1. Three Positions
2. Public Opinion
3. "The Head Speaker"
"Why is R' Yehuda everywhere referred to as the head speaker? The reason is as follows: once, R' Yehuda and R' Yose and R' Shimon sat together, and R' Yehuda ben Gerim sat next to them. R Yehuda opened the discussion, saying, 'How pleasant are the doings of this nation (Rome). They have built marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses.' R' Yose remained quiet. R' Shimon ben Yochai responded, saying, 'Everything they have built, they have built for their own good. They have built marketplaces in order to put prostitutes there; bathhouses, in order to rejuvenate themselves; and bridges, in order to levy tolls.'
"When the authorities got news of these words, they said, 'Yehuda, for having exalted, shall be exalted; Yose, for saying nothing, shall be exiled to Tzippori; Shimon, for having denounced, shall be put to death'" (Shabbat 33b).
On the face of things, the discussion between these sages took place in the presence of Yehuda ben Gerim alone, with nobody else present. If, however, this was the case, it is difficult to understand why the Romans saw reason to exalt R' Yehuda. Was he the only one of their many subjects who praised the throne for its doings? And it similarly does not seem right that R' Yose, for having remained silent in such a small circle, should be exiled to Tzippori, not to mention R' Shimon who was sentenced to death. Finally, is it not strange that just because the Romans respected R' Yehuda, he should merit the status of 'head speaker' and always have his opinion mentioned first in the Talmud.
In light of these difficulties, it would seem more likely that these leaders were disseminating their views among their disciples. R' Yehuda advised befriending the Romans and seeing the positive aspect of their doings. This Sage was clearly opposed to fighting the Romans - to the contrary, R' Yehuda believed in aiding them by endeavoring to preserve law and order.
R' Yose was neutral in his approach to the Romans, reserved, neither aiding nor opposing them.
R' Shimon bar Yochai fought the Romans as much as he could. In this respect, he was following in the footsteps of his teacher, Rabbi Akiva who had sent twenty-four thousand students to fight against this foreign power. Rambam writes (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3) that R' Akiva was the weapons bearer of Bar Kochba the King, who, as is well known, fought against the Romans. It is also told that R' Akiva traveled the world in order to recruit Jewish youths and to collect money in order to help Bar Kokhba. The Talmud (Berakhot) even indicates that he was on the run from the Romans: Once, R' Akiva was traveling on the road. He came to a town and requested accommodations for the night, but they would not give him any. He therefore went and slept in the field. At night a company came and took the people of the city captive. R' Akiva, however, because he was in the field, was spared.
At first glance, this is quite peculiar. R' Akiva, Israel's greatest Torah scholar looks for a place to sleep and nobody is willing to take him in. It would seem, then, that there was some danger involved in such an act. And indeed, we see that they came and captured the city. It is entirely possible that these were Roman soldiers who were carrying out searches for Rabbi Akiva and that a family caught giving him cover could be sentenced to death. Therefore, the Rabbi was forced, for his own good it turned out, to take shelter in the field.
We indeed find that most of Rabbi Akiva's students were wanted by the authorities. R' Meir, his leading disciple (Iruvin 13), fled from the Romans (Iruvin 13) and died in exile (JT Kilayim 9:4). R' Eliezer was one of the famous "Ten Martyrs" executed by the throne. R' Shimon bar Yochai was pursued by the Romans, and R' Yose was exiled. R' Yehuda was the only one who managed to remain on good terms with the authorities. As a result, R' Yehuda was able to teach Torah to the people of his generation more so than any of his colleagues. Indeed, the Talmud relates (Sanhedrin 20a):
"'Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised?' (Proverbs 31): ‘Grace is deceitful,’ refers to the generations of Moses and Joshua; ‘and beauty is vain,’ to the generation of Hezekiah; while ‘she that fears the Lord shall be praised’ refers to the generation of R' Yehuda son of R' Ila'i, of whose time it was said that [though the poverty was so great that] six of his disciples had to cover themselves with one garment between them, yet they studied the Torah."
This source calls for examination. Why did they attribute all of the Torah's honor and the self-sacrifice of the students in that generation to R' Yehuda? Did not his colleagues also occupy themselves with Torah and raise up students?
"The Head Speaker"
Rather, it would appear that because of friction with the authorities, the other Sages were unable to disseminate their teachings to the masses in the same way that R' Yehuda could. The authorities left R' Yehuda in peace and he was able to dedicate himself to diligently spreading Torah knowledge amongst Jews.
It would appear that this is the reason that R' Yehuda merited being "referred to everywhere as the head speaker." The term "the head speaker," in the case of R' Yehuda, is not just a Roman title of honor. Rather, R' Yehuda's ability to raise up the Torah and pass it on to the future generations is what makes him "the head speaker."
In light of this we can understand the motives of R' Meir and R' Natan who acted to remove R' Shimon ben Gamliel from the position of President and to replace him with R' Natan, R' Meir acting as his assistant. The Talmud (Horayot 13b) explains that Raban Shimon ben Gamliel decreed that when the President enters, everybody must stand and nobody sits until he tells them that they may sit; when the members of the court enter, the people stand in rows on each side and the court walks between them. When a Sage enters, people stand as he approaches and sit when he passes until he sits in his place.
Why did he establish this decree? Until that time, when the President entered everybody would stand, and when R' Natan and R' Meir would enter (one, the Head of the Court, the other, a Sage) everybody would stand. R' Shimon ben Gamliel thought it proper for there to be some distinction between himself and them. He therefore established this rule. R' Meir and R' Natan were not present on the day that the decree was passed.
The following day, when they entered and saw that the people did not stand as they had previously, they inquired as to what had happened. When they were informed of R' Shimon ben Gamliel's decree, R' Meir said to R' Natan, "Come, let us do to him as he wanted to do to us. Let us ask him a question from a tractate that he is not familiar with and thus have him removed from the position of President. You will be President, and I will be the Head of the Court."
On the face of things, it is difficult to understand this episode. Could it be that such Torah giants concerned themselves with petty issues of status?
However, one must understand that the presidential policy was to maintain warm relations with the authorities. Presidents were careful to maintain good relations with the Romans for the welfare of the public. As we have pointed out, R' Meir was opposed to this practice. He desired to have R' Shimon ben Gamliel removed and to change this policy. R' Shimon ben Gamliel, in order to give greater authority to the stance of the president, decreed that people should stand in his honor more so than for other Sages. In this manner, the preeminence of the presidential position over others would be clear. In fact, such a step served to confirm the success of R' Yehuda's approach for as long as the Jewish people, according to God's decree, were plighted to be subservient to the Roman Empire.