Throughout history, victory has been achieved by different means. The Maccabees arose and declared revolt which was their only option in the face of Antiochus and his Hellenist supporters. Then, there are times when it is the fighter who quietly operates from behind the scenes to achieve that same elusive victory.
Reminiscent of Queen Esther of ancient Persia, there was another Jewish queen whose presence also greatly impacted Jewish history. Her name was Shlomtzion also known as Shlomit Aleksandra.
Shlomtzion, married Judah Aristoblus, the son of John Hyrkanus, who soon passed away and in accordance with Jewish tradition, Shlomtzion married his brother Alexander Yannai who soon rose to the throne.
It is an irony of Jewish history when some of the very descendants of the Maccabees who risked all to restore Jewish observance to Judea, sought to undermine those very traditions. The lure of power can be very corrupting. One ruler in particular, Alexander Yannai, the son of John Hyrkanus and grandson of the Maccabee, Simon, was a supporter of the sect of Sadducees, which rejected the authority of the sages of Israel, and he displayed cruelty and ruthlessness to his own people as he sought to diminish their authority. Alexander Yannai became their enforcer.
During one Succoth holiday, Alexander Yannai instigated a massacre by publicly violating a Rabbinic tradition in the Temple by spilling libation water on his feet rather than upon the sacrificial alter. The people spontaneously reacted in anger tossing Etroging (Citron fruits used on the holiday) at the king which resulted in the slaughter of six thousand innocents around the vicinity of the Temple. Alexander Yanni then sought to eliminate most of the rabbinic leaders, whom he perceived as his rivals, by having them summarily executed. One of those who fled to Alexandria Egypt was the famed sage, Yehudah ben Tabbai. Alexander Yannai also replaced the supreme legislative body, the Sanhedrin, with Saducee judges.
Would the authentic Torah be undermined? The dangers posed by Alexander Yannai were severe.
As Mordechai bid Queen Esther in ancient Persia to act on behalf of her people in the face of Haman’s decree, “And who knows whether it was just for a moment like this that you became the queen?” (Esther 4:14) So too Shlomtzion was in a situation where she could avert the dangers to her people. She was compelled to act, but also had to tread lightly. Her husband was volatile and brutal. She too would likely be in danger if she angered him.
Among those Rabbis who fled for safety was the leading sage of the generation, Shimon ben Shetach, the head of the Sanhedrin, who also happened to be Shlomtzion’s own brother. The queen who covertly had her brother hidden sought to find the right moment to prevail upon the king to allow the sage to return. The Talmud relates that one day when the royal couple was dining with the king’s court, Alexander Yannai sought to find someone who could lead the blessings following the meal. But no one was to be found since the Rabbis were executed or had fled. The queen seized the moment and told him, “Swear that if I bring such a person, you will not persecute him.” (Berachot 48a)
At the queen’s behest, Shimon ben Shetach was allowed to come out of hiding. The Rabbi along with the queen managed to have other sages who had fled to Egypt brought back as well. He also managed to have sages restored to positions in the Sanhedrin by posing questions to Seducees judges which they could not answer. The book, Megilat Ta’anit designates the date, the 28th day of the month of Tevet as a day of rejoicing for the restoration of the Sanhedrin.
On his deathbed, as his 27-year reign was coming to an end, Yannai gave the reigns of the throne to his wife. He even advised her to put her authority into the hands of the sages. He knew that the nation’s sympathies were with them and that they would embrace her leadership as well. Thus, her kingdom would be secure.
That was already part of her plan.
The ten-year reign of Shlomtzion was one of peace and prosperity in Judea. (76-67 BCE) Shlomtzion further secured the nation by strengthening the border towns of Judea, and she strengthened the nation spiritually. The queen along with her brother endeavored to further restore the Torah institutions in the land. They raised the level of Jewish education by employing revolutionary changes by establishing a system of Yeshivot in larger cities where young men would be beneficiaries of a strong Jewish education. In prior eras, such instruction was generally the sole responsibility of the father.
The Talmud states that Shimon ben Shetach restored the crown to the Torah. (Kiddushin 66a) Amid the era of oppression of Alexander Yannai, he influenced his generation and the ones to follow. By his side was his unwavering sister, the queen, who was part of this dramatic turnaround in Judea by carefully influencing her husband. It was an era where the Jewish nation grew spiritually. These were good times.
During Shlomtzion’s rule, the Talmud states that grains of wheat grew to the size of kidneys, and barley as large as olive pits. (Taanit 23a) The immense productivity of the land was a Divine sign of the queen’s righteousness and that of her rule.
Like the flames of the Menorah which remained kindled for eight days from one flask during the miraculous liberation of the Temple, so too this miracle also represented victory in the face of adversity.