Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz 5769/ December 27, 2008

Shabbat Hanukkah-Rosh Hodesh Tevet

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Bilgah Watch

Prof. Haim Genizi

Department of History


The Mishnah in Tractate Sukkah 56a includes the following teaching:  “Those who arrived shared out [the Shewbread] in the north [part of the Temple court], and those who left divided it in the south.   The Bilgah [watch] always divided it in the south, for their ring was rendered immovable and their window was blocked up.” There were twenty-four watches or shifts of priests who each served in the Temple two weeks a year. Rashi explains that the Sages imposed sanctions on the Bilgah watch, making it necessary for them to ask others to use their ring (through which the head of the animal to be slaughtered was passed to make the slaughtering easier) and their window (in which the knives were kept), and that this was a mark of their being in disgrace.  The gemara (Sukkah 70b) explains why sanctions were imposed on the Bilgah watch:

The Rabbis taught:   Once a certain Miriam, a daughter of Bilgah, converted out of the faith and married a soldier of the Greek rulers.  When the Greeks entered the inner sanctuary of the Temple, she was kicking the altar with her foot and saying:  Lucus, Lucus, how long will you keep consuming the money of the Israelites, yet you do not come to their rescue in time of need!   When the Sages heard this, they rendered the ring of her watch immovable and blocked up its window.   Others say:  The watch tarried in arriving, and his brother Yishevav came in with him and ministered in his stead.

The reasons given in the gemara for imposing sanctions require clarification.  As for Miriam’s act of cursing the altar, the gemara itself asked, “Does he (Bilga) deserve to be sanctioned on account of his daughter?”  Abaye answered, “The way a child talks in the marketplace echoes his father or mother.”  In other words, Miriam, daughter of Bilgah, would not have spoken in such a manner had she not heard similar things in her parents’ house.  This explanation still left something to be desired, and so the gemara asked further:  “On account of Miriam’s father and mother does the entire Bilgah watch deserve to be put under sanction?”  Again Abaye answered:  “Woe to an evil person and woe to his neighbor.”   Abaye’s excuse seems hard put.  Even the second explanation, that the Bilgah watch tarried in coming, is problematic.  If a handful of children come late to school, is the entire neighborhood punished?

Understanding the historical setting might help us clarify why the Bilgah watch was punished.  Various scholars, including the late Professor Menahem Stern, concluded that “most likely Menelaus himself was from a priestly family belonging to the Bilgah watch.” [1]   The Bilgah clan was among the leaders of hellenization in Judea, as Stern notes:

The most extreme in their devotion to Greek culture and in their total severance from Judaism in any form were the priests belonging to the Bilgah watch.  One of them, Menelaus, in time became the chief executor of Antiochus’ policies in Judea. [2]

The High Priests were the representatives of Judea in the Seleucid court, while Menelaus, who had purchased the High Priesthood from the king, became the representative of Antiochus (the Syrian Greeks or Seleucids) in Judea.  With Menelaus’ support, the king plundered the treasures of the Temple upon his return from the war in Egypt – an act that aroused the wrath of the Jews.

The hellenizers, who had made Jerusalem into a polis, took over the new institutions and displaced the former leadership of the city, becoming the political and cultural elite of Jerusalem. [3]   They abandoned the Torah and its commandments, creating a deep cultural and social rift between themselves and the rural population and Pharisee leaders.

If the members of the Bilgah watch were indeed among the leaders of hellenization, we can understand more easily how the daughter of a priest might have converted out of the faith and married a gentile, and it was only natural that Miriam’s parents would speak disparagingly of the Temple and its altar, once the hellenizers had replaced the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem by the institutions of the polis which they set up.  This brings us to the second reason given in the gemara, namely that the members of the Bilgah watch “tarried in arriving.”  Rashi explains:  “When the Sabbath on which they were on duty arrived, they would not come, which shows that the Temple worship was not dear to their hearts.”  Indeed, the young priests of the Bilgah clan preferred the sports stadium to Temple worship.  The sport stadium had inherited the place of the Temple and had become the focal point of social life in Jerusalem.   The Second Book of Maccabees bemoans the Temple having been abandoned in preference for the sports stadium:   “So Hellenism and gentile values reached a point … that the priests no longer had any enthusiasm for their duties at the altar, but despised the Temple and neglected the sacrifices, and hastened to the wrestling square.” [4]

“When word of this reached the Sages” (Sukkah, 70b)-- Rashi explains, “after the Hasmoneans had obtained the upper hand,” it was decided to punish the watch of the hellenizers.  The Hasmonean revolt was waged not only against Antiochus and his decrees, but also against the Jewish hellenizers, who were endangering the Temple service and the very survival of Judaism.   The sanctions placed on the Bilgah watch, that they always hand out the Shewbread in the south, that their ring be rendered immovable and that their window be blocked up, seem too light a punishment.  But removing this watch altogether from any service in the Temple could well have caused confusion in the order of service of other watches, and therefore such a step was not taken.

When we take into account the fact that the members of the Bilgah watch were among the most extreme hellenizers, as portrayed above, we can easily understand their behavior and the sanctions imposed on them by the Sages.


[1] Menahem Stern, Mehkarim be-Toldot Yisrael bi- Yemei ha-Bayit ha-Sheni ( Yad Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem 1991), p. 45, esp. note 65.

[2] Ibid., p. 152.

[3] “The people … in their enthusiasm went to the king and received authority to introduce non-Jewish laws and customs.  They built a sports-stadium in the gentile style in Jerusalem.  They removed their marks of circumcision and they repudiated the holy covenant.  They intermarried with Gentiles and abandoned themselves to evil ways.”   I Maccabees 1:13-14.

[4] II Maccabees 4:12-13.