DAYS OF TERROR AND TRIBULATION beset the Jewish faith. Jerusalem was occupied by Syrian-Greek troops, in the Temple was installed the image of Zeus and swine were offered on the holy altar of the God of Israel. There was also no lack of Jewish traitors who assisted the enemy in his work and it seemed that the last hour had struck for the Jewish religion. Pious Jews sought safety in the mountains and caves of Judea, hidden from the eyes of strangers. There they observed the laws of Judaism and avoided desecrating the Sabbath; there too they inducted the new born children into the Jewish faith.
In the town Modiim, not far from Ludd, there gathered a group of the faithful. One of the priests, Mattathias ben Jochanan of the Hasmonean family, who could trace his descent from the priest Jojariv, erected an altar to the God of Israel. When the representative of the government heard of this he sent an officer with a detachment of soldiers to investigate the situation. The Greek officer called Mattathias and commanded him to sacrifice a pig on the altar. To this Mattathias replied: “Were all the people of the king’s domains to worship your god and were all the Jews to join them in this worship, I and my sons would still not deviate from the ways of my forefathers and I will not serve any other God but the only living God in Heaven.”
Then one of the Jews approached the altar to fulfill the command of the officer. Mattathias thereupon stabbed him with a knife and killed him. As the Greek officer tried to attack Mattathias, he and his soldiers were set upon by the surrounding people and were slaughtered.
Every one realized that this act of rebellion would be followed by the revenge of the government and that they were facing a choice between struggle and annihilation. This deed of Mattathias therefore acted as a call to battle and a long and bitter war ensued. The Greeks could bring onto the field of battle many more well equipped soldiers than the Jews could. The Jews therefore feared to face them in open battle and conducted a guerilla form of warfare. Judas Macabbee, the son of Mattathias, fell in one of these battles and he was succeeded by his brother Jochanan who led the Jewish forces to victory in several engagements. With the consent of the king, Jochanan assumed the high priesthood which he held for but a short time until he was betrayed to the enemy and killed. Simeon, the youngest son of Mattathias, then assumed the leadership of the people and also successfully completed the war of liberation.
The religious leadership of the nation then rested not in the hands of individuals or of a “pair” but was vested in a Beth Din (a court of at least five people and sometimes more). This body came to be known in the Talmud as “The Court of the Hasmoneans” but history does not record the names of any of the members of this court.
It is probable that this court did not come into existence before the rule of Jonathan, son of Mattathias. When Jonathan sent letters to the Lacedemonians to renew the alliance against the Syrians, we find these letters signed by men of the “Great Council.” When Simeon became Nasi, we read that this position was given to him by the “Elders” and the “Heads of the people.” These men apparently were the members of the “Court of the Hasmoneans.”
This court worked to erect an impenetrable wall between the Jews and the non Jews. All the previous laws of the Torah pertaining to relations with other peoples were interpreted in the severest possible manner. They also instituted difficult regulations in all matters pertaining to uncleanness; all of these decrees later came to be known as the laws of the Hasmonean court.
It was this court which established an annual feast of eight days to commemorate the miracles which transpired during the war with the Greeks. This feast came to be called “Chanukah,” dedication, because it was originally celebrated to rededicate the altar which the Greeks profaned with unclean sacrifices. Although many feast days to commemorate various triumphs of the Macabbees were in vogue at that time, only Chanukah with its lights and singing of praise continued to be celebrated throughout the years and was sanctioned by the Hasmonean court.
In addition to the new regulations, the ultra pious voluntarily assumed many other restrictions. Prayers which were introduced by the Great Synagogue were already in common use but before beginning to recite them it became customary to devote a few minutes to spiritual communion with “the father in heaven.” This spiritual communion they would not interrupt under any circumstances were even a king to drive by or were a snake to wind itself about the foot of the suppliant. Disregarding all perils, the ultra pious were ready to face any danger if only it would enable them to observe the laws of the Torah. The observance of the Sabbath was held in special esteem so that even the killing of a poisonous snake on that day was considered to be sinful. At first they even refused to fight their enemies on the Sabbath and history records one case during the lifetime of Mattathias when one thousand Jews were burned to death in a cave to which the Greek soldiers set fire because they did not want to desecrate the Sabbath by putting out the fire. After this occurrence Mattathias instructed all his followers to desecrate the Sabbath if necessary when fighting the enemy.
But the observance of the Sabbath was not the only law which they obeyed in its minutest details. They cleared the roads used by travelers of all thorns, glass and other hindrances lest some person stumble and be injured due to another’s negligence. These they buried deep in the ground so that not even a ploughshare might turn them up.
After the triumph of the Hasmoneans the people felt free and joyous and on feast days they all gathered together, both those who previously sinned as well as those who never departed from the faith, and joined in a common chorus. The past sinners would begin their song with the words, “Praised be he who never sinned” and the chorus responded “He who sinned shall be forgiven.” Then those who felt free of wrong doing intoned, “Praised be my youth which did not bring shame on my old age” and the sinners of the past joined with, “Praised be my old age which atones for the transgressions of my youth.”
