Simon Peter’s Yahrzeit

Simon Peter holds a special place in the hearts of many believers. We find camaraderie and consolation in a man who could sail from the highest points of discipleship to the lows of denying his Master. His struggles are our struggles; his challenges are our challenges, and, with the help of Heaven, his triumphs are our triumphs. Peter is a source of inspiration and even veneration—and not just for believers. Surprisingly, Peter actually appears a few times in rabbinic literature in a positive light.

Monday evening, December 20th, begins the 9th of Tevet which, according to Jewish tradition, is the anniversary of the death of Simon Peter.

Peter the Tzaddik

Let’s begin with a fascinating quote from Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid, who lived from 1150 to 1217 CE. He wrote a document entitled Sefer Chasidim that often dealt with the issues of Jewish-Christian relations in his day. In section 191, he writes:

If a Jew converts to Christianity, we refer to him with a derogatory nickname. For example if his name was Avraham, we call him Afram [from afar, dust], or something similar. We do this even to a tzaddik, if the Christians venerate him—like Shimon Kipah, who was a righteous man but the Christians approbated him—venerated him as one of their saints, and gave him the surname [Simon] Peter. Even though he was a righteous man [a tzaddik], the Jews gave him the nickname of Peter Chamor (“Firstling donkey,” a play on Exodus 13:13). [1]

By using the term tzaddik, Rabbi Yehudah is placing high honor upon Peter. Tazddik can literally be translated “righteous one” and is used in Judaism to describe someone who is considered very pious and faithfully observant to all of the Torah. In the mystical tradition, of which Rabbi Yehudah was certainly a part, the tzaddik was thought to possess the ability to help draw people closer to God.

Peter the Poet

Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, cites a midrash that also speaks highly of Peter in his Otzar HaMidrashim. In this encyclopedia of traditional midrashim, he records a lengthy legend about Simon Peter in which it is said that Peter “was the leader of the poets, and… was granted great wisdom.”[2] The Hebrew word used for “wisdom” is the word chochmah, which is used only to describe the very learned in Torah. By “leader of the poets,” the midrash is referring to someone who excels as an author of liturgical hymns called piyyutim. In fact, the midrash goes on to say Peter “composed great hymns for Israel.”[3] According to some traditions, we are still in possession of two of these today.

One prayer allegedly written by Peter is called Nishmat (“Soul of”), which opens with the words, “The soul of every living being will bless your name.”[4] This beautiful hymn is recited every Shabbat morning, and once a year at the end of the Passover Seder. The tradition of Peter’s authorship of the Nishmat was apparently so strong in the Middle Ages that such a great scholar as Rashi attempted to refute it. [5] It is impossible to verify Peter’s authorship of Nishmat. The prayer is very ancient; it appears to have been composed in stages over hundreds of years.

Another prayer that has traditional support for Peter’s authorship is called Eten Tehillah, (“I shall give praise”). The Machzor Vitri states,

Since the days of Shimon Kefa who established an order [of service for] Yom Kippur, Eten Tehillah. [6]

Unlike Nishmat, this prayer does not appear in most siddurim [traditional Jewish prayer books] and is recited in the synagogue only on Yom Kippur. Here is a sample of its verses:

Powerful in force, absolving iniquity, great in counsel, and passing over transgression, He reveals the deep mysteries, exposing the darkness; He sits in a secret place, and sees all that is in secret. Knowledge and discernment go forth from His mouth, and His eyes wander about, yet no eye perceives Him. His word rules, and His dominion is forever; The fullness of the whole earth is His glory, and the heights cannot contain Him. [7]

Peter’s authorship of Eten Tehillah is unchallenged in rabbinic literature, except for one obscure tradition that a certain Yosse ben Yosse from the fourth century composed it. [8]

The Ninth of Tevet

The last reference to Peter in rabbinic literature we will examine is a tradition about the date of Peter’s death. In a list of various holidays and special events entitled Megillat Ta’anit (“Scroll of the Fasts”), which dates between the eighth and tenth century CE, the following fast is listed:

