Abtalion (Hebrew: אַבְטַלְיוֹן ʾAbhtalyôn) or Avtalyon (Modern Hebrew) was a rabbinic sage in the early pre-Mishnaic era. He was a leader of the Pharisees during the 1st century BCE, and by tradition vice-president of the great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. He lived at the same time as Sh'maya. They are known as one of the zugot ("couples"): Shmaya and Avtalyon.


Avtalion and Shemaya were converts to Judaism or the descendants of converts; by tradition they were descended from King Sennacherib of Assyria.[1] Despite this, they were influential and beloved. The Talmud relates that once, when the high priest was being escorted home from the Temple by the people, at the close of a Day of Atonement, the crowd deserted him upon the approach of Avtalion and Shemayah and followed them.[2] However, Graetz has argued that neither Shemayah nor Avtalion was of Gentile descent, although both were Alexandrians.[3]

Little is known about Abtalion's life. He was a pupil of Judah ben Tabbai and Simeon ben Shetach, and probably lived for some time in Alexandria, Egypt, where he and also his teacher Judah took refuge when Alexander Jannaeus cruelly persecuted the Pharisees. This gives pertinence to his maxim, "You wise men, be careful of your words, lest you draw upon yourselves the punishment of exile and be banished to a place of bad water (dangerous doctrine), and your disciples, who come after you, drink thereof and die, and the name of the Holy One thereby be profaned."[4] He cautions the rabbis herein against participation in politics (compare the maxim of his colleague) as well as against emigration to Egypt, where Greek ideas threatened Judaism.

Avtalion and Shemaiah are the first to bear the title darshan,[5] and it was probably by no mere chance that their pupil Hillel was the first to lay down hermeneutic rules for the interpretation of the Midrash; he may have been indebted to his teachers for the tendency toward aggadic interpretation. These two scholars are the first whose sayings are recorded in the aggadah.[6] The new method of derush (Biblical interpretation) introduced by Abtalion and Shemaiah seems to have evoked opposition among the Pharisees.[7] Abtalion and Shemaiah are also the first whose halakhot (legal decisions) are handed down to later times. Among them is the important one that the paschal lamb must be offered even if Passover falls on a Sabbath.[8] Abtalion's academy was not free to every one, but those who sought entrance paid daily a small admission fee of one and a half tropaika; that is, about twelve cents.[9] This was no doubt to prevent overcrowding by the people, or for some reasons stated by the Shammaites.[10]

The traditional tombs of Shmaya and Avtalyon are located in Jish, a Maronite Christian village in the Galilee.[11]

In JosephusEdit

Josephus twice refers to a Pollion, who may be identical to Avtalion, along with a Sameas (Greek: Σαμαίας) who may be identical to Shemaya. Linguistically, the original form of Pollion is presumably Ptollion, which explains both the prefixed A in the Talmud and the omission of the t in Josephus.

In the first source, Abtalion used his influence with the people in persuading the men of Jerusalem, in the year 37 BCE, to open the gates of their city to Herod the Great. Herod was not ungrateful, and rewarded Pollion and Pollion's student Sameas with great honors.[12] In the second source, Herod exacted the oath of allegiance under penalty of death, and continues: "He desired also to compel Pollion, the Pharisee, and Sameas, together with the many who followed them, to take this oath; they, however, refused to do this, but nevertheless were not punished as were others who had refused to take it, and this indeed out of consideration for Pollion."[13] This episode took place in the eighteenth year of Herod's reign (20 or 19 BCE).

Some modern scholars believe that both of these sources refer to Avtalyon and Shemaya;[14][15] others, that the first source refers to Avtalyon and Shemaya and the second source to Hillel (who became leader in 30 BCE according to the Talmud) and Shammai;[16] still others, that both sources refer to Hillel and Shammai.[17] According to the latter opinions, Josephus was misled by the similarity of the names Shemaiah and Shammai, and so wrote "Pollion and Sameas" instead of "Hillel and Shammai."

Preceded by
Judah ben Tabbai
Av Beth Din Succeeded by
Menahem the Essene


  1. ^ Yoma 71b; Gittin 57b; Yerushalmi Moed Kattan 3 81b; see Weiss, Dor Dor we-Dorshaw, i.1, and Landau, p. 319
  2. ^ Yoma 71b
  3. ^ Geschichte iii. 171
  4. ^ Pirkei Avot 1:11
  5. ^ Pesachim 70b — meaning "preacher"
  6. ^ Mekhilta Beshallaḥ 3:36, ed. Weiss.
  7. ^ Pesachim 70b. Compare also Josephus, l.c., Παλλίων ό φαρισαιος, where a title is probably intended
  8. ^ Pesachim 66a
  9. ^ Yoma 35b
  10. ^ Avot of Rabbi Natan 3 [4]:1
  11. ^ The Guide to Israel, Zev Vilnay, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 539.
  12. ^ Josephus, Antiquities 15:1, § 1
  13. ^ Antiquities 15:10, § 4
  14. ^ Max Radin, "Roman Knowledge of Jewish Literature", The Classical Journal, vol. 13, no. 3 (Dec., 1917), p. 164 (note 2) concludes: "From the combination Pollio and Sameas, in the passage quoted, it is evident that Josephus had in mind the pair Abtalyon and Shemayah, who preceded Hillel and Shammai as heads of the Sanhedrin (Mishnah Avot 1)."
  15. ^ Louis H. Feldman, "The Identity of Pollio, the Pharisee, in Josephus", The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 49, no. 1 [Jul., 1958], p. 53
  16. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia
  17. ^ Abraham Rees, The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, vol. 18, London 1819, s.v. Hillel).

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainLouis Ginzberg (1901–1906). "Abtalion, Pollion". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. It has the following bibliography: