Sadducees and Pharisees

The seeds of strife planted earlier took root as the Hasmonean era produced sacrilegious heirs and pitted Jew vs. Jew in a bloody civil war.

The Sadducees, who were the heirs of the Hellenists, formed a very potent and powerful force in Jewish society, but they subscribed to a philosophy that was essentially non-Jewish, to a Greek view of the world.

The rabbis did not take it lying down. They understood that if the Sadducees prevailed there would be no Jewish people.

Throughout Jewish history there have always been groups who arose to espouse some type of non-Jewish “Jewish” philosophy — and they have always been met with a great deal of antagonism. On the surface, it looked like the establishment had no tolerance for them. However, that would be a bad over-simplification, because these groups represented an ideological threat that put at risk the very survival of the Jewish people.

The Jewish people could not have survived under the reign of the Sadducees. Indeed, the Sadducees themselves would cease to exist after the Roman persecution. The only thing of theirs that has survived is that which was recorded by the Pharisees. It was as though an unseen hand came and erased them.

In the final analysis, theirs was not an ideology connected to anything eternal. Rather it was a non-ideology couched in flowery words and pledging allegiance to some vague idea they called Judaism, changeable to whatever prevailing winds of culture would help them maintain and consolidate their status, wealth, power and pleasure.

We will see this story repeated over and over and over again in Jewish history. We will also see that the “race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty.” It will always look like Traditional Judaism will be on the way out. Yet, somehow they will be the only ones who will survive.

Alexander Jannaeus

John Hyrcanus came under the influence of the Sadducees in the latter part of his reign and the government of Israel officially became a Sadducee government. He removed members of the Sanhedrin who were Pharisees and replaced them with Sadducees. He also did away many of the rabbinic ordinances and replaced them with the ways of the Sadducees – and imposing them with a police force and the army.

He died in the year 104 BCE. One of his two sons was Alexander Jannaeus (or Alexander Yannai), a charismatic, fierce warrior, as handsome as the sun – with an equivalent amount of self-confidence (and arrogance) to go around.

However, he was not the oldest son. That was Judah Aristobulus (named in memory of Judah the Maccabee). Nice and soft-spoken, he married Salome Alexandra (called Shelomtzion[1] in the Talmud). Her brother was Rabbi Simon son of Shatah (Shimon ben Shatach), who was not only king, but according to ancient Jewish law he had the obligation to marry the widowed wife ofthe leader of the Pharisees, and not about to let the Jewish people go under. For the next 30 years, in fact, he will fight the battle for the preservation of the Jewish people at great personal risk.

Judah Aristobulus succeeded to the throne and had his brother arrested and put in prison. However, he became ill a year later and died.

In one day, Alexander Jannaeus went from prison to the throne. Moreover, according to Jewish law he had the obligation to marry the widowed wife of his childless brother, which he fulfilled, and thus Salome became his queen. In actuality, it was a politically expedient move for him, because it legitimized his claim to the kingship and averted civil war. He was now officially installed as King and High Priest.

Until his time, even though the Hasmoneans served as both King and High Priest they were sensitive to the problems raised thereby. Publicly they went out of their way to avoid calling themselves kings, even though for all intents and purposes they were. However, Alexander Jannaeus had no such inhibitions. One of the first things he did was make a gaudy crown and made sure to wear it all the time.

The Global Situation

Besides a great warrior, Alexander Jannaeus was a cunning politician. He needed it because the region was in a very volatile state, even for the Middle East. He took advantage of this turmoil to build an empire for the Jewish people.

The first decade-and-a-half of his reign were years of endless war. First, he pushed back the Nabateans in the south. Then he conquered the entire Gaza Strip, which he populated with Jews. He also conquered virtually every coastal city except Ashkelon, which remained in Greek hands. North of Ashkelon till what is today Haifa was likewise controlled by the Jewish state – with the exception of the city of Caesarea, where a Roman legion was stationed.

To the north of Jerusalem, he conquered the Golan and established Jewish settlements there, which lasted continuously for almost 600 years. In the east, he conquered most of what is today Jordan; Jewish control was on both sides of the Jordan River. He was also the first one to fortify the fortress of Masada.

He lost a few wars along the way, too, and came close to complete annihilation. However, he was a wily, clever and strong-minded person. It took time, but eventually he carved out a small Jewish empire in the region.

Why He Was Unpopular

Despite his military success, he was not popular among the Pharisees, who represented the majority of the people. First, he was a coarse, arrogant person. Second, his campaigns led to a lot of spilled Jewish blood. In Sparta or Rome, parents expected their children to die in battle. Indeed, that was the highest honor. The Spartans would give a son a shield and say, “Come back with it or on it.” However, Jews do not share that value. The constant drain, both in money and blood, made Alexander Jannaeus very unpopular among the masses.

Another reason for his unpopularity was that in order to pursue the war he brought in many non-Jewish mercenaries. This was common in the ancient world. The abundance of these mercenary soldiers in the Land of Israel had a demoralizing effect, because with the foreign soldiers came foreign gods and foreign behaviors.

