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The mishnah (Maaser Sheni end of 5:15 and Sotah 48a) lists 5 edicts of Yochanan Kohen Gadol including the abolishing of the "wakers" - the singing by the Levi'im in the Beit HaMikdash of Psalm 44:24 - which he felt was only proper to be said during a time of travail, but in his own time when things were good for the Jews it was inappropriate.

My question is how was he able to do so?

  1. He is not the nasi nor is he affiliated with the anshei k'neset hagedolah (to my knowledge). As such how is he able to dictate the service in the Beit HaMikdash?
  2. Unlike certain historical claims which I find to be spurious the Rambam indicates that this Yochanan was Kohen Gadol after Shimon HaTzaddik (Maaser 9:1). If that is the case then surely things at that time (the rule of the Greeks) were no better than during the times of Shimon HaTzaddik. If the latter did not chose to annul the practice why was it done now?
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The sefer Tal Oros Vol.1 here explains at length the historical background behind this teaching, but I'll summarize his main points:

Everyone is familiar with the victory of the Maccabeans against the Greeks from the story of Chanukah, but few people know that the fight against the Greeks did not cease at that time, but continued on for several decades. Yehudah the Maccabee fell in battle, as did his brother Yonason after him. But Shimon, the last remaining brother, after another thirty years of fighting finally defeated the Greeks, and for the first time in a very long time Yisrael achieved independence form the Greeks.

But even then the defeated enemy did not give up hope of reclaiming their dominion, and with bribes and trickery they managed to get the brother-in-law of Shimon, Ptolmous ben Chaviv, on their side. He persuaded Shimon to come with some of his family to a family feast, and whilst he was there Ptolmous murdered him. He immediately sent a message to the King of Syria to send an army to recapture Jerusalem, and at the same time sent some people to kill Shimon's son, Yochanan. But Yochanan heard about it, and managed to reach Jerusalem first. (See the Book of the Chasmanoim 67 and the sefer Kadmoniyos by Yosef Flavius, 18,7). By another great miracle they manage to again defeat the enemy, but this time the defeat was total, and the governance of Israel passed into the hands of Yochanan the Chashmonai, and Israel once again became very successful, independent country.

With this background he goes on to explain that from the days of the return to Israel in the time of Ezra they were subservient to different nations, first Persia, then Egypt and then Greece, and had to pay heavy taxes to these kingdoms. Thus they lived in great poverty and distress, and for this reason the last of the prophets instituted that the Levi'im should say Psalm 44 "Wake up, why do You sleep, Hashem?". This prayer was very fitting to their miserable situation at that time, and they were not concerned that people might ask "Does Hashem sleep?", because they all understood that they were saying it as a supplication and a prayer. As the gemara in Sotah 48a says: When Yisrael were living in misery and the nations were living comfortably and in peace, they said "Wake up, why do You sleep, Hashem?".

But during the period of Yochanan the Chashmonai, when Yisrael were "living comfortably and in peace" and their situation was one of prosperity, and thus they no longer agonized about their plight, the words "Wake up, why do You sleep, Hashem?" lost their significance as a prayer and a supplication, and instead caused people to wonder "Does Hashem sleep?". Because of this the decision was taken to annul the reciting of this Psalm by the Levi'im.

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    This is a great answer except the op specifically asserts that the Yochanan in question was after Shimon HaTzaddik which would mean he is not Yochanan the son (or grandson) of Mattisyahu but rather his father. Can you provide any historical information which would disprove that? Jan 6 '14 at 18:57
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Rabbi Eliyahu Katz wrote an essay called "מי היה יוחנן כהן גדול שתיקן תקנות נועזות?" - "Who was Yochanan Kohen Gadol who made risky laws?" that deals with your questions.

On your first question, he writes:

