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. Some people say that Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, the redactor of the six orders of the Mishnah and a scion of King David, purposely kept any mention of Chanukah and the Hasmonean kings out of the Mishnah because the Hasmoneans improperly crowned themselves and ignored the rule that all Jewish kings are supposed to come from the tribe of Yehudah. Is this true?
Answer: I, too, have heard this argument. Unlike Purim – the other major rabbinical festival, which is the subject of its own tractate (Megillah) – Chanukah and its laws are not mentioned in even one mishnah. Rather, we only learn about this holiday in the Gemara, in Perek BaMeh Madlikin (Tractate Shabbos, starting on 21b).
At first glance, this argument seems strange. Weren’t the Hasmoneans the heroes of their era? Didn’t they save the Jewish people from the ever-oppressive Syrian Greek authorities?
The Torah in Parshat Vayechi records the patriarch Jacob’s blessings to each of his sons before his demise. In reference to his son Judah, Jacob says the following (49:8-10):
“Yehudah ata yoducha achecha yadecha be’oref oy’vecha yishtachavu lecha bnei avicha – Judah, you, your brothers shall acknowledge, your hand will be at your enemies’ nape, your father’s sons will prostrate themselves before you.
“Gur aryeh Yehudah, miteref bni alita kara ravatz k’aryeh u’che’lavi mi ye’kimenu – A lion cub is Judah, from prey, my son, you elevated yourself, he crouches, lies down like a lion, and like an awesome lion, who dares rouse him?
“Lo yasur shevet mi’Yehudah, u’mechokek mibein raglav, ad ki yavo Shiloh ve’lo yikhat amim – 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.”
The above blessing, as those bestowed upon the other tribes, was not only the good wishes of a father yearning to bestow good upon his son, but was also a prophecy as history would later prove. Jacob understood that, as a nation, his children would be in need of leadership. He determined that of all his sons, Judah possessed the necessary qualities to fulfill that need.
Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the “gur aryeh – the lion cub” refers to none other than King David, who in the beginning, when under the rule of King Saul, was likened to a cub, but eventually, when he was crowned, was like a lion. Rashi also notes that King David’s rule will continue with the final deliverance at the hand of Melech HaMoshiach.
Rashbam (ad loc.) expounds on the words “until Shiloh arrives.” He says this means that until the time of Rehaboam, son of Solomon, the royal scepter will rule over all of Israel; afterwards, however, the kingdom will be divided. He explains that Jacob’s prediction referred specifically to the period from David to Rehaboam.
Targum Yonatan b. Uziel (ad loc.), on the other hand, very specifically writes, “And the kings and rulers from the house of Judah [David] shall not cease, as well as the scribes [i.e., scholars, who numbered] in the thousands, who teach the Torah, from among his progeny until the time that the Messiah comes for the kingdom, will be his as well as his rule over all the nations.”
It would thus seem that the Divine right of rule over Israel belongs entirely to the House of David. If so, however, we must not only ask about the Hasmonean kings but about Israel’s very first king as well, Saul, who was from the tribe of Benjamin. Why was he allowed to serve as king?
(To be continued)