Monday, December 18, 2006

The Hasmonean Mistake

This essay assumes familiarity with the historical narrative described here as well as certain Biblical concepts.

During the reign of the Davidic family, King Uziah / Azaria decided that he was going to illegally take on an extra job, which did not belong to him; he wanted to serve as the Kohen Gadol, even though he was not a descendant of Aaron, the Priestly patriarch. At the moment that this King broke Halacha and entered the Holy Temple to offer sacrifices, he was afflicted with tzaraas[1]. In a similar story, when the Hasmoneans, a Priestly family from Modi'in, declared themselves to be the kings, they were not punished immediately, but rather, HaShem allowed them to reign for one hundred and three years[2] before meting out their punishment. Nachmanides writes[3] that the reason why the Hasmoneans were completely killed out was because they transgressed the commandment of "The scepter [of rulership] shall not be removed from [the tribe of] Judah"[4] and instead declared themselves kings. Why were the Hasmonean Kings not punished immediately like King Uziah was in the converse situation?

Nachmanides writes that the Hasmoneans were great pious men, yet they were still punished for illegally proclaiming themselves to be kings. He explains that it can be easily understood why HaShem punished some of Shimon's descendants because many of them became heretical Sadducees. However, it is not as easily understood why HaShem punished the other descendants of Shimon as well as all of Matisyahu's other off spring. Rather, the entire reason why they were punished is because they were pretenders to the throne. Yet, when a King pretended to be a High Priest, he was immediately punished, so why were the Hasmoneans not immediately punished for being High Priests who pretended to be Kings?

The name of the holiday Chanukah is a portmanteau of "Chanu Kah", "they rested on the twenty-fifth [of Kislev]." Nonetheless, why was it decided to name the holiday after the "resting" after the war with the Syrian-Greeks instead of naming the holiday after the victory itself or after the purification of the Holy Temple thereafter? Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (1923-1986) writes[5] that the name of the holiday reveals an important idea concerning the motive of the Maccabean revolution. The Hasmonean family of Matisyahu and his sons were great Torah scholars; in fact, Matisyahu's father, Yochanan, was the student of the leading Jewish scholar of his time, Antignus Ish Socho[6]. They were disturbed when the external indulgent influences of the Syrian-Greeks began to permeate the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. So, they interrupted their Torah learning for the good of the nation, in order to battle these spiritual intruders and reclaim the sanctity of the Jewish nation. They did just that and were victorious in returning multitudes of Jews to the Torah life and stopped the Syrian-Greek goal of causing the Jews to "forget the Torah and transgress the statues of HaShem"[7]. The celebration of Chanukah was established to commemorate the fact that after the war, the Jews were able to return to their Torah True lifestyles; this is how they "rested" from battle. The original Hasmoneans intended to reclaim HaShem's kingship over the Jews for Himself, while they felt they were mere mortals who carried out G-d's will.

As a result of the victory of the Syrian-Greeks, the Jews were left under martial law under the leadership of the Maccabean army. Judah the Maccabee, the head of the Maccabean army, was thus the de-facto head of state for the Jews[8]. He was already a strong and established leader because his father was the Kohen Gadol, so becoming the military head of the martial leadership of the nation merely consolidated his rule. He was then succeeded by his brother Jonathan, and then by Simon. It was during the reign of Simon the Hasmonean that the Roman Empire came to recognize the legitimacy of the Hasmonean rule and they declared Simon not a mere ruler, but a Prince or President (Nasi) of the newly-established Province of Judaea; this is really when the Second Commonwealth really began. However, Shimon, the son of Matisyahu, like his brothers, merely viewed himself as a conduit to carry out the will of G-d, not as a king in his right. He eschewed the honor due to a king, and refused to wear a crown.

During the reign of Shimon's grandson Aristobulus, the Hasmonean rulership became a monarchy. Aristobulus was styled King Aristobulus I. He was the first of this Kohanic family to wear a crown[9] symbolizing the fact that he was now a king, not a mere de-facto ruler or President. It was at this point that the fall of the Hasmonean family began. After the reign of King Aristobulus I, the kingship was given to King Alexander Jannaeus, a Kohen Gadol who became a Sadducee. The Talmud relates[10] that when he went out to battle and won, he returned to make a huge party to celebrate his victory. This is in contrast to his ancestors who established a festival to celebrate the return of the Torah to the daily lives of the Jews living in the Land of Israel. It was the sons of King Alexander Jannaeus who quarreled over the leadership of Judaea which brought the Romans to Jerusalem to eventually punish the Hasmoneans and bring about the end of the Hasmonean dynasty and create the Herodian dynasty from the family of Hasmonean slave, Antipater.

[1] See Chronicles II 26:16-23
[2] Avodah Zarah 9a
[3] Ramban to Genesis 49:10
[4] Genesis 49:10
[5] Sifsei Chaim
[6] Along with Yose ben Yochanan, the Av Beis Din; Yose ben Yoezer, the Nasi; Tzadok, the leader of the Sadducees; and Baysus, the leader of Boethusians
[7] As elaborated in the prayer of Al HaNissim
[8] Many count Matisyahu as the first of the Hasmonean kings because he led the original revolution against Antiochus (see Seder HaDoros, year 3621).
[9] Seder HaDoros, Year 3668
[10] Kiddushin 66a

1 comment:

Barzilai said...

Interesting distinction between being a ruler who sees himself as a conduit for Hashem and being a king. What's the difference? Every frum king would see himself as a conduit. If you mean that the a formal king has the right to bequeath the crown to his relatives, then it seems that they had that right, just like regular kings.

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