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Claiming Descent From the Maccabees

The Talmud in tractate Bava Batra 3:1 relates that the Hasmonean dynasty came to a tragic end with the death of the last survivor of Herod’s purges, a young woman whose name is not given.

Herod was a servant of the Hasmoneans, and there was a “little girl” among them upon whom he cast his eyes. One day he heard a voice saying that a servant who should rebel that day would succeed. Then he slew all his superiors except this little girl; and when she saw that he intended to marry her, she ascended to the roof and proclaimed: “If it happen that one shall claim himself descended from the Hasmoneans, be it known that he is a slave, for all the Hasmoneans were slain except myself, and I now commit suicide by throwing myself from this roof.”

Likewise in Tractate Kiddushin 70b we find that:

“Whoever says that he is from the household of the Hasmoneans is surely a slave.”

Are Descendants of the Hasmoneans Really Slaves?

The chasidic thinker Rabbi Zadok of Lublin puts forth an interesting explanation. In his book “Resisei Layla” (Paragraph 57) he writes (translation mine):

“Even after the death of the young maiden, there remained remnants of the Hasmonean house; however, they were forced to go into hiding out of fear. And what the Talmud relates is that nothing remained (of the Hasmonean house)—meaning that they hid and disappeared from the public eye. God forfend to say that the seed of those who had brought such great salvation to the Jewish people became extinct.”

The Talmudic statement that Hasmonean descent constitutes tainted ancestry apparently was not taken literally by everyone. How else to account for numerous families of distinction throughout Jewish history who claimed Hasmonean ancestry?

The following are several examples:


Flavius Josephus

The great Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the opening chapter of his autobiography, “Vitae,” writes:

“The family from which I am derived is not an ignoble one, but hath 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…by my mother I am of the royal blood; for the children of ‘Asamoneus’ חשמונאי from whom that family was derived.”

Josephus considered himself a follower of the Pharisees (the antecedents of rabbinic Judaism). Assuming the “problem” of Hasmonean ancestry was known during the time of Josephus, why would Josephus make such a claim?


A Word About Josephus

Parenthetically, many people tend to confuse Josephus (whose Hebrew name was Yosef Ben Matityahu) with another obscure figure named Yosef ben Gurion. The popular medieval work Sefer Yosifon is not the Hebrew version of Josephus’ “History of the Jews” but rather a later medieval Italian adaptation.

In the Venice edition of Yosifon, first published in 1544, there are numerous gushing approbations by leading Italian rabbis testifying to the author’s saintliness (whom they evidently thought was Josephus, one of the commanders of the Jewish war). Some went so far as to call him Yosef Hakohen “Hagadol” (literally, the high priest)!

Apparently Italian Jewry took great pride in one of their own sons (after all, Josephus was the first famous Italian Jew) and obviously looked at the man from a biased perspective (ironic, since Josephus adopted the name of his patron [and the Jews’ persecutor], Flavius Vespasian Caesar, the father of Titus).

Was Josephus a Traitor?

Mireille Hadas-Lebel in “Flavius Josephus: Eyewitness to Rome’s First-Century Conquest of Judaea” writes:

“Whether Josephus was a traitor or a wise man who tried to salvage the Jewish kingdom is a question that modern historians still argue. In 1937, a group of law students in Antwerp reopened the case of Flavius Josephus, and after a mock trial found him guilty of “treason.” In 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, a group of young resistance fighters who were strong supporters of Zionism reacting as French and Jewish patriots accused Josephus of “collaboration.” Today, Josephus’ works are read more widely in Israel than in any other country. Archaeology, Israel’s “national sport,” could not do without him.


The Sephardic Perahia Family

The Perahia ha-Cohen family were a distinguished family of rabbis and scholars in the Balkan Peninsula (particularly in Salonika). This family prided itself with their pedigree and traced themselves to the aforementioned Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

The Sephardic historian Michael Molho wrote a monograph on the Perahia family under the title “Essai d’une Monographie sur la Famille Pérahia à Thessalonique” (Salonica, 1938) that also records this claim and mentions the founder of this branch who came to Salonika from southern Italy in 1502.

This claim is also cited by the Sephardic historian David Conforte in his book “Kore ha–Dorot,” among others.

Some members of this family living closer to our time includes the recently deceased Kabbalist R’ Chaim Hakohen Perahia, also known as the “Milkman” (because he was a dairy farmer), and the accomplished pianist and conductor Murray Perahia, among others.


The Goldsmids of England

The Goldsmids were a family of wealthy Anglo-Jewish bankers and barons.

A.M. Hyamson, in “A History of the Jews in England,” records an early family tradition among the Goldsmids claiming “descent from Moses Uri haLevi (1544-1622) who had come to Emden from Poland, the first recognized Ashkenazi rabbi of Amsterdam, brought there by the earliest of the ex-Marrano settlers. But there is a far more distinguished ancestry to which the family more or less lays claim—one, however, which the Heralds are not as yet prepared to accept—and that is the princely Hasmonean family of Judaea and the Maccabee hero-sons of Mattathias the priest…”


Some Distinguished Members of the Goldsmid Family

*Isaac Lyon Goldsmid was born in London and became a very successful financier. Throughout his lifetime he used his wealth and status to advance educational, social and religious reform. Goldsmid abhorred the division of the London Jews into distinct Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. In an attempt to remedy this he was instrumental in founding a distinct “British” synagogue—the West London Synagogue of British Jews.

A similar claim to Hasmonean ancestry existed in the family of Joseph Salvador, an eccentric thinker of converso origin who lived in 19th-century France. Salvador was the son of a Sephardic father and a Catholic mother. He was very much taken with Jewish persecution, being especially affected by the pogroms experienced by his Ashkenazi contemporaries. He put forth some theories and solution that many regard as proto-Zionist, although the Catholic Church banned him and his works. Although he was not halachically Jewish, Salvador was obsessed with Judaism.

I would also mention a bizarre reference in Bryan Mark Rigg’s book (see, “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers.” Like most German Jews, Germany’s Sephardim (the most famous Sephardic community in Germany was in Altona-Hamburg) naively felt that Nazi persecutions were directed mainly at the hated “ostjuden” (Polish Jews) and not against the highly cultured German Jews. A good example of this is cited on page 14 of Rigg’s book: “Lt.Col. Albert Benary, a half-Jew and well-known military writer wrote the Nazi government: ‘My family doesn’t come out of the eastern ghettos. They came from the west through North Africa and Spain to Germany and certainly picked up non-Jewish blood along the way. However, my family is not ashamed of its Jewish blood. We can trace our Jewish blood back to the priestly caste of the Jewish people, and our family’s motto, battle cry if you will, comes from the Maccabees…I believe I have the right to ask not to be treated as a second-class German citizen.”


Did you know that there’s a statue of Judah Maccabee at West Point Military Academy? I didn’t either until recently.

The statue of Judah the Maccabee, known for his principle-driven leadership and daring battle tactics, is displayed along with the statues of Joshua, David, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hector, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon — “the Nine Worthies.”

The author is the founding editor at Channeling Jewish History Group (see here and can be reached at [email protected].

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