The relationship between two people sharing authority can often be difficult. Nevertheless, in the early Talmudic era, the leadership of the Jewish people was usually shared between two sages. Known as zugot, one of these leaders was the head of the Sanhedrin (nasi) and the other was the head of the court (av beit din). Among the many unique zugot was the famed partnership of Shmaya and Avtaliyon.

According to tradition, not only did these two share their leadership, they actually studied together under Rabbi Judah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach. Additionally, they were both converts to Judaism, believed to be descendants of Sancherib, the Assyrian King who had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Living in a time of great political upheaval – the era of Herod the Great (74 BCE-4 BCE)- Shmaya and Avtaliyon were more than just scholars. They were greatly loved by the people. The Talmud relates how one year, just after the conclusion of Yom Kippur, they came upon a crowd escorting the High Priest to his home. So beloved were Shmaya and Avtaliyon, that when the crowd saw them they abandoned the High Priest and followed the nasi and av beit din (Talmud Yoma 71b).

Another story that demonstrates how beloved they were and how eager scholars were to study with them is about one of their most famous students, Hillel the Elder. A very poor man, one Friday,  Hillel did not have the small fee necessary to enter the House of Study. Rather than return home, he climbed up on the roof of the House of Study. The next morning, Shmaya and Avtaliyon noticed that the skylight was blocked. Finding Hillel frozen and covered in snow, they quickly  brought him inside and revived him (Talmud Yoma 35b). They decided never to charge fees again.

Even in death Shmaya and Avtaliyon are joined together. Their tomb, located in the village of Jish in the Galilee region of northern Israel, receives many visitors each year.

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