Queen Salome Alexandra, Heroine of Chanukah

Queen Salome Alexandra, Heroine of Chanukah

 by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I have often said that Judaism, like its two sister faiths, is a “Boys’ Club,” in which the Boys, or Men, get the best parts, and the women are relegated to baking challah, lighting holiday and Shabbat candles, and going to mikvah. I do hope that, as more and more women enter the rabbinate (even among the Modern Orthodox, in which several women serve as rabbis in all but title) and the cantorate (where they have dominated for decades), this situation will change for the better. In the future, Jews should not say, “She’s a woman rabbi,” or “He’s a male rabbi,” but rather, “She’s a very good and skillful rabbi.”

            As Chanukah 5779 winds down, we ought to remember a woman heroine of yesteryear who singlehandedly preserved, protected, and extended Judaism, during a time of court intrigues and civil war among the Jews, as well as other nations invading Judea. This was Salome Alexandra (Hebrew: Shlomzion), descended from the Hasmonean Maccabees. It is tragic that her only memorial is a street named after her in the artists’ district of Jerusalem.

            Shlomzion, unlike many other aristocrats of her day, came from a religious background—her own brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who was head of the Sanhedrin, the High Religious Court of the Seventy Elders, and the supreme religious authority of its time. I regret saying that the Hasmoneans, despite their mettle during the War Against Greece which led to Chanukah, were fearful that their own relatives might assassinate them to gain the throne of Judea, and hence infamous for assassination of one another.

            Against this murky and evil political backdrop, Shlomzion was a shining light. Her entry into politics began under a bloody cloud: her husband, Aristobulus, used his becoming king as an excuse to imprison all of his brothers as potential rivals, including his own mother, whom he starved to death. Fortunately, he caught a disease and perished, leaving no children. Using the Jewish law of yibum (levirate marriage), his brother Alexander Yannai married Shlomzion—it is crucial to state that this was a marriage of politics, not of love.

            At this time, the rabbis of Judea were all in hiding—the Hasmoneans were noted for favoring the Sadducees, who shunned Judaism, but emphasized Temple worship. Luckily for Shlomzion and the future of Judaism in those calamitous days, Alexander Yannai was conceited, as well as ignorant of Jewish sacrificial law. During one Sukkot, he donned the robes of the High Priest—a violation of his role as secular monarch—and, during the service before the Holy Altar of the Temple, derisively poured the libation water onto his feet, rather than the Altar itself.

            In anger at this act of chutzpah, the Pharisees attending the service (who hated the Sadducees, anyway), pelted the foolish monarch with their etrogim, holiday citrons. Alexander’s personal bodyguard moved into save their king from “assassination by etrog,” and murdered six thousand people in the Temple. This atrocity led to Alexander’s declaring civil war against the Pharisees.

            I have often stated that Jews make the best antisemites, and this disastrous war proved it: the brutal conflict, pitting Alexander’s Sadducean Jewish Army against the Pharisees, lasted over six years, and killed 50,000 Jews. Shlomzion did not hesitate to take steps to save her people, and Judaism in particular. She hid the Sanhedrin’s leadership, among them her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach. And she undertook to negotiate a peace treaty between the two sides, ending by favoring Rabbinic Judaism.

            As a result, Alexander kept his kingship, but the office of High Priest and control of the Temple Service reverted to rabbinic control. Slowly, Shlomzion removed Sadducean influence from the state religion.

            Fortunately for the future of our religion, Alexander Yanai died soon after the peace was signed. No longer obligated to marry some useless, headstrong man, Queen Shlomzion herself took charge of the kingdom, and began a reign which shines through the dismal light of this historical period.

            Shlomzion wasted no time: she summarily transferred control of Judea’s educational and judicial systems from the Sadducees to the Pharisees. She also extended royal protection to the rabbis, who had the Mishnah, the next stage in development of Torah Law, by heart—that is why it was called “The Oral Law.” Had Alexander succeeded in murdering all the rabbis, Judaism would have vanished as a legal system and religion. Ironically, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, brother of the Queen, is called “Restorer of the Law” in the Talmud, another example of favoring male leadership at the expense of courageous women, such as his sister, Shlomzion. She instituted a system whereby Torah scholars were paid to study and teach, thereby becoming the great scholars of the Mishnah. Together with Rabbi Shimon, she established yeshivote, Hebrew Schools, in the larger cities. Every time we send a child to religious school, or learn Talmud, we have Shlomzion to thank.

            In addition, the Queen was solely responsible for restoring Judea to a sound economic footing, which was recorded in the Talmud. During her ten-year reign (76-67 BCE), she worked to increase harvests and commerce, and ended (sadly, only temporarily) the Jewish Civil Wars. With all of her triumphs, why do we know so little about her? Why are Hebrew Schools not named in her honor, or even one monument dedicated to her hard work and resultant glory?

            Queen Shlomzion’s reign is a shining light amid civil wars, invasions by other kingdoms, and Hasmonean family debacles. During this Season of Lights, she deserves to be better remembered. Often, it takes a woman to right the situation. Remember Queen Shlomzion!

References

Bader, S. (2017, Jan. 2). The forgotten women of Jewish history: ShlomzionHaMalkah. Retrieved from https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-forgotten-women-of-jewish-history-shlomzion-hamalkah/

Domnitch, L. (1995). Queen Shlomtzion: In the spirit of the Maccabees. Retrieved from http://www.aish.com/print/?contentID=285746681&section=/h/c/s/g

Taitz, E. (n.d.) Salome Alexandra, the first Hasmonean queen of Judea. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/salome-alexandra/


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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