Asara B’Teves, the 10th of Teves, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar that ultimately culminated with the First Temple’s destruction on the 9th of Av the following year.
Of course, Jewish residents of our holiest city have been no strangers to military sieges. One of the most famous was led by the Assyrian monarch Sancheirev against the Judean king Chizkiyahu and his small nation (recorded in II Chronicles 32), over a century before Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. This siege ended miraculously when Hashem orchestrated the sudden deaths of nearly the entire Assyrian army.
Other well-known sieges of Jerusalem include the Roman encirclement that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the one led by the emperor Hadrian and his leading general Julius Severus in 135 CE in response to the revolt of Bar Kochba.
Yet one of the saddest and most painful sieges in Jerusalem’s history was imposed not by a force of gentile invaders but rather by one group of Jews against another. The siege marked a climax in an internal struggle that had been raging for centuries within the Jewish nation, and would ultimately result in the destruction of our Holy Temple.
After the death of Yehuda Aristobulus (103 BCE), Alexander Yannai became king. Yannai was the son of Yochanan Hyrcanus, grandson of Shimon and great grandson of Matityahu. He would rule for twenty-seven years, until 76 BCE.
Following Aristobulus’s death, Yannai married his brother’s widow Shlomtzion through the process known as yibum, or levirate marriage. At the beginning of their marriage, Shlomtzion prevailed on her new husband to deal kindly with the Pharisees, who represented the majority of the Jewish people and were the guardians of the Torah-true tradition dating back to Sinai. Her brother, Shimon ben Shetach, was the leading sage of the time and Yannai conferred with him on both political and religious matters.
But this peaceful arrangement would not last for long, largely because of Pharisee disproval of Yannai’s territorial ambitions.
Over time, a sizable rift developed between Yannai and his people, one that would lead to violence, bloodshed, and civil war. Many sages were tortured and killed. Others were forced to seek refuge, either by fleeing the country or by going into hiding.
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 their control, the result of which was numerous errors in judgment and practice. (The Sadducees lacked sufficient knowledge in Jewish law. Their insistence on a literal interpretation of the Torah further guaranteed these errors.)
The strain between the two sides remained palpable yet subdued. In 90 BCE, however, all of that would change. Yannai set out on another military campaign into Transjordan. After experiencing initial successes, Yannai was repelled in a battle against the Nabateans. Caught in an ambush, Yannai “was thrown down into a deep valley… and hardly escaped with his life” (Josephus, Antiquities).
Yannai and his forces fled back to Jerusalem. The news of Yannai’s setback resonated with the Pharisees. Sensing an opportunity to rid themselves of their oppressive ruler, they rose up in open rebellion against him.
* * * * *
The civil war that followed would last six painful and torturous years. All told, in excess of fifty thousand Jews died. As the war progressed, Yannai and his supporters seized the upper hand. In desperation, certain Pharisees struck a deal with Demetrius III of Syria, inviting him to invade Judah. Many Jews joined the Syrian forces. The year was 88 BCE.
Demetrius, whose army was nearly double in size compared to that of Yannai, soundly defeated his adversary in a battle near Shechem. Yannai and his remaining forces fled. Out of pity and concern for their fellow Jews, six thousand Jewish fighters who had been serving under Demetrius now switched sides, forcing the Syrians to leave the battlefield and return home.
The Pharisees hoped Yannai would reciprocate this display of good will with a new attitude of his own. If their rebellion had not impressed upon him the need to rule over them with justness and kindness, perhaps this gesture would. Sadly, Yannai refused to come to terms with his people.
Shlomtzion and Yannai had two sons together. Neither of them, however, was viewed as a suitable candidate to succeed Yannai.
The elder son, Hyrcanus II, was a quiet and private man. He lacked the natural leadership skills and personal drive to serve as leader. Temporarily, 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. For those reasons, he, too, was deemed an inappropriate fit to succeed Yannai, and would be limited to a secondary role in governmental affairs.