One of the most outstanding Jewish women in our history was Queen Salome Alexandra.
Salome Alexandra, the sister of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, the famous leader of the Sanhedrin, was the wife of the first Maccabean to take on the title of “king” since the destruction of the first Holy Temple. The name of this great-grandson of Mattathias was Judah Aristobulus I.
After her husband’s death, Salome freed the king’s oldest brother, Alexander Jannai, who had been imprisoned by her husband, and married him, in accordance with Jewish law, since she was left childless.
As long as Alexander Jannai was busy with his military campaigns, he let his queen rule the internal affairs of the land. She was a wise and pious ruler who lived up to the Torah. She removed the Sadducees (who did not believe in the Oral Tradition, the Torah sheba’al peh), from the Sanhedrin, and installed the greatest scholars of those days in their place, with Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach at their head. With the help of another sage, Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla, he introduced a systern through which every town of the Jewish land had good schools and pious teachers to teach the young children the Torah. The people were free and happy.
But this fortunate situation lasted only until Alexander Jannai concluded his wars successfully, with the help of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, whose troops fought under the leadership of her two Jewish generals. Then Alexander Jannai showed his true colors, and made no secret of the fact that he was not at all in favor of the pious reign of his wife Salome Alexandra, nor of the influence of her brother Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and of the other sages. The king transferred his sympathy to the nobility, who were Sadducees, the enemies of the true Jewish tradition. On one occasion he offended the masses of the Jewish people who had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot, by trampling upon a sacred custom of the Torah connected with the festival’s holy service in the Beit Hamikdash. As a consequence, the angry masses pelted him with their etrogim. Alexander Jannai, who was king as well as high priest, was highly insulted, and ordered his foreign troops to suppress the “rebellion.” After much bloodshed, he started a bitter fight against the Pharisees, the Perushim, as the orthodox believers were called then. With little regard for his own wife, the pious Salome Alexandra, he persecuted the sages of the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach was forced to flee the land. Alexander Jannai even went so far as to have eight hundred of the greatest scholars, sages and saints of the Jewish people killed, when he captured the fortress in which the Pharisees had taken refuge.
Fortunately, the reign of this cruel and uncontrolled king did not last too long. He died at the age of fifty. But before his death he repented his sins, and in his last will he recommended that his pious wife, Salome Alexandra, be selected as queen, instead of making one of his sons king of Judea.
For nine years after her husband’s death, Queen Salome Alexandra reigned with justice, and the land prospered again. It was a time when “each man was sitting under his vine and fig trees,” enjoying a life dedicated to the service of G‑d.
To bring about such a happy state, Salome Alexandra had to rule wisely, for the members of the Sadducee party had considerable power. Gradually she pushed them out of every important office and position, and restored those sages and scholars who had survived the vicious persecution under Alexander Jannai. Her brother Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach was again at their head. The Sanhedrin was once more the highest court dedicated to carry out the laws of the Torah. Again, education was given into the hands of pious teachers who gave their students knowledge of Torah and the spirit of piety and faith.
Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and his friend, the great scholar Rabbi Judah ben Tabbai, who together headed the Sanhedrin, saw to it that the many thousands of widows and orphans that had increased rapidly in the course of the wars and persecutions under Alexander Jannai were properly cared for. Justice reigned supreme, in accordance with the humane laws of the Torah. Dishonest judges were deposed from their offices. Witnesses were carefully checked, cross-examined and investigated before they were accepted.
One can very well see that a country that lived up to the high principles of the Torah, under the direction of pious and wise scholars, flourished as never before. Salome Alexandra was revered as few other rulers of the Jewish people before and after in Jewish history. Jerusalem was again a great spiritual center. Jews, even those who lived in foreign lands, far from Jerusalem, willingly paid the head tax of the half-shekel to provide for the sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash, any repair work of the Holy Temple, and for other needs of the land, to make it safe and secure against enemy attack from within and without. Not only was enough money coming in, but there was an overflow in the Temple treasury for the support of good causes.
Our sages tell us that during these happy nine years of Salome Alexandra’s reign, rain fell only on Friday evenings, so that the Jewish workers and peasants never lost a day’s work and pay, and no wayfarer suffered any discomfort. Furthermore, G‑d blessed the soil of the Jewish land so that “the grains of wheat grew as large as kidney beans; oats as large as olives; and lentils as large as gold coins.” To teach future generations a lesson on how the blessing of G‑d comes as a reward for pious living, the heads of the Sanhedrin had some of this extraordinary produce of the fields, orchards and vineyards placed in containers in the Holy Temple.
Politically, too, Queen Salome Alexandra succeeded in securing the peace, respect and strength necessary to carry through her program of inner improvements. Throughout the length and width of the land, fortresses were built. Armies were well trained, and stood by ready for any emergency. The most important strongholds were in the hands of men on whom she could depend not to betray her in times of war. Thus, the kings around the Jewish land refrained from attacking it. Salome Alexandra went even so far as to send her well-equipped armies out of the country when the political situation made it necessary to intervene on behalf of friendly Damascus.
Only shortly before her death, Salome Alexandra, the pious and wise queen, experienced the sorrow of seeing her own son, the ambitious young Aristobulus, take up with the Sadducees who had lain low while Salome Alexandra was at the height of her power. Salome Alexandra died before Aristobulus and his brother Hyrcanus clashed in a war against each other, in which Aristobulus won. As a consequence, the more pious Hyrcanus became the high priest, and Aristobulus the king, of the Jewish land. The reign of peace and prosperity was at an end. The land was torn by civil war, in which the Romans were called in. This ultimately led to the destruction of the Jewish land and the Holy Temple.
But the Jewish people never forgot the happy time of their independent existence during the nine years that Salome Alexandra was queen over Judea, and the Torah was in effect the law by which the land was governed.