Upon Aristobulus’s death, his widow Shlomtzion released her oldest remaining brother-in-law, Alexander Yannai, from prison. In accordance with Jewish law, Yannai married Shlomtzion through the process of yibum, or levirate marriage. He also became the next Hasmonean king.
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At the beginning of their marriage, Shlomtzion prevailed upon her new husband to deal kindly with the Pharisees. Her brother, Shimon ben Shetach, was the leading sage of the time and Yannai conferred with him in both political and religious matters. However, this peaceful, productive arrangement would not last long.
Foremost on Yannai’s mind was a desire to expand Judah even further. He was particularly focused on securing the Mediterranean coast and its port cities. He also aimed to expand Jewish holdings in Transjordan. Early on, Yannai met with much success. Despite his accomplishments, Yannai failed to garner the support of the Pharisees. They were unimpressed with his selfish goals of personal triumph and glory. Many also found fault with Yannai’s insistence in occupying the positions of both king and high priest.
A sizable rift developed between Yannai and his people, one that would lead to internal violence, bloodshed, and civil war. Many sages were tortured and killed. Others were forced to seek refuge. Taking advantage of this situation were the Sadducees. Using their close relationship with Yannai, they secured practically every significant political position for their party. Even the Sanhedrin came under Sadducean control, the result of which was numerous errors in judgment and practice.
Following Yannai’s death, Shlomtzion retained her title of queen and became the country’s sole ruler. Her nine-year reign provided the Jewish people with much needed stability following the turbulent rule of Yannai. A new, improved relationship developed between the monarchy and the sages, one that allowed the Pharisees to regain their social, political, and religious strength.
Shlomtzion and Yannai had two sons together. Neither, however, was viewed as a suitable candidate to succeed his father. The elder, Hyrcanus II, was a quiet and private man. He assumed the office of high priest and was regarded as the eventual heir to the throne. His younger brother Aristobulus II was of a vastly different temperament. He was bold, ambitious, and a fearless warrior, and deemed an inappropriate fit to assume the throne.
Shlomtzion grew old and tired. The Sadducees seized upon this to reclaim their lost power and approached the Aristobulus II for help. Viewing them as potential allies in his own rise to power, Aristobulus was all too eager to assist. The Sadducees entreated the aging Shlomtzion for increased power and recognition. They presented her with the following ultimatum: Turn over all of the Hasmonean fortresses to the Sadducees or they would ally themselves with powerful Jewish enemies, including Aretas, king of the Nabateans. In her weakness, Shlomtzion agreed. Twenty-two strongholds were transferred to Sadducean control.
Aristobulus did not stop there. He had himself proclaimed king in an attempt prevent his elder brother Hyrcanus from seizing the throne. The aged queen, now in her final days, was unable to move against her younger son. When she died, Aristobulus immediately declared war on Hyrcanus, and in so doing, won over most of his brother’s troops.
Aristobulus promptly defeated Hyrcanus in a battle near Jericho; the latter fled to Jerusalem. There, under siege, he agreed to abdicate the throne and leave the royal palace. He further resolved to live peacefully on his new estate, without meddling in public affairs. The Sadducees had played their cards correctly, and forged their way to the top of the political heap. The peaceful situation between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus would not last. Encouraged by his new accomplice Antipater, a scheming, power-hungry Idumean, Hyrcanus reopened the struggle with his younger brother. Secretly, the two left Jerusalem to meet with Aretas in Transjordan. In exchange for military support, Hyrcanus and Antipater promised to restore to Aretas twelve cities that Yannai had captured.