Thirdly, the Idumeans – who had been converted forcibly, against the will of the rabbinic authorities, as we discussed – began to rise in the ranks and became the officer class in the Jewish army. Thus, the Hasmonean army had a disproportionate amount of Idumeans in positions of leadership.

All of this brought about a great deal of negativism in Jewish society – and especially from the Pharisees, led by Simon son of Shetah, who was not bashful to tell Alexander Jannaeus that he was wrong. Because of that, he slowly but surely became an enemy of the Pharisees. He felt that they were the spearhead of the group who did not love him. Everyone wants to be loved, even a ruler.

The Situation Comes to a Head

There were a number of matters that brought the situation to a head.

The most horrific example took place on Sukkot, one of the pilgrimage festivals when hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the land flocked to Jerusalem and fill the Temple courtyard. During the height of the most joyous part of the festival, Alexander Jannaeus — as the High Priest — performed a key part of the ceremony in an openly Sadducee way. It was an intentionally provocative public declaration on behalf of the Sadducees. He well knew that his audience was overwhelmingly made up of Pharisees.

They responded by pelting him with the citron fruits used as part of the observance of the festival. In his wrath, he ordered his non-Jewish mercenary soldiers into the Temple to slaughter at will and they butchered 6,000 Jews that day. Josephus, in recounting it more than a century and a half later, recounts how the troughs in the Temple ran red with blood.

Uncivil Civil War

It was now open civil war.

Alexander Jannaeus attempted to arrest the last of the Pharisee leaders. Most escaped. However, those he caught were often executed via crucifixion, which he learned from the Romans. In one incident, he nailed 800 people to crucifixes in one day along the road outside Jerusalem and slew their wives and children in front of them as they slowly died on the crucifix.

Desperate, the Pharisees appealed to Demetrius, leader of the Syrian Greeks, to help them defeat Alexander Jannaeus. He was only too happy to comply.

Demetrius’ army defeated the Jewish army. However, his army had battalions of Jewish soldiers in their ranks and when they began to march toward Jerusalem the Jewish soldiers deserted. They no longer wanted to fight their brethren and be part of sacking of Jerusalem. Demetrius, in turn, decided to withdraw.

The Compromise

Nevertheless, it had a sobering effect on Alexander Jannaeus. After all, he was still a descendant of the great Hasmonean family who had so sacrificed so much for the Jewish people. He saw the debacle he caused and called for a truce with the Pharisees. Through the efforts of his wife, Queen Salome, both sides came to compromise: Alexander Jannaeus would run the government, but the Pharisees would run the people. He would take care of secular matters and they would take care of religious matters.

Rabbi Simon son of Shetah came out of hiding thanks to the urging of his sister, the Queen. He took over the Sanhedrin and promptly kicked out all the Sadducees. He also winnowed them out of the Priesthood. Mostly importantly, the educational system of the country returned to the hands of the Pharisees.

Alexander Jannaeus made peace with all that. In the last 10 years of his life the Jewish kingdom was the largest it had been since the time of Solomon. The economy and the religious life of the people were strong. It was a Golden Age, albeit only for 10 years.

Though they would last for another 200 years, the Sadducees would never again reach the position of influence and power that they enjoyed under the early years of Alexander Jannaeus.

He died in the year 76 BCE. On his death bed, the Talmud (Sotah 22b) quoted him as saying, “Neither Pharisee nor Sadducee fear. Fear only the hypocrites: those who behave like Zimri[2] and yet want to be rewarded like Pinchas.”[3] These were people who had an external piety, but who did not live up to the image they projected outwardly.

The Prospect of Another Civil War

He left two young children as heirs: Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. The Pharisees pressed upon Salome to take charge – which she did.

Aristobulus was more like his father: an aggressive warrior and strong believer in Greek culture. Salome was afraid that if he became King he would lead the Jewish people astray, align himself with the Sadducees and initiate a replay of the whole civil war.

In order to avoid that, at least temporarily, Salome agreed to become Queen. She appointed Hyrcanus the High Priest and gave Aristobulus a few fortified cities. She hoped these would placate both sons.

However, Aristobulus further fortified the cities, trained a militia and waited for his mother to die, which she did in the year 67BCE, after ruling for nine years. She was mourned by the entire populace – not only for her greatness, which was authentic: she was genuinely pious, intelligent and righteous – but because they knew what was coming next: a civil war between the two brothers.

And as bloody as this civil war will be it will include something even worse: the arrival of Rome in Jewish affairs.


[1] A combination of the name Shalom and Zion, the “Peace of Zion.”

[2] He was the prince of the tribe of Simon who lived with the Midianite princess in full view of Moses and the entire Jewish people (Numbers 25).

[3] “They behave like Zimri, but want to be rewarded like Phineas.” Zimri lived with the Midianite princess in full view of Moses and the entire Jewish people. Phineas, who arose from the camp to vindicate the honor of Israel.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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