HEROD, THE SON OF ANTIPATER, who was one of the Idumean proselytes, seized the government of the country. His every move was drowned in Jewish blood and he annihilated all the scholars of that time. He was especially vengeful toward those people who had any relation to the royal Hasmonean family. He spared the two representatives of the Sanhedrin Shemaiah and Abtalion. Because of their advanced age he considered it wise to wait until they died. Not many years passed before both of them died a natural death.
The years in which the two leaders died, and which of them passed away first we do not know. But we do know that for a considerable length of time after their death scholarship was on the decline. The people were preoccupied with the political situation which was desperate and whenever the Talmud refers to those days it hints that it was a period in which the Torah was being forgotten by the people. One virtue characterized the time that those who were ignorant revered those who possessed knowledge. In later years the situation changed to such an extent that people were ashamed of scholarship and the ignorant “Am Haaretz” was reckoned higher than a scholar.
In the place of Shemaiah and Abtalion there came two men who are unknown but for their city of origin. The Talmud calls them the men of Bathyra. No mention is made of their descent but they probably were not related or they could not both have been members of the Sanhedrin. The city Bathyra, from which they came, was located in north eastern Palestine near Mount Hermon. It was founded as a fortress against the attacks of roving robber bands who wandered near the boundary.
The Torah, as was stated above, was largely forgotten among the people but we may assume that here and there scholars were still to be found outside of Jerusalem. When Herod had to choose new leaders for the Sanhedrin he sought them among the scholars of the outlying districts in the conviction that men of the provinces would be loyal to him and would do his bidding.
The men of Bathyra—it must be noted—were pious, God fearing and modest and endeavored with all their might to preserve the Jewish faith. They did not deviate from any of the ways of the Pharisees. Only once were they in doubt about the observance of a religious law. It happened that Passover eve fell on a Saturday and they did not know whether the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb superseded the Sabbath and should be offered as on a week day or whether the sacrifice should not be offered at all.
They spent a long time seeking for a solution but they could not find it, neither was there anyone in Jerusalem who could inform them. They were ready to declare that since an ordinary feast day offering does not supersede the Sabbath, neither does the Paschal lamb offering. Then there came a man before them and said that in Jerusalem there lived a man named Hillel of Babylon who studied with Shemaiah and Abtalion and he would certainly know whether the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb supersedes the Sabbath. Hillel was summoned before them and he declared that the offering of the Paschal lamb does supersede the Sabbath. The men of Bathyra did not want to accept his opinion until he assured them that he received this law from Shemaiah and Abtalion. When they heard this they believed him and, being honestly ashamed of their ignorance, they publicly withdrew from their positions and declared that they were not worthy to retain them.
In later years numerous versions of this event developed. The great modesty of the men of Bathyra was frequently recalled and many a man remarked: I could do everything but not what the men of Bathyra did.
Meanwhile Herod continued his bloody rule of the land. In his war against Jerusalem he wiped out all male descendants of the Hasmoneans with the aid of the Romans. Later, attempting to gain the confidence of the people, he married the Hasmonean princess Miriam who was the daughter of Alexander, the son of Aristobulus and the grandson of king Alexander Jannai. On her mother’s side Miriam was a grand daughter of king Hyrcanus. All this time, while Herod was becoming firmly entrenched in the country and was annihilating the Hasmonean dynasty, Hyrcanus stayed in Babylonia. The Babylonian Jews promised to defend him loyally all his life. But Herod was dissatisfied with this state of affairs and by various wiles he succeeded in bringing Hyrcanus back to Palestine. Afterward he had Hyrcanus crippled through cutting off one of his ears in order to make him unfit for the priesthood. But even a crippled Hasmonean seemed too dangerous to Herod and he accused him of allying himself with the enemies of the country. He allowed Hyrcanus, who once saved Herod from the Sanhedrin, to be sentenced to death in spite of his great age. Hyrcanus was then 81 years old.
Herod then chose Chanamel as High Priest. It was rumored that Chanamel was a descendant of Onias the son of Simeon the Just and Herod hoped to utilize this man for his political ambitions. But Herod was soon forced by circumstances to appoint as High Priest the only remaining Hasmonean, Aristobulus, the brother of his wife Miriam. He allowed Aristobulus to conduct the service in the temple once and then he invited him to visit Jericho with him. While they were bathing in the Jordan Aristobulus was drowned by one of Herod’s servants. Chanamel was reinstated to the high priesthood for a short time.
Herod changed High Priests very frequently as his whim dictated. When some of the ambitious priests realized that the high priesthood was no longer an office to be inherited they outdid one another in the sums that they were ready to pay for the office. The people called these priests by various nick names because the office changed hands nearly every year and frequently the high priest did not maintain himself even for that length of time.
We must keep in mind, however, that no matter how barbarous the behavior of Herod, he never tried to undermine the Jewish religion. Whenever he acted against the laws of the faith he did so because he felt that the religious commandments interfered with his political ambitions.
No one, not even the nearest friends of the king, were certain of their lives. In previous years the Sadducees tried to do away with the Torah and some of the Hasmoneans aided them in this effort. But Herod did not try to interfere with the laws. He did not care whether Judaism developed along the lines laid out by the Pharisees nor would he have minded if the Sadducees had their way. But he annihilated everyone whom he suspected of opposition to himself, and in those days it was an easy matter to accomplish this. One command of Herod was sufficient to lead hundreds of men to execution. He thus did away with the Hasmoneans and later he executed his beloved wife, his mother in law and his own sons. Not in vain was it said in Rome that only a pig is safe in Herod’s house, because being a Jew he would not kill it.