The court of the Hasmoneans was systematically strict in the enforcement of those laws which did not cause any losses to the people but practiced leniency where the legislation was becoming intolerably severe as in the cases of the Nazarites and of the Passover offering. These lenient or strict interpretations were based on new studies of the text of the Bible to every letter of which great significance was being ascribed. The scholars of that time also began to ponder the events of Jewish history and attempted to explain the causes of the great suffering which Jews had to endure. They came to the conclusion that all injury inflicted on the Jews invariably is avenged on the evil doers. Thus Amalek tried to destroy them and he was wiped off the face of the earth. Pharaoh enslaved the Jews and caused their children to be cast into the river so the Egyptians were drowned in the sea. This, they reasoned, must be the fate of every nation which does harm to the Jews; to be repaid with the same measure.
Simeon, the son of Mattathias the Hasmonean, was assassinated in a treacherous fashion by his son in law Ptolemy ben Chabub who occupied the post of tax collector in the district of Shechem. Feeling secure after his triumph over the Greeks, Simeon frequently accepted the invitations of his son in law to visit him together with his family. It was on one of these visits that he was murdered by Ptolemy who was secretly negotiating with the Greek rulers to have himself appointed governor of the country after the death of Simeon. But Ptolemy’s hopes proved to be vain. The king of Syria did not fulfill his promise and Simeon’s son Jochanan succeeded his father. Jochanan united within himself both the religious and the secular authority over the people as prince and High Priest.
Historically Jochanan is known as John Hyrcanus or Hyrcanus the first to distinguish him from king Hyrcanus II who was the grandfather of queen Miriam the Hasmonean. In the Talmud he is called Jochanan the High Priest. The surname Hyrcanus he obtained from his conquest of the fortress Hyrcania.
After Ptolemy murdered Jochanan’s father he held his mother as hostage for fear of reprisals from Jochanan. When Jochanan stormed Ptolemy’s fortress and it seemed that it might fall, Ptolemy led his mother in law to the wall of the castle and there he tortured her in sight of her son. Jochanan was ready to withdraw in order to spare his mother any more suffering but she exhorted him in the name of his father not to be affected by her injuries and to exert every effort to take the fortress. But the stronghold was well fortified and he could not conquer it. Seeking for an excuse to retreat without shame, Jochanan declared that the new year, which was just then beginning, was a sabbatical year during which no wars might be waged. Ptolemy murdered his mother in law and fled after which he was never heard of again.
Shortly after this event Jochanan was again involved in war with the Greeks who, under their new king Antiochus Sedetis, attempted to regain control of the country. They advanced on Jerusalem with a great army but they could not take it. The power of the Greeks was broken and they feared the intervention of Rome which was bound by treaty to assist the Jews. After much fighting a new peace was declared according to which the Jews had to pay 500 measures of silver and to deliver a number of young men from the noble families as hostages. In time the relations with the Syrian Greek kingdom improved to such an extent that Jochanan even sent military assistance to their king in his wars against the Parthians.
Jochanan was engaged in many protracted wars until he finally succeeded in completely freeing his country. With the aid of gold treasures which he found in the tombs of the kings of Judea he hired a mercenary army and marched on the Idumeans. To them he offered the choice of accepting the Jewish faith or being exiled. The Idumeans preferred to accept the Jewish religion rather than be driven out of their homes. Jochanan then attacked Samaria which he destroyed together with the Samaritan temple which was the greatest hindrance to the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem.
As a result of these conquests it became necessary to introduce new regulations which should fit the newly created conditions. Among the conquered cities there were some which were previously a part of Syria and as such were considered unclean where no Jew might live. These cities were now considered a part of Palestine and were subject to all the laws pertaining to tithes, the sabbatical year, the bringing of the first fruits, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the offering of sacrifices. The rule was established that if one buys a field in Syria it is as if he bought a field in a suburb of Jerusalem, and all the newly conquered cities which could be reached without passing through foreign territory were considered to be the equals of the holy Palestine towns. In this manner Jochanan extended the boundaries of Palestine to include Syria in the possession of the Jews even as he did with the cities of Idumea.
Some of the regulations relating to the bond of Syria with Palestine were changed at a later date; it also soon became evident that the Idumeans who were converted by force did not add to the well being of the Jewish people. But the sincerity of the intentions of Jochanan was appreciated by all and even though, in later years, he came in conflict with the scholars, the Talmud nevertheless credits him for his good intentions.
Other religious innovations were directed against the Samaritans (Kuthim) who mingled with the other Jews after the destruction of their temple but in their hearts still bore a great hatred toward them. This hatred caused uneasiness and the Samaritans were mistrusted; their adherence to the Jewish people was questioned even though they seemed to observe some customs even more strictly than did the Jews. It was then forbidden to partake of the food of a Samaritan and eating of the bread of a Samaritan was considered to be the same as eating pork.
