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.
Accordingly, Shlomtzion retained her title of queen and became the country’s sole ruler. Her decade-long reign (76-66 BCE) provided the Jewish people with much needed calm and stability. 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, herself strictly observant, allowed them to assume the practical administration of the state.
Though she transferred many administrative powers to the Pharisees, Shlomtzion was far from passive in her role as queen. In particular, she built a sizable military to ensure a peaceful life for her constituents. Its soldiers consisted primarily of recruited Jewish fighters, supplemented by foreign mercenaries. At its apex, this collective force nearly doubled in size from that which she had inherited from her deceased husband.
In her final years, Shlomtzion grew old and tired. The Sadducees now attempted to reclaim their lost power and approached the ambitious Aristobulus II for help. Viewing them as potential allies in his own rise to power, Aristobulus was all too eager to assist.
With Aristobulus at their head, and a powerful band of foreign mercenaries to accompany them, the Sadducees entreated the aging Shlomtzion for increased power and recognition. They spoke of their unwavering loyalty to Yannai and their increased suffering at the hands of the Pharisees.
They then presented the queen with the following ultimatum: Turn over all of the Hasmonean fortresses to the Sadducees, or they will ally themselves with powerful Jewish enemies, including Aretas, king of the Nabateans. In her weakness, Shlomtzion agreed. Twenty-two strongholds were transferred, including all of the national fortresses except for Hyrcania and Macherus, which held royal treasures.
Aristobulus did not stop there. He had himself proclaimed as king in an attempt prevent his brother Hyrcanus from seizing the throne. The seventy-three year old queen, now in her last 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 again played their cards correctly, and forged their way to the top of the political heap.
* * * * *
The peaceful situation between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, would not survive. Encouraged by his new accomplice, Antipater – a scheming, power-hungry Idumean – Hyrcanus reopened the struggle with his younger brother. Secretly, Hyrcanus and Antipater left Jerusalem to meet with King Aretas in Transjordan. In exchange for military support, Hyrcanus and Antipater promised to restore to Aretas twelve cities that Yannai had previously captured.
Aretas agreed. He led his large army of 50,000 across the Jordan and marched it to Jerusalem. Seeing Hyrcanus at the army’s head, his followers in the capital opened the city gates. Aristobulus and his men, among whom were many priests, were forced to seek refuge behind the walls of the Temple Mount. All along they maintained the daily sacrifices, despite the inherent dangers and the exorbitant costs.
The siege that followed was filled with intense hatred between the sides, both of which used the people as pawns in their personal struggle. Upon seeing the manner in which these two brothers treated one another, and their complete disregard for the general welfare of the populace, many abandoned hope of a peaceful resolution and fled to Egypt.
As the siege intensified, the followers of Hyrcanus summoned the great sage and miracle worker Choni HaMa’agel (the Circle Maker). They compelled him to pray on their behalf for a victorious end to the siege. Choni’s prayer was far from what they had hoped for:
Master of the Universe! Those who lay the siege are Your people and those who are besieged are your priests. I plead before You, do not heed the prayers that either side offers to You, to do evil to the other side! [Josephus, Antiquities]
Angered and disappointed, Hyrcanus’s men responded by killing the great Choni. With that, they took their struggle to an unprecedented low.
Neither side was able to resolve this fraternal conflict militarily. In 63 BCE, the Roman political leader Pompey appeared in Syria with his legions, having completed an extensive military campaign in Asia.
Exhausted, desperate, and concerned about what they perceived to be inevitable Roman intervention, both brothers appealed to Pompey in hope of a favorable decision. With this fateful decision, eighty-plus years of hard-earned Hasmonean independence would soon end. The sages, fearing the outcome of these misguided delegations, also sent a mission to plead their case on behalf of the people.
Pompey initially ruled in favor of the younger Aristobulus; his larger bribe held sway with the greedy leader. Hyrcanus and Aretas were instructed to lift the siege and leave Jerusalem. If not, they would be viewed as enemies of Rome. Aretas duly returned home. Aristobulus pursued Hyrcanus and his men after they had left the city, killing some 6,000 soldiers.
Antipater petitioned Pompey to reconsider his verdict. Some years later, both brothers were summoned to appear in Damascus. The Roman general now decided in favor of Hyrcanus, and in appointing him as ethnarch and high priest, positions he would hold for the next twenty-four years, fulfilled Shlomtzion’s original desire to be succeeded by her older son. Aristobulus quickly withdrew, surrendering all his fortresses. He would soon come to regret his timidity.
In truth, Pompey had an agenda of his own. He had concluded that Hyrcanus’s weak demeanor would make for an ineffective ruler, which would allow Rome to maintain effective control over Judah without having to fight to achieve it. As it was, he secured Roman dominion over the coastal, pagan cities, as well as those in Transjordan. Much of the apprehended land was given to his soldiers as rewards for a job well done. Those areas that remained under Hasmonean hegemony were not completely independent either. They effectively served as a client state to Rome, and were responsible to the Roman proconsul in Syria.
* * * * *
Such was the reality of the continued decline of the Hasmoneans. After a brief respite during the reign of the righteous Shlomtzion, this royal family continued to display the morally corrupt behavior that would eventually plunge the people into foreign subjugation and exile. Not again until the Great Rebellion of 66 CE would the Jewish people possess even fleeting political independence. By then it would prove to be too little, too late.
Later, Pompey marched his legions southward to Judah. The brothers could have used this final opportunity to unite against their lone legitimate foe but failed to do so. Aristobulus and his men made one last attempt to preserve Jewish independence, resisting the Romans from behind the walls of Jerusalem.
Eventually, the Roman siege and weaponry took their toll; the walls were breached. Some twelve thousands were slaughtered on the Temple Mount, many of them priests who had been engaged in the Temple service. Thousands of others were tortured. Most remarkable was that the service continued almost completely unabated, a display of tremendous religious self-sacrifice. In an act of open defiance, Pompey and his men entered the sanctuary. Yet, they did not defile it. Nor did they despoil it.
Pompey carried out a number of hurtful steps shortly after his victory. He ordered many of city and fortress walls leveled. He also raised taxes to an even higher rate. Aristobulus and four other family members were taken as captives, to be paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a grand victory procession.
For all intents and purposes, the Jewish homeland was now under foreign control. The Roman proconsul in Damascus oversaw the general area, which included Syria and Israel. Locally, despite Hyrcanus’s title, it was Antipater who held the real power. This combination presented much difficulty for the Jewish people, who felt themselves politically unrepresented.
Sadly, the years that immediately preceded the fraternal siege were the last ones of peace and tranquility the Jews would experience during the balance of the Hasmonean kingdom and the years that followed. From this point onward, Jewish life in the land of Israel would continually progress down a slippery slope toward discord, destruction, and exile.
Internally, Jewish political life would be wrought with strife and dissension. From without, foreign influence would continuously increase, the results being diminished autonomy and increased persecution. All told, these factors would ultimately close the book on an independent Jewish community in Israel
First published on January 4, 2012.