Arie E. Pelta

From Zerubavel to the Chashmonaim – Did the Greeks Really Win?

Part 4 of 4

Matisyahu the Maccabee was a Kohen (from the tribe of Levi) and his son, Shimon, became the Kohen Gadol in succession. However, Shimon also took upon himself the title of Nasi, meaning “Prince/President/Leader.” He did not call himself king because he knew full well that a Jewish king could only come from the line of Dovid (Yehuda), but for all practical purposes his family assumed the role of kingship.

They started a new ruling dynasty in Israel, the Chashmonean dynasty, which lasted for one hundred and three years.  This era was marked by a great territorial expansion of the country of Israel, but it was also plagued by a terrible moral and Jewish religious decline.  The Chashmonaim should not have been kings in the first place.  In addition, they eventually became corrupted by their own power.

The next ruler after Shimon was his son, Yochanan Hyrcanus, a powerful and ambitious ruler. Among his many errors, Yochanan Hyrcanus did a terrible anti-Jewish thing. As part of his effort to expand the borders of Israel and to strengthen the country, he forcibly converted the newly conquered peoples. This is something Judaism has never done before nor since; because, conversion is highly discouraged in the Jewish religion.  One of the peoples that were forcibly converted at this time was the Idumeans. Because of this error, the Jewish nation suffered the severe consequences later on.

Herod Was a Great Murderer

In Israel, South of the city of Beit Shemesh, there is a fascinating archeological site open to the public called Beit Guvrin Maresha. It consists of many man-made caves that are mostly cut into the soft limestone. This was one of the major cities of the Idumeans.  This was also one of the places that the Chashmonaim conquered, giving the people a choice – convert or leave. Many of the inhabitants chose to destroy their houses and leave the country.

One of the Idumean families that were forcibly converted became very significant for their role years later when the Romans invaded. A descendant of this family – Herod – became a king of the Jewish nation; he was a very eccentric ruler. He eventually murdered the High Priest/Kohen Gadol, forty-five members of the Jewish Supreme Court/Sanhedrin as well as several members of his own family.  However, but he also embarked on a series of fantastic building projects that included the city of Caesarea, the fortress at Masada, Maaras Hamachpela in Chevron and a total re-building of the Beis Hamikdash. Herod (who was not Jewish) had a very troubled relationship with the Jews.

The Decline of Jewish Rule

The son of Yochanon Hyracanus, Alexander Yanai, was a classic case of a Chasmonean ruler leading the nation in the wrong direction. He was largely Hellenized (secular Jew) and sided with the Sadducees צדוקים (the Jews who only followed the Written Torah, making up their own interpretations), against the Pharisees פרושים (the mainstream “Orthodox” Jews). When some of the Pharisees opposed him, he had eight hundred of them executed, after first forcing them to watch the slaughter of their own families. During the executions, Alexander Yanai hosted a Greek-style feast.

After Yannai’s death, his widow, Queen Shlomzion (Salome) ruled from 76-67 BCE. She was the only ray of light in this dismal period. Her brother was Shimon ben Shetach, the leading Rabbi of his generation and during her reign there was peace between the leadership and the Rabbis. This was the last period of true peace and stability for a very long time.

The history of the Chashmonaim dynasty was a classic case of one of the great tragic families starting off so illustriously and ending so disastrously; ultimately bringing the Jewish people to ruin.  Perhaps the greatest irony of the legacy of the Maccabees (Chashmonaim) is what is named after them today: The Maccabiah Games. The Jewish Olympic Games started in 1932 and are held every four years in Israel. There is virtually no cultural institution that more typifies ancient Greek culture other than their athletic competitions. That the Maccabees, who gave their lives to save Judaism from Greek influence, should have Greek-style sporting events named after them is the most ironic of endings to this tragic story.

The last two Chashmonean rulers were the sons of Shlomzion: Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, both of whom were totally Hellenized.  Hyrcanus was the weaker of the two but he had a strong advisor by the name of Antipater, a descendant of Idumean converts to Judaism.  Antipater had a son named Herod.

The brothers were fighting with each other as to who should be the king. The obvious answer was neither. They agreed on the idea of asking Rome to mediate in their dispute. This relationship between the Jews and the Romans actually began awhile back, during the Maccabian Revolt in 161 BCE, when Judah the Maccabee made an alliance with Rome (The Roman-Jewish Treaty). Thus, in 63 BCE, Pompey was invited to move his armies into Israel.

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, explains what happened next in great detail.

The Romans came in, slaughtered many Jews and made Hyrcanus, the weaker of the two brothers, the nominal puppet ruler of the country. This was part of the Roman system. They liked to rule by proxy, allowing the local governor or king to deal with the day-to-day problems of running the country, as long as the Roman tax was paid and the Roman laws obeyed.

