Throughout the past week we have thanked Hashem for the improbable defeat of the powerful Seleucid forces by a small, untrained band of Jewish fighters. We also celebrated the story’s one open miracle, when the menorah’s lights burned for eight consecutive days following the Temple’s rededication.
For the uninformed, the Chanukah story is understood in a narrow context. From our youth, we are taught that at one point in our history a sworn enemy (Antiochus IV, a Seleucid ruler) passed a series of heartless decrees against our nation and threatened our spiritual survival. We were then told that a hoary hero (Matisyahu) emerged and defiantly challenged the monarch’s cruel decrees. Following the hero’s death, his son, Yehudah Maccabee, completed the uprising and led the Jews to lasting victory.
While much of that description is true, some of it is not. Moreover, it fails to present the true context of the spiritual challenge to our nation, as well as the aftermath of the Jewish uprising. In fact, relatively few are aware that the story of the illustrious Hasmonean family ended in tragedy and shame, just a few decades following their heroic stand.
Yehudah, Matisyahu’s third son, died in battle some years after the Temple’s rededication. He was succeeded by his younger brother Yonasan, who deftly led the Jewish forces through the next stage of battles and began the process of expanding Judea’s boundaries. Following Yonasan’s abduction and murder at the hands of a former ally, Matisyahu’s last living son, Shimon, assumed the reigns of leadership.
Shimon would complete the process of ridding the Seleucids from Judea and obtained complete autonomy for the Jewish people. As a result, he was proclaimed “leader and high priest” of the Jews (I Maccabees 14:35, 47) and the Hasmonean Dynasty officially began (though Shimon stopped short of accepting the title “king.”)
After a lapse spanning roughly three centuries, a Jewish state once again reigned supreme in the Holy Land. However, like his brothers before him, Shimon met his death in an untimely fashion, murdered by a scheming son-in-law who sought to expand his own locus of power. Shimon was succeeded by his son Yochanan Hyrcanus.
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The collective fate of the five Hasmonean brothers is nothing less than tragic. Each of them died an unnatural death. Three (Elazar, Yehudah, and Yochanan) perished in the act of war. Two others (Yonasan and Shimon) were victims of deceit and treachery from former allies or relatives.
Ramban, in his commentary to Genesis 49:10 (“The scepter shall not depart from Judah”), describes the Hasmoneans as “saints of the most high, without whom the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.” Despite such greatness, he writes that their tragic fate was sealed because they ruled over the people even though they were not from the tribe of Yehudah. They went against the will of their forefather Yaakov in removing “the scepter” from its rightful heirs.
As sad as the demise of Matisyahu’s sons was, it would pale in comparison to the moral degeneration that would be exhibited by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Following his ascension to the throne, Yochanan Hyrcanus set his eyes on restoring the Jewish commonwealth to its biblical borders. The Hasmonean leader first turned north, to the center of the country. Soon thereafter, he embarked on a campaign in Transjordan. Sizable territory was brought under Hasmonean control from this area as well.
Yochanan then conquered Idumea from tribes in the Negev. Concerned that these tribes might later join sides with invading forces, he made a decision that would have dire consequences for his people: forced conversion of the Idumeans. From this time onward, the Idumeans became inseparable from the Jewish people. Out of this nation would come Antipater, a scheming advisor in a subsequent Hasmonean civil war. Of even more significance would be Antipater’s son Herod, who would rule the people for an extended period with oppressive force.