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Throughout much of our nation’s history, internal groups have challenged the spiritual status quo of the people. During the early Hasmonean years, this group was the Hellenists. The Hellenists saw no need for the continuation of a separate Jewish nation. Their goal was universal integration through Hellenism and pagan worship. After the success of the Hasmoneans, they were completely discredited and dissolved.
Into their absence stepped the Sadducees (Hebrew: Tzadukkim). Similar to the Hellenists, the Sadducees had secular aspirations. However, they understood the importance of presenting their aims under the pretense of preserving a distinct Jewish nation. They claimed to be loyal nationalists, bent on maintaining Jewish independence.
On the surface, the opposition posed by the Sadducees to the traditional Jews, who had become known as the Pharisees (Hebrew: Perushim), was purely religious in nature. Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees professed a belief in one God and claimed allegiance to His Torah. However, they rejected three core religious tenets: the legitimacy of the Oral Law, the existence of an Afterlife, and the notion that God rewards and punishes human behavior.
These rejections were motivated more by political than religious considerations. The Sadducees consisted primarily of the wealthy class, who saw in traditional Judaism a threat to their comfortable, Hellenistic lifestyles. They regarded the lower and middle classes, almost all adherents of traditional Judaism, with contempt. They scoffed at their brethren’s loyalty to tradition and custom and viewed the sages as threats to their own cultural viability.
Hellenized and more broadly educated, the Sadducees felt themselves most capable of making appropriate decisions on behalf of the nation. Their motive was naturally self-serving: to gain power. Naturally, the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with such an arrangement. They placed primacy on the religious rather than political side of Jewish life. They saw the Torah as open to all, and its study to be each man’s personal responsibility, regardless of class or social rank.
For most of his life, Yochanan Hyrcanus remained devoted to traditional Judaism. In his later years, however, he switched his loyalties and supported the Sadducees.
A number of factors contributed to Yochanan’s change in allegiance. They included:
• Questionable Lineage – A rumor had circulated that Shimon’s wife, the mother of Yochanan, was captured during the days of Antiochus IV. It followed that, due to the lofty spiritual levels that the Torah imposes on the high priesthood, her continued marriage to Shimon was sinful and forbidden. Any children subsequently born would be spiritually tainted, and could not serve as high priest. Though this rumor was rejected by most Pharisees, a percentage continued to maintain this view, leading to Yochanan’s anger and mistrust.
• Who Will Rule Next? – None of Yochanan’s three sons were acceptable in the eyes of the Pharisees. From their youth they had followed in the ways of the Sadducees, pursuing Hellenistic culture and warfare over Torah learning. Yochanan was naturally desirous of having his children succeed him and so an alliance with the Sadducees was viewed as the best way forward.
Following the death of Yochanan Hyrcanus, his eldest son, Yehudah Aristobulus, seized the throne. He cast his own mother into prison, as well as his brothers. He also adopted the title “king.”
Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean ruler to assume that title instead of maintaining the lesser title nasi. Shimon’s own grandson did not respect the deliberate distinction he had made years prior. The power that would accompany this new title would serve to corrupt Aristobulus and his successors for the next half century, leading to their complete demise. Aristobulus died after one year in office, leaving behind no children. His mother and brothers continued to languish in prison.