Roman intervention in Israel had effectively ended Jewish independence and ushered in one of the bleakest periods of Jewish history. Rome ruled, not Hyrcanus or any Jew for that matter. The Sanhedrin’s authority was abolished by Roman decree six years after Pompey’s conquest.

The independent state of Israel ceased to exist, and became the Roman province of Judea. Pompey split up much of the land giving large chunks to his soldiers as a reward for their prowess in battle. Gaza, Yaffo, Ashdod and other Jewish cities were now a part of the map of the Roman Empire.

Hyrcanus, started to call himself king, however he only got Yerushalayim, along with a few areas in the North and the South.  But even these small areas he could not govern without the assistance of the Roman proconsul in Damascus.

A key role in the Roman takeover of Israel was played by Hyrcanus’ chief advisor, the Idumean general Antipater. The Idumeans bore testimony to an unprecedented lapse in observance among the Jews; they were the people whom Yochanan Hyrcanus forcibly converted to Judaism.

Antipater, the real strength behind the weak Hyrcanus, made sure, that he positioned his own family in power while he had the chance. He continued to guide Hyrcanus and when in 49 BCE, Pompey and Julius Caesar became engaged in an internal struggle, Antipater rescued Caesar in Alexandria.  As a reward he was made chief minister in Judea, with the right to collect taxes.  Soon after this Antipater was the man in power.  He made his sons Phasaelus and Herod the Governors of Yerushalayim and the Galil respectively.  The Romans judged correctly that this forcibly converted Jew did not identify with Jewish values or nationalism.  With Antipater in power, “militant monotheism” would no longer be a challenge to Roman rule.

While Antipater is not remembered by many, his son Herod, who took after his father, is known to all. Coming from a family of forced converts that was only nominally Jewish, he nevertheless became one of the most famous kings of the Jews.  He was known in history as Herod “the Great”.  The Talmud tells us what type of character Herod really was:

בבא בתרא ג:

הורדוס עבדא דבית חשמונאי הוה.  נתן עיניו באותה תינוקת.  יומא חד שמע ההוא גברא בת קלא דאמר: כל עבדא דמריד השתא מצלח.  קם קטלינהו לכולהו מרותיה, ושיירה לההיא ינוקתא.  כי חזית ינוקתא דקא בעי למינסבה, סילקא לאיגרא ורמא קלא אמרה: “כל מאן דאתי ואמר מבית חשמונאי קאתינא” עבדא הוא, דלא אישתיירא מינייהו אלא ההיא ינוקתא, וההיא ינוקתא נפלה מאיגרא לארעא.  טמנה שבע שנין בדובשא.  איכא דאמרי בא עליה…

Herod was [originally] a slave in the house of the Chashmonaim.  He had set his eyes on a certain young girl [from that illustrious family].  One day he heard a Heavenly voice that said: Any slave that revolts now will succeed [in his rebellion].  [Herod thereupon] rose and killed all his masters, [exterminating the house of the Chashmoneans,] but he spared [the life of] that maiden [in order to marry her].

When that maiden saw that [Herod] wanted to marry her, she ascended to the roof and raised her voice, saying: “Whoever comes [in future years] and says: “I am descended from the house of the Chashmonaim” is in truth a slave, for no one remains from [the Chashmonaim family] except the maiden, and this maiden is hurling herself from the roof to the ground.” [she leaped from the roof to her death].

Herod preserved [her body] in honey for seven years.  There are those that say that he copulated with [her corpse]… (Talmud Bava Basra 3b)

He built relentlessly ― cities, palaces and fortresses, some of which still stand:

  • the fortresses at Masada, Antonia and Herodium
  • the port city of Caesarea
  • the huge edifice at the top of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Chevron
  • the massive fortifications around Yerushalayim as well as three towers at the entrance to the city (the remains of which are today erroneously named the Tower of David)

Herod placed at the main entrance to the Beis Hamikdash a huge Roman eagle, which the pious Jews saw as a sacrilege. A group of Torah students promptly smashed this emblem of idolatry and oppression, but Herod had them all hunted down, dragged in chains to his residence in Yericho, and then they were burned alive.

Having built the second Beis Hamikdash, Herod took pains to make sure it would be run without future problems of this kind. He appointed his own Kohen Gadol and put to death forty-six leading members of the Sanhedrin.  Herod was dedication to the Hellenizing (secularization) of the Jewish people and the Rabbinical Court.