On the ninth day [of Tevet, fasting is required]. The rabbis did not record why. [9]

Traditionally, Judaism observes the tenth of Tevet [the tenth month on the Hebrew calendar] as a day of fasting and mourning, but Megillat Ta’anit states that a fast used to take place on the ninth day of Tevet as well. For some reason, the original meaning behind this day seems to have been forgotten. Several rabbis have discussed the issue of this unknown fast day and offered various explanations, such as the anniversary of Ezra’s death, or a commemoration of the day when Esther was taken into the king’s palace.

There is one more explanation that is interesting for believers in Yeshua. The daily code of law for Orthodox Jews called the Shulchan Aruch contains a section discussing the ninth day of Tevet. In that passage, Rabbi Baruch Frankel Teomim wrote that the reason for the fast is that a certain Simon HaQalphos died on that day. [10] Rabbi Aaron of Worms also records that he found a document (no longer extant) entitled Sefer Zacharonot that states that Simon HaQalphoni died on the ninth of Tevet. [11]

Who is this Simon HaQalpho(s)ni? Some theorize that he might have been Simon son of Cleophas, whom Eusebius notes was a bishop of Jerusalem from about 63-107 CE. [12] But in Jewish literature, he is Simon Peter. The blasphemous, anti-Christian polemic Toledot Yeshu (“Generations of Yeshua”) appears to be the foundation for the legend. Peter appears in that text as Simon Kepha. In another manuscript of the same work (the Huldricus) his name appears as Simon HaQalphos. [13] The latter version says that Peter died on the ninth of Tevet. Yet another version of the Toledot Yeshu account adds the clarifying note, “…and this is Simon Cephas, whom the Gentiles call Saint Peter.” [14]

It appears that over the years there was much confusion surrounding the name Cephas and that at some point it was corrupted to HaQalphos, possibly confused with Simon Cleophas. Based upon the evidence of Toldot Yeshu, however, we see that the rabbinic world definitely identified the apostle Peter as Simon HaQalphos. [15]

More evidence for equating Simon Peter and Simon HaQalphos can be found in Rashi’s writings. Judaism regards Rashi as the pre-eminent Bible commentator. In his uncensored commentary on the Talmud, Rashi seems to follow the Huldricus version of Toledot Yeshu, but instead of mentioning Simon HaQalphos he simply writes the name Peter. [16] Therefore, one of the traditional explanations for the forgotten fast day of the Ninth of Tevet was that the Apostle Peter died on this day. In Judaism, fasting on the anniversary of someone’s death is a gesture of tremendous respect for the deceased. [17]

The Apostate Peter

This raises the question: why would the rabbinic community desire to honor Simon Peter’s death, a man to whom they gave such honorific titles as tzaddik, and “head of the poets”? A few answers can be found in some ancient midrashim that paint a fanciful story about our beloved apostle. These stories have been surveyed by such scholars as Alfred Edersheim and are mostly found in the Toledot Yeshu narratives. [18] The tales insist that Peter was a false-believer in Yeshua and that he only pretended to be a “Christian” in order to save Israel from the anti-Semitism that was coming from the Church at the time. Therefore, he is declared a hero because he persuaded the Christians to leave the Jews alone and, in turn, preserved the Jews and Judaism. These legends are completely fictional and are in direct contradiction to the Gospels, the Apostolic Scriptures and the historical reality.

Such stories came about at a time of unprecedented Christian persecutions against the Jews. Legends like this were invented in the Jewish community in order to de-legitimize what they perceived as one of the major founders of the Christian faith, Simon Peter. Believers revered Peter as a sort-of first pope. If Peter’s Christian faith could be proven phony, then the entire religion could be regarded as illegitimate. This, then, would strengthen and encourage their Jewish brethren even under such duress as the Crusades. Though it looked as if Christianity was winning in the physical, in the spiritual it was all false, they believed.

