egypt,[4] which is considered a major sin.

  • Son of Matityahu

The second Yochanan was a grandson of the first and was one of the five sons of Matityahu. This Yochanan became the Kohen Gadol after the Chanukah miracle and the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash. He also composed the text of the Ve’al HaNissim prayer and established Chanukah as a holiday.[5]

  • Son of Shimon

The third Yochanan was a nephew of the second, whose father was Shimon, the last surviving Maccabee brother. He was also known as Yochanan Hurkanus or King Yannai.[6] (More about him on the next page.)

Yochanan Kohen Gadol who Served for Eighty Years

The Talmud says[7] that there was a righteous Kohen Gadol by the name of Yochanan who served as the Kohen Gadol for eighty years. The Talmud says that he established many positive religious practices but that at the end of his life he became a Saducee. This story is brought to prove the point of the Mishnah[8] that “You should not trust yourself (to be above temptation to sin) until the day you die.”

The Takanot (Religious Practices) Established by Yochanan Kohen Gadol

Here are several of the religious enactments established by Yochanan Kohen Gadol:[9]

  • Demai

He established that one must separate certain tithes from produce acquired from an unlearned person in Israel. This produce became called Demai which is a contraction of dah mai or “what is this?”

  •  Care in Ritual Slaughter

Prior to Yochanan’s time, it was common practice to strike sacrificial animals with rods before slaughtering them in order to be able to subdue them. Yochanan forbade this practice as it could render the animal not kosher and/or a blemished sacrifice. Instead, he had metal rings installed in the floor of the courtyard of the Beit haMikdash to restrain the animals without injuring them.

  • Wording of the Prayers

Prior to the time of Yochanan, the Levites would cry to G-d in their prayerful songs and say, “Awake, why do You sleep, O L-rd?”[10] Since, in truth, “the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers”[11] (and it only appears to us as if he is occasionally unsympathetic), Yochanan removed this line from their prayers.

  • Chol HaMo’ed Labor

Until his time, one could hear the banging of anvils and hammers in Jerusalem on Chol HaMoed as, under certain circumstances, one may perform labor on Chol HaMoed. Yochanan put a stop to this as he considered the loud noise of the hammers to diminish the sanctity of the holiday even if it was technically permissible.

Which Yochanan became a Saducee?

The Talmud[12] records two opinion as to the identity of the Yochanan who became a Sadducee:

1)     Abaye’s Opinion: Yannai

According to Abaye, he was the same person as the Hasmonean King Yannai (i. e., the third Yochanan Kohen Gadol mentioned above). The Talmud says[13] that Yannai was swayed by the Sadducees to slaughter all the sages. Since, according to Abaye, Yannai was a righteous Kohen Gadol for 80 years, this event either occurred at the end of those 80 years[14] or beforehand[15] and that he subsequently did Teshuvah but then reverted to being a Sadducee before he passed away.

2)     Rava’s Opinion: Not Yannai

According to Rava, the famous Yochanan Kohen Gadol was not the same person as Yannai.

It would seem that the halacha follows Rava in this instance as it usually does throughout the Talmud.[16] As such, what remains to be determined is whether the famous Yochanan Kohen Gadol was the father or grandson of Matityahu.

3)     Some say the first, some say the second

There are conflicting views on this matter. Some identify him as the former[17] and some as the latter.[18]

According to the opinion that he was the father of Matityahu, his 80-year tenure could have been any time between the year 273 BCE (when Shimon passed away) and the year 140 BCE (when the Chanukah miracle occurred).[19]

A Voice from the Holy of Holies

Elsewhere the Talmud says[20] that on one Yom Kippur, Yochanan Kohen Gadol heard a voice from the Holy of Holies which announced, “The youth (young Hasmonean Kohanim – Rashi) who went to wage war in Antioch (i.e., against the Greek) have been victorious.” This event seems to have occurred at some point after the Chanukah miracle and was regarding a later battle. As such, it is clearly referring to the second Yochanan Kohen Gadol, the son of Matityahu.

