Question: As Shavuot is fast approaching – a holiday on which we dwell on the story of Ruth and the origins of the royal house of David – I was wondering if you could help me resolve something. The Mishnah never makes any mention of the Hasmonean kings, the mitzvah to light a Chanukah menorah, or the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days. Some people say that Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi – the redactor of the six orders of the Mishnah and a scion of King David – omitted these topics because the Hasmoneans improperly crowned themselves, ignoring the rule that all Jewish kings are supposed to come from the tribe of Yehudah. They argue that this is also why the Talmud does not include a separate tractate on Chanukah. Is this true?
Answer: Jacob prophetically blessed each of his 12 sons. Since Judah possessed the necessary qualities to lead his brothers, Jacob blessed him with the words (49:8-10), “The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives, and his will be an assemblage of nations.”
Rashi explains that King David’s rule will continue until the arrival of Mashiach. Rashbam derives from the words “until Shiloh arrives” that the kingdom will be divided and writes that Jacob’s prediction only referred to the time of David until Rehaboam. However, Targum Yonatan b. Uziel states that the divine right of rule over Israel belongs exclusively to the House of David. We asked: If so, how could the first king of Israel, Saul, have come from the tribe of Benjamin?
We noted that according to many commentators Jacob intended that the last monarch of the Jewish people come from Dan, not Judah; he thought that Samson would be the ultimate redeemer, the Melech HaMashiach. We also noted that Moses – who was from the tribe of Levi – would have led the Jews into Eretz Yisrael and become their leader there had he not sinned by hitting the rock and had the spies not sinned by giving a negative report of the land.
But how could Samson have been Mashiach or Moses the Jewish people’s leader in Eretz Yisrael if they weren’t from the tribe of Judah?
We discussed the Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei Tosafot’s novel interpretations of Jacob’s blessing to Judah. They explain that Jacob’s words perhaps mean that the kingship that descends from Judah will not expire until G-d casts off the Tabernacle in Shiloh. Alternatively, the kingship will not depart the House of David until Mashiach arrives at Shiloh, i.e., it will never depart since Mashiach himself is from the House of David. Yet another interpretation: Judah shall not rule over all 12 tribes of Israel until Mashiach arrives at Shiloh – which actually refers to nearby Shechem, for it is there that the kingdom was divided and it is there that it will be reunited.
The Ramban resolves our difficulties. He writes that the Jacob never meant that the kingship would never depart from Judah. Rather, any kingship that would ever exist in Israel from the time of Judah’s reign would come from Judah and none of his brothers would ever rule over him.
The “scepter” alludes to King David, the first king from Judah, who possessed a royal scepter, and “Shiloh” refers to Judah’s progeny, Mashiach. Although another tribe would reign over Israel, from the time that the scepter of kingship would begin belonging to Judah, it would never depart from him in favor of another tribe.
Last week, we cited the Ramban’s explanation of how Saul came about to be the first king of Israel. The Israelites’ request for a king at that time was contemptible to G-d who therefore decided not to crown a king from the tribe of Judah, to whom the kingship rightly belongs. He gave the Israelites a temporary kingship instead. The Ramban declares that the kings who reigned over Israel from tribes other Judah after David in fact violated the wishes of Jacob and were usurping Judah’s rightful inheritance.
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The Ramban explains that punishment rained down on the Hasmonean kings for usurping Judah’s role. They were supremely pious people, and if not for them, the Torah and its commandments would have been forgotten from Israel. Nevertheless, they suffered great punishment. The four pious sons of the Matisyahu, who reigned one after the other, fell by their enemies’ sword despite all their might and success.
They were punished to such a great degree that our Sages declared (Bava Batra 3b) that whoever says, “I descend from the House of the Hasmoneans” must be a slave since all the true Hasmoneans were obliterated on account of violating Jacob’s command that the scepter shall not depart from Judah. The descendants of the Hasmonean king Simon may have been punished because of their affiliation with the heretical Sadducees (see Berachot 29a and Kiddushin 66a), but all the immediate descendants of the righteous Matisyahu perished only because they violated Jacob’s command.
And since they ruled improperly, they were punished middah k’neged middah. G-d gave their slaves dominion over them, and those slaves killed all the members of the Hasmonean family.
The Ramban entertains the suggestion that the Hasmoneans’ sin was serving as kings despite being kohanim. Numbers 18:7 states, “Tishmiru et kehunat’chem l’chol d’var hamizbeyach, ul’mibeit laparochat va’avaditem, avodat matanah etayn et kehunatchem – You shall safeguard your priesthood regarding all matters of the Altar and within the Curtain, and you shall serve; I have presented your priesthood as a service that is a gift.” The Hasmoneans, therefore, should not have become kings; they should have remained performing the service of G-d in the Temple.
In discussing this matter, the Ramban cites a baraita in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Horayot 3:2) which states that kohanim may not be anointed as kings. R. Yehudah Antoria said the prohibition is based on the verse (Genesis 49:8), “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.”
R. Chiya bar Abba, however, bases the prohibition on Deuteronomy 17:20 and 18:1. The first verse states, “…lema’an ya’arich yamim al mamlachto hu u’banav b’kerev Yisrael – …so that [your king] will prolong his years over his kingdom, he and his sons amid Israel.” The verse immediately following states, “Lo yi’hiyeh lakohanim haleviyim… – There shall not be for the kohanim, the Levites, the entire tribe of Levi, a portion and an inheritance with Israel.” R. Chiya bar Abba sees the juxtaposition of these two verses intimating that kohanim should not be anointed kings.
Therefore, although the Jewish people may – according the opinion of R. Yehudah Antoria – accept a king upon themselves from one of the other tribes for some temporary necessity, they may not anoint them. This way, these rulers won’t have the grandeur of official kingship; they will be like judges and officers instead. The reason kohanim are singled out is because kohanim are potentially fit to be anointed as kohanim gedolim. We therefore need to be informed that they can’t be anointed as kings. As Horayot 11b states clearly: One must not anoint a king unless he is from the House of David.
The Ramban, however, concurs with R. Chiya bar Abba that a kohen is biblically prohibited from ever serving as a king – even if he isn’t anointed.
According to this Ramban, it is entirely possible that Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi purposely omitted any mention of the Hasmonean kings, as well as the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights (the core mitzvah of Chanukah), from the Mishnah to indicate that the Hasmoneans, righteous as they were, erred when they improperly crowned themselves kings over Israel.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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