The House of Maccabi: A Jewish Game of Thrones

Most everyone is familiar with the Hanukah story. Oil lasted eight days, Maccabi soldiers freed the Jewish people, everyone gets a dreidel, and we eat lots of fried potatoes. But I would venture to guess that many do not know what ever became of the family of Matisyahu and his sons after the story of Hanukah happened. Did they go on to live an independent life free of strife now that the Greeks had been defeated? Perhaps start a golden age with prosperity and religious teachings? I’m going to go out on a limb and say most people probably don’t know that the true story is far darker. The family of Matisyahu, also known as the Hasmoneans, did take over the country. Those early years were the high point. Following their success the family descends into madness. Palace intrigue, betrayal of religious values, desecration of the Beit Hamikdash, and the wholesale murder of thousands. Eventually they are completely destroyed as a result of their own actions. The Hasmoneans are a family drenched in Jewish blood. Here is their story.

The victory over the Greeks was actually the culmination of a brutal eight year war which left most of the sons of Matisyahu dead. Judah, Elazar, and Yohanathan were all killed in battle while Yochanan was assassinated by the Greeks. Only Simon Maccabi remained and he took an emergency step to seize both the powers of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) and the kingship. This drew severe criticism from the Rabbis of the time as the family were Kohanim (Priests) and only Jews from the tribe of Judah, and preferably from the family of David, are allowed to become kings. Having the same person as both the king and high priest would come to haunt the family as Maccabi siblings often conspired against one another to hold both offices. Sibling rivalry would be an enduring hardship that plagued almost every generation.

By the reign of Matisyahu’s grandson the family was already completely off the rails. Simon’s son is known as Yochanan Kohen Gadol and was the high priest for over 80 years. But the Talmud relates that by the end of his reign he became a Sadducee, a new religious sect that rejected the laws of Rabbinic Judaism. Yochanan’s actions would entrench Sadducee control over the temple and its services for much of the next 200 years. The rabbis of the time used Yochanan as a lesson not to trust someone solely on past good deeds. By the end of his life they considered him a traitor. To make matters worse, Yochanan also forcibly converted a tribe of non-Jews known as Idumaeans. His action went against everything Judaism believes in regarding conversion. Jewish law only accepts willing converts and never by force. The Idumaean converts then rose in the ranks of the Jewish army; eventually engineering a coup that toppled the Maccabi family and ushered in Roman domination. The man behind the coup was the madman Herod, the Jewish Caligula, whose mania would result in the eventual murder of every living Maccabi. These last victims also happened to be his own family.

After Yochanan’s death the succession dissolved into a civil war between warring brothers. By the end of that war tens of thousands of Jews were dead, great rabbis had been slaughtered by Maccabi family, and the holy temple had been defiled once again. This was the Jewish version of the “Game of Thrones”, nothing less. The winner of the civil war was Alexander Yanai whose claim to fame was almost being killed in the temple by etrogim on the holiday Succot. Yanai was a Sadducee whose hatred for rabbinic Judaism led him to dashing the water offering (Nisuch Hamayim) on his feet rather than on the altar as he was supposed to. The worshippers then proceeded to throw their etrogim at him like so many hand grenades. His guards rushed to his aid and slaughtered everyone they could find. The temple floors ran ankle deep in blood. This touched off another civil war between the Maccabi family and the rabbinic leadership of the country. Eventually, those rabbis not killed went into hiding. Only through the actions of his wife Shlomzion Hamalka would the bloodshed stop.

Shlomzion Hamalka is probably the only redeemable Maccabi family member after Matisyahu and his sons. She is also one of our greatest unknown leaders and someone we will be focusing on specifically in later articles. For now she was the one who negotiated an end to the civil war by bringing together Alexander Yanai and the head of the Sanhedrin, Shimon ben Shetach. After Yanai’s death she ran the country and is one of only two Jewish Queens to have reigned over Eretz Israel. Her leadership was characterized by having civil peace and the reinforcement of rabbinic teachings in the educational system. Sadducee power was temporarily broken long enough for rabbinic laws to become widespread in the country. Without Shlomzion we might never have had the Mishna or even the Talmud. However, with her death disaster struck again. Her two sons took up the civil war as though the fighting had never really stopped. Only this time there would be no Maccabi winner.

The long story ending of this fraternal civil war would end with both sides so exhausting the resources and manpower of the country that each side turned to Rome for assistance. Pompey the Great would enter the country and even march himself and his men into the Holy of Holies (the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim) before being killed later on by Julius Caesar in a different story. However, instead of a Maccabi ruler the Romans would appoint Herod the Great leader of the Jewish country. We all know Roman rule would not prove healthy for the Jewish people to say the least. The remaining Maccabi family members were then hunted down and killed save for the last remaining daughter Miriam and her crippled father. She was then forcibly married to Herod and bore him two sons. However, in his madness and paranoia Herod would come to kill his own children believing them to be plotting against him. He then tried and also executed Miriam after she attempted suicide by throwing herself off the walls of Jerusalem. Thus ends the House of Maccabi.

Now that we know the true ending for the story of Hanukah what have we gained? It is somewhat comforting to know that no matter how bitter our disputes today within our Jewish community we have not yet come to open assassination and mass murder. I guess we have become civilized over our long exile. I believe it also teaches us the lesson to judge everyone by the actions they are doing today rather than giving people false honors for the deeds of ancestors. The House of Maccabi started out with the highest possible legacy but quickly fell to contempt and disgrace. Perhaps it is also a warning that our actions must also reflect Jewish ethics and values even in politics and in war. When the Hasmoneans became rulers instead of Jewish rulers that is the point when they started down their path taking the Jewish people along with them.

About the Author
Any description must start with Sidney's love of history, especially military and Jewish history. His background is a masters in history that focused primarily on Middle Eastern history. To that end, he has spent close to 10 years teaching Jewish History, Zionism, and American/World history at the high school level. Sidney considers himself a Zionist at heart and a supporter of women’s leadership and education both in the U.S. and abroad.
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