July 18, 2024
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Queen Shlomtzion: In the Spirit of the Maccabees

Throughout history, victory has been achieved by different means. The Maccabees arose and declared revolt which was their only option in the face of Antiochus and his Hellenist supporters. Then, there are times when it is the advocate, the fighter, who quietly operates behind the scenes to achieve that elusive victory.

Reminiscent of Queen Esther of Persia, there was another Jewish queen whose presence also greatly impacted Jewish history. Her name was Shlomtzion, also known as Shlomit Aleksandra.

Shlomtzion married the Chashmona’i, Judah Aristobolus, the son of John Hyrkanus. Aristobolus soon passed away and in accordance with Jewish law, Shlomtzion married his brother Alexander Yannai who soon rose to the throne.

It is an irony of Jewish history that some of the very descendants of the Maccabees who risked all to restore Jewish observance to Judea, sought to undermine those very traditions. The lure of power can be very corrupting. One ruler in particular, Alexander Yannai, the son of John Hyrkanus and grandson of the Maccabee, Simon, was a member of the sect of Sadducees, and he displayed cruelty and ruthlessness to his people as he sought to diminish the authority of Israel’s leaders, its rabbis. The Sadducees rejected their influence, and many of their explanations of Torah law, which are instrumental to preserving the institutions of Judaism. Yannai became their enforcer.

During one Sukkot holiday, Yannai instigated a slaughter by publicly violating a Rabbinic law in the Temple, spilling libation water on his feet rather than upon the sacrificial altar. The people spontaneously reacted by tossing etrogim at the king which resulted in the massacre of six thousand innocents around the vicinity of the Temple. A brutal civil war then ensued. Alexander Yanni then sought to eliminate most of the rabbinic leaders, whom he perceived as his rivals, by having them summarily executed. One of those who fled to Alexandria, Egypt, was the famed sage Yehudah ben Tabbai. Alexander Yannai also replaced the supreme legislative body, the Sanhedrin, with Sadducee judges.

Would the authentic Torah be undermined? The dangers posed by Yannai were severe.

As Mordechai bid Queen Esther in ancient Persia to act on behalf of her people in the face of Haman’s evil decree, “And who knows whether it was just for a moment like this that you became the queen?” (Esther 4:14), so, too, Shlomtzion was in a situation where she could avert the dangers to her people. Her intervention was needed, but it was also necessary for her to tread lightly. Like Achashverosh, her husband was volatile and subject to anger. She, too, could be at risk if she angered him.

The head of the Sanhedrin, who also happened to be Shlomtzion’s own brother, Shimon ben Shetach, was among those rabbis who fled for safety. The queen, who had personally hid her brother, sought to find the right moment to prevail upon the king to allow the sage to return. The Talmud relates that one day when the royal couple were dining with the king’s court, Yannai sought to find someone who could lead the blessings following the meal’s completion. But no one was to be found since the rabbis were executed or had fled. The queen seized the moment and told him, “Swear that if I bring such a person, you will not persecute him” (Berachot 48a).

At the queen’s behest, Shimon ben Shetach was allowed to come out of hiding. Along with the queen, he managed to have other sages whom had fled to Egypt brought back as well. He also managed to have sages restored to positions in the Sanhedrin by posing questions to Sadducee judges which they were unable to answer. The book Megilat Ta’anit designates the date, the 28th day of the month of Tevet, as a day of rejoicing for the restoration of the Sanhedrin. Meanwhile, the queen no doubt was working to influence the king and his views of the rabbis.

On his deathbed, as his 27-year reign was coming to an end, Yannai gave the reigns of the throne to Shlomtzion. He even advised her to put her authority into the hands of the sages. He knew that the nation’s sympathies were with them and that they would embrace her leadership as well. Thus, her kingdom would be secure.

That was already part of her plan.

The 10-year reign of Shlomtzion (76-67 BCE) was one of peace and prosperity in Judea. Shlomtzion further secured the nation by strengthening the border towns of Judea, and she strengthened the nation from within. The queen along with her brother endeavored to further restore the Torah institutions in the land. They raised the level of Jewish education by employing revolutionary changes in the system. Shimon ben Shetach established a system of yeshivos in larger cities where young men would be beneficiaries of a strong Jewish education. In prior eras, such instruction was generally the sole responsibility of the father.

The Talmud states that Shimon ben Shetach restored the crown to the Torah (Kiddushin 66a). Amid the oppression of Yannai, he influenced his generation and the ones to follow. By his side was his unwavering sister, the queen, who had (most probably) facilitated the dramatic turnaround in Judea by carefully influencing her husband. It was an era where the Jewish nation grew spiritually. These were good times, the calm before the coming storms of renewed infighting after the queen’s passing, between her sons Aristobolus and Hyrkanus.

During Shlomtzion’s rule, the Talmud states that grains of wheat grew to the size of kidneys, and barley as large as olive pits (Taanit 23a). The immense productivity of the land was a Divine sign of the queen’s righteousness and that of her rule.

Like the flames of the menorah which remained kindled for eight days from one flask during the amazing Maccabean liberation of the Temple, so, too, this miracle also represented victory in the face of adversity.

Two miraculous victories among so many that comprise the amazing survival of the Jews over the millennium—the Maccabees and Shlomtzion, who both helped keep the flame of Torah alive.

By Larry Domnitch

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