The Hasmonean Dynasty

Their rule falls short of expectations.


Excerpted from
Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook
. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1994 by Jason Aronson Inc.

A year after the Maccabees’ triumph at the Temple, the Hellenists still refused to give up their fight. Displeased that the “old-fashioned” Jews were once again in religious power, and that Torah law had been reinstated in Judea, they repeatedly invited the Seleucids to send more troops.

Political maneuverings in Syria on more than one occasion saved the Maccabees by frightening the Syrian commanders home after hurried peace negotiations with Judah to protect their personal positions. Yet the war dragged on for a generation. Eleazar died in the battle against Nicanor and his elephants, then three more of Mattathias’ sons lost their lives, including the seemingly invincible Judah.

In 142 BCE, Simon, the last survivor of the Maccabee brothers, was recognized as high priest and political leader by his own people. He severed bonds of allegiance to the Syrian rulers, got the Greek garrison out of Jerusalem, and began to mint his own coins, the first ever by a Jewish state. He was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus, who established the Hasmonean dynasty. (The term first introduced in Talmud may have been Mattathias’ family name, from his grandfather, Simon Hasmonai, or a designation meaning prince, possibly related to the position of priesthood.)

Taking control of the kingship violated the people’s trust because it transgressed Torah: The Bible stipulates (Genesis 49:10) that the kingship should always rest in the tribe of Yehudah (descendants of Jacob’s son Judah), as it did once David’s line was established. It was to be separated from the priesthood, which comes out of the tribe of Levi (from which Aaron descended [Numbers 3:6-9]), to balance the secular and the spiritual. The Hasmoneans, though Kohanim of the tribe of Levi, were not in line for the high priesthood or for political leadership, which they usurped. [This is the author’s interpretation of events.]

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Lesli Koppelman Ross is a writer and artist whose works have appeared nationally. She has devoted much of her time to the causes of Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish education.

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