Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2
There are several passages in Pirkei Avot that warn against getting too comfortable with the government (e.g. Avot 1:10.) Lest we decide that Jewish tradition leans towards a particular ideology or form of government, Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim comes along to warn us that we may not like the government, but it still has its purpose. In his eyes, the purpose of government is to keep people from “swallow[ing] each other alive.” How’s that for vivid imagery?
To understand why he would say this, we have to look at Rabbi Chanina and the times in which he lived. He is identified here and elsewhere in the Mishnah as Segan HaKohanim, the deputy of the high priests. In fact, he was an essential member of the staff during the final days of the Temple. The office of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, had become a political appointment, and many of those who filled it were qualified because they were descendants of Aaron, but less than completely knowledgeable about their responsibilities. As Segan, Chanina served under several High Priests (hence the sobriquet “Deputy of the High Priests” plural.) He was the expert who saw to it that things were done properly, and should the High Priest become unfit, he had to be prepared to step in and serve in his stead:
R. Chanina Segan haKohanim said, “Why is a ‘Segan’ [Deputy] appointed? In case the high-priest became unfit for service, the ‘Segan’ [Deputy] should enter at once to do the service.” – Sotah 42a
Rabbi Chaninah was the man responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly in the great Temple. He filled that role in an era of legendary upheaval. He served several different High Priests. He saw the political chaos leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome beginning in 66 CE, when different factions among the Jews fought each other as bitterly as later they would all fight against Rome. He watched the brutality of Rome come crashing down upon all the Jews. He was a witness to the horrors of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events following.
When Rabbi Chaninah speaks of men “swallowing each other alive,” he is speaking colorfully, but it is hardly an exaggeration. He could remember a time when the government was disliked by most residents of Judea, but life was livable. By the time he died (according to some sources, martyred by Rome) life in Judea had gone through utter chaos and had been returned to order by a brutal army.
If we were to update Chaninah’s words today, he might say: “Be careful what you wish for: there are worse things than a government you don’t like.”