Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 20 December 2014 / 28 Kislev 5775

Hasmonean Victory?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Bracha

Dear Rabbi,

The holiday of Chanuka has a lot to do with the rededication of the Temple and re-assertion of Jewish independence from the Greeks. But although we’re told why the first and second Temples were destroyed, I am not aware of what happened after the Hasmonean liberation such that the Romans ended up ruling over Jerusalem and ultimately destroyed the Temple. What went wrong, and why or how was this light of Chanuka extinguished?

Dear Bracha,

As you know, the Hasmonean revolt against the Syrian-Greek occupation of Israel was led by the sons of Matitiyahu, the High Priest. This family of kohanim and their followers recaptured the Temple in 165 BCE when the miracle of Chanuka occurred. Their victory was consolidated over the next 25 years when the Sanhedrin and the people declared the last surviving son of Matitiyahu “Prince of the Jews” in the year 140 BCE.

The Hasmonean dynasty continued to rule for a total of about 130 years until these Kohen-kings were overthrown in 36 BCE. From this time Israel was ruled by various Roman governors for about 100 years until the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE.

While the Hasmoneans were certainly righteous, G-d-fearing and imbued with fervent dedication to G-d and the observance of Torah, Ramban (on Gen. 49:10) attributes their downfall to the fact that, as kohanim (making them Levites), they had no right to continue to rule as kings over Israel. Despite their praiseworthy self-sacrifice for the restoration of Jewish physical and spiritual independence, after the liberation they were required by the Torah to transfer rule over Israel to a worthy descendent of David from the tribe of Judah.

Because of their refusal to do so, G-d undermined their dynasty as described by the Talmud (Bava Batra 3b-4a) in the following manner:

Herod was the slave of the Hasmonean house, and set his eyes on a certain daughter of that family. One day he heard a voice from Heaven say, “Any slave that rebels now will succeed.” So he rose and killed all the members of his master’s household, but spared that maiden, intending to marry her and thereby gain royalty and the right to rule. When she saw that he wanted to marry her, she went up on to a roof and cried out, “Whoever comes and says, ‘I am from the Hasmonean house’ is a slave, since I alone am left of it, and I am throwing myself down from this roof.”

Having usurped the throne, Herod sought to eliminate any opposition. He said, “Who are they who teach, ‘From the midst of your brothers you shall set up a king over you’? (stressing the word 'brothers', excluding a slave such as himself from being king) The Rabbis!” He therefore arose and killed all the Rabbis, sparing only Baba ben Buta, that he might take counsel of him. He placed on his head a garland of porcupine bristles and put out his eyes in order to deter his rebellion.

Intending to test the blinded Rabbi, Herod disguised himself and engaged Baba in a lengthy Torah discourse aimed at getting him to curse Herod, which was met by the Rabbi’s rigorous, scriptural-based refusal. Astounded by the Rabbi’s loyalty, Herod regretted his crime against the Sages and confessed, “I am Herod! Had I known that the Rabbis were so discreet, I would not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make!” He replied, “As you have extinguished the light of the world, for so the Rabbis are called this as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’, go now and restore the light of the world which is the Temple, of which it is written, ‘And all the nations will be enlightened by the Temple’.”

And even though Herod did actually rebuild the Temple, thereby forging a physical renaissance, his rule was founded on spiritual depravity. And his ruthless murder of his masters ended the Hasmonean dynasty, which was followed by increasingly oppressive Roman rule. Thus, from the Hasmoneans and Herod, we see a message that is no less relevant today — no matter how well-intended and inspiration-filled a movement for Jewish renewal might be, if it is not consistently guided by Torah, its light can only be relatively short-lived…

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