Today’s daf includes one of the most famous stories in the Gemara, when the kohen gadol, Shimon HaTzaddik met Alexander Mokdon (the Macedonian). The story is taken from Megillat Ta’anit (which appears in the Steinsaltz Talmud after Massekhet Ta’anit), where the baraita explains why during the second Temple period the 25th day of Tevet was celebrated as a minor holiday, which was called “the day of Mount Gerizim.”
Our Gemara introduces it in the context of the halakha that the kohen gadol was not permitted to wear the special bigdei kehuna – the clothing worn by a priest – outside the Temple. Yet, in the following story we find that Shimon HaTzaddik did so.
Megillat Ta’anit records how the Samaritans approached Alexander Mokdon and requested permission from him to be permitted to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Alexander agreed. When word of this got to Jerusalem, the kohen gadol, Shimon HaTzaddik dressed in his priestly garments and headed north together with an entourage to greet Alexander. Upon reaching Antipatris, the city that was considered the northern border of second Temple period Judea, which stood apparently in the vicinity of today’s Rosh ha-Ayin, the two groups met.
When Alexander saw Shimon HaTzaddik, he descended from his chariot and bowed before him. His escorts said to him: Should an important king such as you bow to this Jew? He said to them: I do so because the image of this man’s face is victorious before me on my battlefields, i.e., when I fight I see his image going before me as a sign of victory, and therefore I know that he has supreme sanctity.
Shimon HaTzaddik appealed to Alexander to save the Temple, explaining that prayers on his behalf were recited there on a regular basis. Alexander acceded to the request and permitted the Jews to destroy the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim instead.
- The Gemara offers two explanations to Shimon HaTzaddik’s behavior in wearing bigdei kehuna to this meeting. One is that they were not true bigdei kehuna, they were replicas that were similar to the priestly garments. The other explanation is that this was a case where an exception was made, since the fate of the Temple and the Jewish people was at stake (the passage from Tehillim 119:126 is invoked as a source for that idea).
It should be noted that other sources support the veracity of this story, as it appears in Josephus with minor variations.