The Sin Behind the Story of the Chashmonaim by Eitan Leff


Antiochus outlawed Judaism. He also banned Brit Milah and sacrificed pigs in the Beit Hamikdash. One day, Seleucid warriors arrived in Modi’in, where Matityahu lived. The Seleucid warriors built an altar and required Matityahu, the Kohen Gadol, to give a sacrifice to the Greek gods. Matityahu said that both he and his sons would not sacrifice to the Greeks gods. A Hellenistic Jew decided to offer the sacrifice. Matityahu killed the Hellenistic Jew, and Matityahu’s sons killed or chased away the Seleucid warriors. Matityahu and his followers hid in the mountains from Antiochus. Before Matityahu died, he told his sons to continue the fight and let his son Yehuda be the leader in war. The Maccabees fought against Antiochus’ army and won; after they took back Israel, the Chashmonaim crowned themselves king.

At first glance, this story ends triumphantly, with Torah- followers defeating idol-worshippers. However, there may be a major problem with what the Chashmonaim did, as we will see in Parashat Vayechi.

Before Yaakov dies, he gives each son a beracha. To Yehuda, Yaakov says: “The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples (Bereishit 49:10)”—which sounds like only people from Shevet Yehuda are allowed to be kings. There are many different interpretations of this pasuk. Rabbeinu Bechayei, the Chizkuni, and the Ibn Ezra all believe that the pasuk means that Yehuda’s dynasty started with David Hamelech and that all the kings after David Hamelech have to be from Shevet Yehuda. The Rashba takes another approach: He believes that the pasuk only applies when Mashiach comes, as then the only kings will be from Shevet Yehuda. The Sforno believes that the pasuk means someone not from Sheivet Yehuda can be a king, but such a person can’t make a dynasty; an example would be King Saul, who only ruled for one generation. The Rashbam says that the pasuk is a prophecy that up until Rechavam (son of Shlomo Hamelech), Shevet Yehuda would rule, but after Rechavam, when the Kingdom of Israel was divided, kings don’t need to be from Shevet Yehuda. The Baalei Hatosafot, in Da’at Zekeinim, have a very interesting understanding of the pasuk, saying that the word “yasur, depart” parallels a phrase in Yirmiyahu 2:21, “a degenerate (‘surei’), alien vine,” implying that the kingship of Yehuda would not last long.

Did the Chashmonaim, who were Kohanim and thus by definition not from Shevet Yehudah, sin by making themselves kings? All of the sources above don’t mention the Chashmonaim, but there are some who do, namely the Ramban, the Ran, and the Abarbanel. The Ramban says that the commandment that only Shevet Yehuda can be kings only applies after David Hamelech became king, and the Chashmonaim did sin by making themselves kings. The Ran does not interpret the pasuk like the Ramban; he believes the pasuk is not a commandment that all kings must be from Shevet Yehuda, but merely a prophecy that they will be. The Ran does not consider the kingship of the Chashmonaim to actually be a kingdom anyway because they were acted as proxies of the Roman and Persian empires. Thus, according to the Ran, the Chashmonaim did not sin both because the pasuk is not a commandment, and because they weren’t even really kings. The Abarbanel, though, says that they were actual kings, because they took covenants with the Roman and Persian empires. Rashi in Shir Hashirim (6:12) says that the Chashmonai kings brought the Romans into Israel, causing the Romans to take over Israel. This shows that the kingship of the Chashmonaim was a sin.

Are we able to connect the differing opinions on the pasuk in Parshas Vayechi to the Chashmonaim? It seems that Rabbenu Bechayei, the Chizkuni, and the Ibn Ezra would say the Chashmonaim sinned because they were not from Shevet Yehuda. According to the Rashba, it appears that the Chashmonaim didn’t sin because the commandment for kings to be from Shevet Yehuda only applies at Mashiach. The Chashmonaim ruled for many generations, a dynasty, so according to the Sforno, they sinned. Both the Rashbam and the Da’at Zikeinim appear to believe the Chashmonaim did not sin because after Rechavam, the commandment became null and void.

It’s hard to determine from these sources alone if indeed the Chashmonaim sinned. However, the Gemara in Yoma 8b says when the Chashmonaim reigned, there was a new Kohen Gadol every year. This happened because the Kohen Gadol was always unworthy during this time period. Rashi there says that the Chashmonaim auctioned off the Kehunah Gedolah, so even non-Kohanim were able to get the position; although this portrays the Chashmonaim in a negative light, it seems clear that understanding the Chashmonaim fully is no simple feat. May God speedily return the kingship back to Yehuda, in the times of Mashiach. Chag Sameach!

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