Yet, despite these made-up legends, the sources do raise certain implications regarding Peter and the early apostles, who were not ‘Christians’ in the modern sense of the term. Certain parts of what we have surveyed may actually attest to an original substratum of rabbinic tradition: that Peter and the early apostles were Torah-observant Jews who believed in their resurrected Messiah Yeshua. It is possible that the Jewish community preserved a collective memory of the historical Simon Peter—the Torah-observant Jew who remained within the matrix of Judaism while at the same time believing in Yeshua as Messiah.

The Peter legends of Toledot Yeshu might have arisen, in part, to try to reconcile the historical memory of Simon Peter with the Christian presentation of Saint Peter. Points of intersection regarding prayers in the siddur and fast days remind us of the field upon which the real Apostles played. In that regard, the Jewish sources about Simon Peter are faint and distant echoes of day when Christianity and Judaism were not yet separate religions. Though faint and distant, those echoes should serve to strengthen our faith and its authenticity as we see some of the great rabbis of history reverently discussing the person of Simon Peter.

This year, on the 9th of Tevet, I encourage you to take a day to honor the Apostle Peter and remember his life. Read from the Gospels and Acts the stories that involve him as well as spend time studying his own writings of 1st and 2nd Peter. Use this day as an opportunity to strengthen your discipleship to Yeshua by examining the life of a man who literally walked in Messiah’s footsteps.

  1. Finkel, Avraham Ya’akov, Sefer Chasidim (Jason Aronson, 1997), 85.
  2. Y.D. Eisenstein, Otzar HaMidrashim (New York, NY: Reznick, Menschel & CO, 1928), 557-561. English translation from Wout Van Bekkum, “The Rock on Which the Church is Founded,” Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Brill, 2004), 300.
  3. Bekkum, 299.
  4. Shimon Halevi Horovitz, Machzor Vitri, (Berlin: bi-defus shel Ts. H. Ittskavski, 1889), 282. This is also discussed in Wout Van Bekkum, “The Rock on Which the Church is Founded,” Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Brill, 2004), 300 and “Nishmat Kol Hai,” Encyclopedia Judaica CD ROM Edition, Judaica Multimedia (1997).
  5. Also Hertz, Rabbi Joseph Herman, The Authorized Daily Prayer Book (Bloch Publishing Company, 1965), 416-417.
  6. Shimon Halevi Horovitz, Machzor Vitri (Berlin: bi-defus shel Ts. H. Ittskavski, 1889), 362. [I am grateful to Brian Hopkins who translated these passages for me from the original Hebrew.] See also Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto’s comments in Wout van Bekkum, “The Poetical Qualities of the Apostle Peter,” Zutot 3 (2003): 22-23.
  7. Daniel Goldschmidt, Mahzor le-Yamim Nora`im (Jerusalem; Koren Publishers, 1970), 462-465. English translation by Aaron Eby. The full text of both Nishmat and Eten Tehillah will appear in the forthcoming FFOZ Siddur.
  8. Wout Van Bekkum, “The Rock on Which the Church is Founded,” Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Brill, 2004), 307.
  9. S.Z. Leiman, “The Scroll of the Fasts-the Ninth of Tebeth,” JQR 74, (1983): 178.
  10. Orach Chaim 580.
  11. Leiman, 186.
  12. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3:11:1.
  13. Leiman, 186-188.
  14. Eisenstein, 557-561. English translation from Wout Van Bekkum, “The Rock on Which the Church is Founded,” Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Brill, 2004), 297.
  15. Leiman, 186-188.
  16. Rashi’s comments are on b.Avodah Zarah 10a, see Leiman, 191-192.
  17. Christian tradition dates his death on June 29 in either 64 or 67 CE.
  18. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 1057-1059. For an examination and translation of three of the legends, see Bekkum, 289-310.

Source: First Fruits of Zion