"והנה מבלי להכנס בפרטים הנ"ל חושבני שהפתרון צריך להיות מרומז במשנה עצמה, וע"י התקנות שתיקן ומעשים שעשה, נוכל למצוא השערה נכונה מי היה יוחנן כהן גדול זה ומתי היה. ראשית ידועים לנו דברי חז"ל שעזרא הסופר הוא בעל תקנות גדולות, ואיך זה לא תיקן תקנה ההודיות? אך אפשר כי מאחר שהיו בימיו כהנים גדולים שהיו אחראים על סדרי בית המקדש הבין שמגיע להם שהם יתקנו את התקנות ששייכים בתוך ביהמ"ק וירושלים וכן הקשורים עם הכהנים ועובדי ומשרתי ביהמ"ק. ואם אנחנו נעבור על חמש התקנות שמתייחסות ליוחנן כהן גדול, נראה שכולן שייכות למסגרת הכהן הגדול שתחת פיקוחו ביהמ"ק והכהנים, ולא במסגרת התקנות של עזרא. אכן את הלוויים הוא קנס על שלא עלו, ואולם בנוגע לאמירת הווידוי השאיר זאת להכהן הגדול שמשרת בקודש וסדרי ביהמ"ק נחתכים על ידו ובמילא גם הודיית המעשר...וזו היא התקנה שתיקן וביטל את המעוררין...דבר זה מובן כמו כן שבשנים הראשונות של שבי ציון בעת שהיו בלחץ ודוחק גדול מהשומרונים שכתבו עליהם שיטנות והפסיקו את עבודת ביהמ"ק, אין חידוש שבזמנים כאלה הלוויים רצו להיות מעוררין נגדם, אך הכה"ג שבימים ההם יצא בתוקף נגד הנהגה כזאת וביטל את המעוררין. כי איך אפשר לומר "עורה למה תישן" כשזיכה אותם ה' אחר שבעים שנה לשוב לארץ מולדתם, לבנות את עיר הקודש ולהקים מקדשו."

"And here, without getting into the above details, I think that the solution must be hinted in the mishnah itself, and on the rulings he passed and the things he did, we may find a sensible hypothesis on who was Yochanan Kohen Gadol and when he lived. First of all, we are aware of what Chazal said that Ezra authored great rulings, and how coould it be that he didn't pass the ruling of the Hodayot? However, it's possible that because in his time there were KGs who were in charge of the orderly running of the Temple, he understood that it is due to them to pass rulings that relate to the internal structure of the Temple and Yerushalayim and also those that relate to the kohanim and workers and servers of the Temple. And if we go over the five rulings that arre attributed to Yochanan Kohen Gadol, we shall see that they are all related to the framework of the KG that under his supervision is the Temple and the kohanim, and not part of the frame of the rulings of Ezra. Indeed, he taxed the leviim for not making aliyah, but with regards to saying vidui he left that to the KG who served in the Holy and the organization of the Temple is decided by him, and therefore, also the Hodayot of the tithes...and this was a ruling that he passed and canceled the "wakers"...this too is understandable for in the early years of Shavei Tzion they were under enormous pressure from the Samaritans who wrote against them accusations and they stopped the service of the Temple, it's not surprsing that in times like that the leviim wanted to wake against them, but the KH in those days went against them in full-force and canceled the "wakers". For how could one say "wake, why do you sleep" when Hashem granted after seventy years the ability to return to their Land of Birth, to build the Holy City and build His Temple."

On your second question, he writes:

"...גם הרמב"ם מתכוין לשלול דבר מהצדוקי שהי' בזמן החשמונאים ולפי הנוסחא שבידינו הוא כותב שהיה אחרי שמעון הצדיק. לא נתרחק איפוא מן האמת אם נרשה לעצמנו השערה מתקבלת על הדעת ונאמר שהיה כתוב בכת"י הרמב"ם בראשי תיבות שיוחנן כהן גדול זה היה "אחרי ש"צ", ומשמעותן של ר"ת אלו היא "שבי ציון" ולא שמעון הצדיק וע"י זה היינו יכולים לפתור את הבעיא מי הוא זה ומתי חי."

"And the Rambam also meant to negate this from being of that Sadducee who was in the time of Chashmonaim, and according to the version we have in our hands he wrote that he was after Shimon Hatzaddik. It wouldn't be far from the truth if we allow ourselves the sensible hypothesis and say that written in the handwriting of the Rambam in an acronym that Yochanan Kohen Gadol was "after Sh"Tz", and the meaning of that acronym is "Shavei Tzion" and not Shimon Hatzaddik, and per this we can solve the problem of who he was and when he lived."

Therefore, he says that Yochanan Kohen Gadol was most likely Yochanan ben Elyashiv, one of the KGs from the time of Ezra and Nechemiah.

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If I recall correctly, he abolished the custom because people were claiming that HaShem actually sleeps, ח"ו. He was able to do so because the custom wasn't a real halakha, so since he was one of the gedolei hador that was enough to allow him to change it.

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