Additionally, the Jewish upper-classes, though a minority, subscribed to this “higher” culture. And of course, the king was an avowed Hellenist.  Herod persecuted and murdered all the Rabbis whom he viewed threats to his authority and obstacles to the mass Hellenization of the Jews.  Nonetheless, the Talmud tells us how this tyrant came about the build the grand Second Beis Hamikdash:

בבא בתרא ג: – ד.

אמר: מאן דריש “מקרב אחיך תשים עליך מלך”?  רבנן! קם קטלינהו לכולהו רבנן.  שבקיה לבבא בן בוטא למשקל עצה מניה. אהדר ליה כלילא דיילי נקרינהו לעיניה.  יומא חד ויתיב קמיה אמר חזי מר האי עבדא בישא מאי קא עביד!  אמר ליה מאי אעביד ליה?  אמר ליה נלטייה מר!  אמר ליה [כתיב]: “גם במדעך מלך אל תקלל”.אמר ליה האי לאו מלך הוא!  אמר ליה וליהוי עשיר בעלמא, וכתיב: ובחדרי משכבך אל תקלל עשיר”.ולא יהא אלא נשיא וכתיב: “ונשיא בעמך לא תאר”…אמר ליה: אנא הוא!  אי הואי ידענא דזהרי רבנן כולי האי, לא הוה קטלינא להו.  השתא מאי תקנתיה דההוא גברא?  אמר ליה: הוא כבה אורו של עולם, דכתיב: “כי נר מצוה ותורה אור”.  ילך ויעסוק באורו של עולם, דכתיב: “ונהרו אליו כל הגוים”…אמרי מי שלא ראה בנין הורדוס לא ראה בנין [מימיו].

 Herod said to himself: Who are the ones that expound from the verse, “From the midst of your brothers shall you place a king over you” (Devarim 17:15), in such a way that it excludes slaves? The Rabbis!  Perceiving the Rabbis as a potential threat, he rose and killed [the entire majority] of the Rabbis.  He spared Bava ben Buta, however, in order to use him as an adviser.  Nevertheless, Herod placed around [Bava ben Buta’s] head a crown of porcupine hide and [and the sharp spines] blinded him.

One day Herod, [pretending to be an ordinary citizen], sat down before Bava ben Buta and said, “Rabbi, do realize the terrible things this no-good slave Herod is doing?”

“What should I do to him?” replied Bave ben Buta.

Said Herod, [trying to trap him], “I want you to curse him.”

Replied Bava ben Buta, “[How can I curse him] It says, ‘Even in your thoughts do not curse a king.'(Ecclesiastes 12:20).

Retorted Herod, “But he is no king; [he does not meet the criteria of a Jewish king.]”

Replied Bava ben Buta, “He certainly is no less than a rich man and the same verse continues, ‘and in your bedchamber do not curse the rich.’ He certainly is no different than a leader, and it says, ‘Do not curse the leader of your people’ (Exodus 22:27).”

…Herod then confessed, “I am Herod. If I had know that the rabbis were so careful [with their words], I would not have killed them.

Now please tell what I can do to rectify what I have done?”

Replied Bava ben Buta, “Since you snuffed out the light of the world, [that is what the rabbis are called]… you should involve yourself in [increasing] the light of the world [i.e. the Temple]…

…It was said: Whoever did not see the new Temple that Herod built has never seen a magnificent building in his lifetime.” (Talmud Bava Basra 3b-4a)

As mentioned previously, the Talmud relates that the Chashmonean dynasty came to a tragic end with the death of the last survivor of Herod’s purges.  Therefore, whoever says that he is from the household of the Chasmoneans is surely a slave.

קידושין ע:

הכי אמר שמואל כל דאמר מדבית חשונאי קאתינא עבדא הוא.

Thus said Shmuel: “Whoever says,“ I am descended from  the family of the Chashmonaim” is in truth a slave.” (Talmud Kiddushin 70b)

The Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus (Yoseph ben Matisyahu), said that he was from the Chashmonaim family, on his mothers side.  Was his mother then a slave?  Josephus wrote the following in the opening chapter of his autobiography, Vitae:

The family from which I am derived is not an ignoble one, but has descended all along from the priests; and as nobility among several people is of a different origin, so with us to be of the sacerdotal dignity, is an indication of the splendor of a family. Now, I am not only sprung from a sacerdotal family in general, but from the first of the twenty-four courses; and as among us there is not only a considerable difference between one family of each course and another, I am of the chief family of that first course also; nay, further, by my mother I am of the royal blood; for the children of Asamoneus חשמונאי from whom that family was derived, had both the office of the high priesthood, and the dignity of a king, for a long time together. I will accordingly set down my progenitors in order. My grandfather’s father was named Shimon, with the addition of Psellus : he lived at the same time with that son of Shimon the high priest, who first of all the high priests was named Hyrcanus. This Shimon Psellus had nine sons, one of whom was Matityahu, called Ephlias: he married the daughter of Yonathan the high priest, which Yonathan was the first of the sons of Asamoneus, who was high priest, and was the brother of Shimon the high priest also. This Matityahu had a son called Matityahu Curtus, and that in the first year of the government of Hyrcanus: his son’s name was Yoseph, born in the ninth year of the reign of Alexandra: his son Matityahu was born in the tenth year of the reign of Archclaus; as was I born to Matityahu in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar.