Hillel’s Teaching

It is noteworthy that Hillel, who taught that one should not trust themselves until the day they die, was alive when King Yannai became a Saducee. According to Abaye (quoted above), this event was the one that became the basis for Hillel’s teaching. (Yannai passed away in the year 3668 (or 93 BCE)[21] while Hillel was born 17 years earlier in the year 110 BCE.[22])

Why Mention a Saducee in the Prayers?

According to the those who say that the Yochanan who became a Saducee was the father of Matityahu, it is difficult to understand why he is honored by being mentioned in the prayers.

It has been suggested he was only a Saducee for a short period of time during which he burnt incense on Yom Kippur outside of the Holy of Holies in the manner of the Sadducees but that afterwards, he did Teshuvah. In addition, the fact that his descendants fought for the sake of G-d and merited to lead the Jewish people to salvation atoned for his (temporary) sin. [23]

This is alluded to by the Mishnah[24] that says הִנִּיחַ חֶנְוָנִי אֶת נֵרוֹ מִבְּחוּץ — חֶנְוָנִי חַיָּיב. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר: בְּנֵר חֲנוּכָּה — פָּטוּר. The simple meaning of this Mishnah is that if a storekeeper places his lamp outside the store and causes a conflagration, he is responsible for the damages. Rabbi Yehudah exempts the storekeeper if it was a Chanukah lamp, as he placed it there with permission. This can also allude to the above teaching, bearing in mind that the word חֶנְוָנִי (storekeeper) has the same letters as Yochanan (יוחנן).

As such, the Mishnah can mean that Yochanan (Kohen Gadol) was liable for punishment for the conflagration (of the Ketoret) which he did outside of the Holy of Holies (following the Sadducee interpretation). Rabbi Yehudah says that, as a result of the (miracle and holiday of the) Chanukah lamps (which came about through his descendants), he is exempt from punishment as his sin was rectified through their self-sacrifice.

May we merit to see the lighting of the Menorah in the Third Beit HaMikdash, speedily in our Days!

[1] See Rambam in Pirush HaMishnayot, Ma’asrot 9:1

[2] 2:1

[3] Menachot 109b

[4] See Menachot ibid, Megillah 10a and here. In his book, Wars of the Jews (book 7, chapter 10, paragraph 3), Josephus places the building of this temple in a much later period.

[5] Roke’ach 225, Kol Bo and Levush Hilchot Chanukah 670 quoted in Codex Judaic by Rabbi Matis Kantor, year 3623

[6] Dorot HaRishonim 2:444 quoted in Appendix B to Codex Judaica

[7] Brachot 29a. See Imrei No’am by the Vilna Gaon there.

[8] Avot 2:4

[9] See Sotah 48a see Yomah 9a and b with Rashi that this was the same Yochanan who served as Kohen Gadol for 40 years.

[10] Tehillim 44:24

[11] Ibid 121:4

[12] Brachot ibid

[13] Kiddushin 66a

[14] Rashbah, quoting Ramban on ibid

[15] Penei Yehoshua on ibid

[16] Although their argument in this case does not seem to be about halacha but about a historical matter, it also has halachic implications as, according to Abaye, a person who started off as a Tzadik will never become wicked (nor should we ever suspect that this may happen) whereas according to Rava, even a person who was always a Tzadik can become wicked (G-d forbid). This has halachic implications in the case of a chazzan who does not recite the blessing about heretics during the repetition of the Amidah (and is suspected of being a heretic). See the notes on the Metivta Shas on Brachot ibid and the sources quoted there.

[17] Sefer HaYuchsin 1:16 quoted in Codex Judaic, ibid

[18] Rambam in his Introduction to Pirush HaMishanyot. Although in his Pirush on Tractate Ma’asrot, the Rambam says that Yochanan came after Shimon HaTzadik, Rabbi Kantor postulates that he is writing this to distinguish him from his wicked nephew who was one generation later. (According to Rava, King Yannai was wicked throughout his life.)

[19] These years come from the Codex Judaica by Rabbi Mattis Kantor.

[20] Sotah 33a

[21] Codex Judaica

[22] See here.

[23] Reb Baruch of Mezhibuzh and other sources, quoted in Birkat David on Birkat HaMazon by Rabbi David Mandelbaum, page 155

[24] Bava Kamma 22a

Wishing you a Happy Chanukah a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach and a Chodesh Tov!

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