Among his other innovations, the High Priest Jochanan also did away with reciting the dedication which was prescribed for all men who brought the tithe. He sent out messengers throughout the cities of Palestine to see whether the tithes were properly contributed. These messengers reported to him that the Palestine farmers gave only the “Large tithe,” the exact amount of which was never established; they therefore offered only between two and three percent. When Jochanan heard this he ordered that whoever bought grain or fruit from a farmer (Am Haaretz) should not ask whether the tithes were already given from that produce and he was obliged to offer the necessary amount even though the seller assured him that the tithes were already given. It was for this reason that he abolished the confession during the offering of tithes; out of fear that a falsehood might be uttered before God if a person should say that he gave the proper tithes.
The difficulties with the giving of tithes began during the days of Ezra. Since not all the Levites wanted to return to Palestine from Babylonia, Ezra fined those who refused to return by taking away their rights to the tithe. It thus became impossible to include the words “and I gave it to the Levite” which are contained in the Biblical text of the confession of the tithes. Others thought that since the tithes were frequently collected by force it would not be true to confess that the tithes were “given.” The High Priest Jochanan also realized that the conditions affecting the tithes changed radically. During the days of the first Temple, Palestine was divided among the tribes and the Levites did not possess any lands; they were thus entitled to the tithes. But in his time conditions were different and the tithes weighed heavily on the farmers who had to pay taxes in addition to the three different kinds of tithes (first tithe, second tithe, tithe for the poor). Realizing the injustice of this condition and being powerless to abolish the commandment of the Torah, he introduced a new system. He appointed overseers to watch that the farmers obey the law and to take the tithes by force if necessary. But when a person bought produce from a farmer he did not have to inquire whether tithes were given but had to consider his purchase as “Dmai”, doubtful produce, from which the buyer had to give the tithes.
Until the time of Jochanan it was customary to work in Jerusalem in the period intervening between the first and last day of a holiday and the pounding of hammers was heard throughout the city. Jochanan considered this a profanation of the holy city and he forbade it. When in later years it was altogether forbidden to work with hammers in Jerusalem the new regulation was based on Jochanan’s ordinance.
He also did away with the singing of Psalm 48 by the Levites during the service. Verse 24 of this Psalm reads “Awake, why do you slumber Lord.” It came to be chanted at a time when the Jews were sorely pressed on all sides while the other nations lived in peace. But Jochanan held that it is disrespectful to ask God to awake from slumber. He also changed the procedure of offering sacrifices. Previously it was customary to make an incision between the horns of the animal to be slaughtered with a sharp knife in order that the blood might blind it and make it easier to bind. Jochanan said that this practice was equivalent to crippling the sacrifice as the cut might pierce the animal’s brain and thus make it unfit for sacrifice. He ordered that a ring be made to be placed on the neck of the animal and thus facilitate its binding.
In the observance of the commandments of the Torah, Jochanan always sided with the Pharisees. But once, during the closing years of his life the Pharisees incurred his anger and he forsook them to take the part of the Sadducees. It happened during a feast which he gave after one of his victories, that, flushed with wine he challenged the assembled to mention any evil which they knew of him. One of the guests, Eleazar ben Poirah, whom the Talmud calls “a wicked and hard hearted scoffer,” said to Jochanan: “The Pharisees are displeased with you.” When Jochanan inquired for the cause of the displeasure, there rose an old man Jehudah ben Gadidiah and said: “Enough that you have the crown of royalty; leave the crown of the priesthood for a pious descendant of Aaron for you are the son of a woman who was held in captivity.” (He was referring to the fact that Jochanan’s mother was held captive among the Gentiles which may have cast some doubt on his parentage.) Very much concerned, Jochanan had the whole matter investigated and when the statement was not substantiated Jehuda ben Gadidia was tried by the Sanhedrin and sentenced to be flogged.
But Jochanan was not satisfied with this punishment and the Sadducees further incited him to believe that all the Pharisees thought as Jehuda ben Gadidia did. As Jochanan tried to justify the verdict of the Sanhedrin on the ground that the Torah commands that a slanderer be flogged, the above mentioned Eleazar ben Poirah said: “True this is the law for one who slanders an ordinary person, but in this case where a king and High Priest was slandered, the Sanhedrin should have acted differently.”
Jochanan allowed himself to be persuaded. He removed all the Pharisees from the Sanhedrin and filled their places with Sadducees. The new Sanhedrin immediately tried Jehuda ben Gadidia a second time and condemned him to death together with a number of other Pharisees. From that time Jochanan remained an adherent of the Sadducees.*)This version of the manner in which Jochanan forsook the Pharisees to join the Sadducees is told by Josephus. In the Talmud it is stated that it happened during the reign of king Jannai. However, the reference could not be to Alexander Jannai, the son of Jochanan Hyrcanus, for on another occasion the Talmud states “Jannai and Jochanan are the same person.”