From Zerubavel (Moshiach) to Herod

The Jews rejected Zerubavel and ended up with Herod. The Chashmonaim defeated the Greeks and Hellenism, however, they themselves became Hellenized and were completely annihilated. Greek culture continues to influence the Jewish religion to this day in the form of Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Feminism, and now Open Orthodoxy. But now the majority of Jews are currently living in Israel and “Orthodox” Judaism is growing while the other branches are not. As of 2013 the total Jewish population of Israel reached six million, in comparison the USA is home to 5.5 million Jews.

The Maccabees fought the Greeks and Hellenism; unfortunately, they ultimately brought about the ascension of Herod the Hellenist.  Today, because of Herod, we have the Western Wall (the Kotel) preserved as one of Judaism’s most sacred prayer locations in Yerushalayim, second to the Har Habayis (The Temple Mount).

In Conclusion

Looking back to Zerubavel, we can now appreciate that if the Jewish accepted him as their leader, returned to Eretz Yisrael en-masse, and completed building the Beis Hamikdash, there would not have been the events of Purim. They rejected the leader from Yehuda.  Purim occurred because the Jews chose not move to Israel. However, they did a complete teshuva , קימו וקיבלו, which enabled  Queen Esther’s son, Darius, to eventually allow the building of the second Beis Hamikdash.

The Jews became assimilated and the Kohanim of the Chashmonaim family chased out the Greeks and fought to eradicate secular Judaism (clearly, they would not have tolerated the Reform, Conservative, Feminism or Open Orthodoxy religions of today).  They rejected tolerance of Hellenism and non-authentic Torah based Judaism. But they had one fatal flaw, they usurped the royal authority of the tribe of Yehuda.  Their punishment was the annihilation of their entire family tree.  Ironically, the later generations of Chashmonaim became Hellenists and secular Jews themselves.  The Chashmonaim were wiped out and the royal house was taken over by a non-Jew named Herod.

To this day we seem to be suffering from the same issues as in the days of old.  Therefore, every Chanukah when we sing the song of Maoz Tzur and mention Zerubavel we should remember what happened long ago, when we as a nation, we did not return to rebuild the country of Israel.

May we merit to see all Jews return home, make Aliyah and to build up Eretz Yisrael along the lines of Torah and Halacha.  Only in this manner can we possibly rectify our past transgressions and enable the final coming of Moshiach and the ultimate building of the Third and final Beis Hamikdash.  This is what all Jews pray for three times daily in the Shemoneh Esrei:

ולירושלים עירך ברחמים תשוב…וכסא דוד מהרה לתוכה תכין…

את צמח דוד עבדך מהרה תצמיח…

יהי רצון מלפנך ה אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו…

And to Yerushalyim Your City, in compassion may you return…and the throne of Dovid speedily within it, may You establish.

The offspring of Dovid Your servant speedily may you cause to flourish…

May it be the will before you Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers that the  Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple) be rebuilt speedily in our days…

Arie E. Pelta, MD

Bibliography  Crash course in Jewish History . Rabbi Ken Spiro.

The Jewish Encyclopedia. Mattis Kantor. Jason Aronson Inc. 1992.

Rabbi Ari D. Kahn. Echoes of Eden. OU Press. 2011. Keitz Bavel – Zerubavel. Pg. 270-287.

To Dwell In The Palace. Tzvia Ehrich-Klein. (Introduction: Rav Zev Leff). Feldheim Publishers. 1991.

סדר מהלכי אחרית הימים. הרב יואל שווארץ. דבר ירושלים. התשע”ה

About the Author
Arie E. Pelta, M.D., a Board Certified General and Colorectal Surgeon from the USA, made Aliyah with his wife and 7 children in 2013. He received his Rabbinical ordination in 1997. He is also an active Medical Corps Officer holding the rank of Captain in the IDF Reserves. Dr. Pelta is currently a full time Senior Surgeon practicing in Laniado Hospital (Netanya); specializing in the surgical care of all colorectal diseases.
Related Topics
Related Posts