Alexander the Great created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, spreading Greek culture throughout the world. According to Jewish tradition, Alexander reached the gates of Jerusalem where he was met by Shimon HaTzaddik, the High Priest, wearing the distinct uniform of High Priesthood. Alexander bowed down to him, explaining that Shimon HaTzaddik appeared before him in his dreams and promised him victory in his battles. According to the Gemara, in recognition of his magnanimous attitude towards the Jews, the Sages decreed that children were to be named in his honor, and the name Alexander has remained a Jewish name to this day.
The Gemara on today’s daf relates ten questions that Alexander put to the Sages of the Negev. Among them we find:
- Which is further, from heaven to earth or from east to west?
- Were heavens created first, or the earth?
- Was light created first, or darkness?
- Who is called wise?
- Who is called a mighty man?
- Who is called a rich man?
- What shall a man do to live?
- What should a man do to ensure he will die?
- What should a man do to ensure he will be accepted by people?
- Is it better to live at sea or on dry land?
The Maharsha explains that in asking the questions “Who is wise?” “Who is strong?” and “Who is wealthy?” – three attributes that are indicative of arrogance and conceit – Alexander anticipated that the Sages would respond by asserting that he was the greatest Greek philosopher, the supreme conqueror, and the wealthiest man in the world. Instead they answered following the teaching of the Sages, that the wise man is the one who learns from every person, the mighty man is the one who subdues his evil passions, and that the rich man is the one who rejoices in his lot.
According to the Gemara, Alexander was initially upset with them and threatened to have them killed, but he was ultimately satisfied with their responses and he clothed them with garments of purple and put chains of gold on their necks.