A second officer, the Nasi, or President of the Sanhedrin, was added to the existing position of Av Beis Din, the Chief Justice, following the death of Antigonos. While it is not clear why this was done, Ptolemy III took the responsibility of tax collection from the Jews away from the High Priest just years earlier. It may be that the Sages of the time determined that another public officer with impeccable credentials would help counterbalance the influence of a potentially corrupt tax collector.
Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan
The first pair consisted of Yose ben Yo'ezer as Nasi, and Yose ben Yochanan as the Av Beis Din. They received the Oral Law from Antigonos, as did their contemporary Yochanan (no relation to Yose ben Yochanan), whose son Mattisyahu started the Hasmonean revolt. The famous “Yehudah HaMaccabee” (Judah the Maccabee) from the story of Chanukah was Mattisyahu's son.
Mattisyahu called for a revolt against the Greeks and Jews who had placed idols in the Temple. The Torah-true Jews entered and cleansed the Temple in victory, but found that all flasks of oil but one had been defiled. Miraculously, its oil burned for eight days, until more could be prepared. Seeing this demonstration of God's Hand, the Sages enacted that the dedication, or Chanukah, of the cleansed Temple should be celebrated every year.
Yehoshua ben Perachyah and Nittai haArbeli
The Nasi Yehoshua ben Perachyah and the Av Beis Din Nittai haArbeli were the next of the pairs. According to Maimonides, one of the other great Sages who transmitted the Oral Law during this generation was Yochanan, son of Shimon—who was one of the four brothers of Yehudah (Judah), known as the Maccabee. Judah and his brothers led the military revolt against the Greeks and Hellenized Jews that led to the miracles of Chanukah.
Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach
The third generation of “pairs” consisted of the Nasi Yehudah ben Tabbai and the Av Beis Din Shimon ben Shetach. Shimon ben Shetach defied the evil King Alexander Yannai, ensuring the survival of Torah.
Alexander Yannai was a King from the Hasmonean line. One of the sad postscripts of the Chanukah story is that although the sons of Mattisyahu were Kohanim (Priests, from the tribe of Levi), they took it upon themselves to rule over Israel following their successful revolt. This was a tragic error, because the right to be King of Israel was granted by God to the descendants of King David, who is from the tribe of Yehudah, for eternity.
During the following generations, the Hasmonean leaders were corrupted by their power, both taking upon themselves the title of “King” and also acting with increasing hostility toward the Torah Sages. Alexander Yannai was influenced by an evil advisor to have the Sages killed—but his wife, Shlomis Alexandra, ensured that her brother Shimon ben Shetach was spared.
Shemayah and Avtalyon
Shemayah and Avtalyon were descendants of righteous converts; they traced their lineage to the evil King Sancherev of Assyria, who tried to destroy Jerusalem. Nonetheless, they rose to the highest ranks of Torah scholars, becoming the Nasi and Av Beis Din, respectively.
Hillel and Shammai
The last of these pairs of scholars is the most famous of all—Hillel and Shammai. Shammai lived in the Land of Israel all his life, while Hillel was born in Babylonia and moved to Israel to learn Torah from the greatest scholars. Soon he himself became one of them. Hillel served as Nasi from approximately 3728 (32 B.C.E.) until 3768 (8 C.E.).
Shammai is dismissed by some for being too stringent, while Hillel is admired for taking a more lenient view. The truth is that Shammai was often more lenient, and the two were colleagues and friends dedicated toward the same goal of spreading Torah study and observance.
One of the most well-known—and most misunderstood—enactments of Hillel is known as the Prosbul, which made it easier for people to borrow money. According to Torah Law, all debts are forgiven at the end of the seventh, Sabbatical year (which is explained in Chapter 9). This existed as Torah Law, however, only until several tribes were exiled during the First Temple era; afterward, it was observed by Rabbinic decree so that people would not forget the Law (Maimonides, Laws of the Sabbatical Year 10:9).
Observance of this law, of course, required a high degree of trust in God. Money that one lent near the end of the Sabbatical year might never be returned—and for this reason, when the spiritual level of the people declined late in the Second Temple era, they started to find excuses not to lend money. Not getting a loan, of course, was much worse for the poor than getting a loan that would need to be repaid.
To fail to lend money was itself a violation of Torah Law. Hillel saw that people were failing to observe a Torah Law because of the earlier Rabbinic enactment to forgive debts. With the approval of the Sanhedrin, he therefore enacted the Prosbul, by which people transferred their loans to the authority of a Jewish court. Since a loan under court authority was not vacated at the end of the Sabbatical year, people then felt free to lend money.
So contrary to how the Prosbul has sometimes been misinterpreted, Hillel did not circumvent Torah Law. On the contrary, he strengthened it, by preventing Rabbinic legislation from inadvertently causing transgression of the Torah itself. As Maimonides writes:
The Prosbul is of no value except for the financial Sabbatical in our day, which is of Rabbinic origin; but concerning the Sabbatical of the Torah, the Prosbul is without value. (Laws of the Sabbatical Year 9:16)
This was Hillel—an outstanding scholar and innovative thinker, steadfast in his complete dedication to Torah observance in accordance with God's will. Hillel's family line continued to serve in the position of Nasi, one after the other, for the next thirteen generations, until Hillel the Second 350 years later. Hillel's sixth-generation descendent, Rebbe Yehudah the Nasi, produced the final text of the Mishnah, the first published text for study of the Oral Law.
The Houses of Hillel and Shammai
Both men had schools of disciples—the Houses of Hillel and Shammai—that persisted for at least a generation. They debated position after position, issue after issue, defending their view with both Torah sources and scholarly logic. Because the aim of both sides was to understand the truth of Torah, an environment of mutual honesty and love prevailed between the two houses. In the vast majority of cases, the Halachah (Jewish law) was decided in accordance with the House of Hillel; there were many exceptions, however, several of which are discussed in the Mishnah and Talmud in the first chapter of Tractate Shabbos.