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King Yannai

King Yannai

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The circumstances are surely tragic when the day a Jewish king dies is declared to be a holiday.

But this, too, occurred in Jewish history. This happened on the 2nd day of Shevat. The king was Alexander Yannai, one of the last of the Hasmoneans, and the circumstances are recorded in Megilath Taanith. We shall briefly relate the story of this tragic king.

Alexander Yannai was a son of Yochanan Hyrkanos, son of Simeon, a son of Mattathias (Matisyohu), the son of Yochanan the High Priest. Thus, Alexander Yannai was a great-grandson of the first Hasmonean, who, together with his heroic sons, fought against the Greek King Antiochus. Their self sacrifice for the Torah and for the Jewish people, resulted in the truly delightful and inspiring holiday of Chanukah.

Alexander Yannai, like his father before him, did not follow wholeheartedly in the footsteps of old Mattathias. In his youth, he had received a military and very Grecian upbringing. He was sadly lacking in the spiritual upbringing so necessary for a Jewish king, especially one who was, in addition, a High Priest.

Yannai inherited the royal crown at the age of 23, after the early death of his older brother Yehudah Aristobulus. Yehudah Aristabulus was the first of the Hasmoneans who was not satisfied merely with the title "Nasi" (Prince) and had himself crowned as "king."

As Yehudah had had no children, Alexander Yannai (according to Jewish law, which requires yibum or chalitza) married his brother's widow, the Queen Shlomith Alexandra.

Yannai felt close to those "modern," "aristocratic" circles who called themselves Tzedukim (Sadducces) who were in no small measure influenced by the Greek culture. Opposing these were the Torah-true Jews, the "Prushim" (Pharisees), at the head of whom were the Tannaim, who strictly followed the Torah and Massorah handed down to them by the Anshei Knesset Hagdolah (Men of the Great Assembly), who received the Tradition from the Prophets and Elders, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the young king, already from the start, failed to find favor in the eyes of the Jewish people. The people were also quite tired of all the wars which his predecessors had waged in order to extend their rule. And when King Yannai began his rule immediately with new wars, the people regarded him with even less favor.

At first, there was no open split between the king and the people. Yannai had hoped that the leaders of the Pharisees would agree to compromises. His brother-in-law, brother of his wife, was the famous Tanna, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, the Head of the Sanhedrin (Highest Court), and one of the main spiritual leaders of the people. But Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, understandably, refused to compromise in matters as important as Torah and Halachah.

Just the opposite, he slowly removed from the Sanhedrin those members who were not worthy to hold such an important post, and who had been installed there by the king's father.

When King Yannai saw that he could not "do business" with his brother-in-law, nor with the other spiritual leaders of the people, and not wishing to lose the support of the rich circles, he began, openly, to identify himself with the Sadducees. The result was that relations between himself and the people became extremely strained.

The split came through a tragic event in the Beth Hamikdosh during Succoth.

Yannai, as Kohen Gadol (High Priest), conducted the Service in the Beth Hamikdosh. One of the special services on Succoth was the "Nisuch Hamayim" (Pouring of the Water) on the Altar. According to tradition, together with the pouring of wine which took place during the whole year, a pitcher of water, which had been joyfully drawn from the Spring of Shiloah, was additionally poured over the Altar on each day of Succoth.

This service was, connected with the ceremony of the Drawing of the Water, known as "Simchath Beth Hashoevah," and was an annual event during Succoth, which was carried out with great celebration.

When the High Priest was handed the pitcher of water to pour over the Altar, he poured it out on the ground instead, as the Sadducees bad refused to accept this tradition.

Seeing what he had done, the assembled worshippers in the Beth Hamikdosh were infuriated, and began showering him with their Ethrogim.

King Yannai became so frightened at such open rebellion, that he ordered his non-Jewish soldiers to attack the people. This they did, killing six thousand Jews in the court of the Beth Hamikdosh.

After this happening, the people began to hate King Yannai more than ever. There were many uprisings against the King, and he mercilessly crushed the rebels with the help of his paid army. This, in turn, led to further rebellion and bitterness among the people, resulting in six years of bloody civil warfare.

As they did not have the military power to fight against King Yannai, many of the leading Pharisees fled the country. Among these were Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach, the Nasi and Av-Beth-Din of the Sanhedrin.

They did not return until after the death of King Yannai, when they resumed their former positions.

King Yannai reigned for 27 years, the greater part of which he devoted to wars in which he succeeded to extend the borders of the land. However, the people remained bitter for his cruel behavior towards the Talmidei Chachamim (scholars), and he was named "The Hangman."

Alexander Yannai died at the age of 59. When he realized that he was at death's door, he ordered the arrest of seventy Elders, the main spiritual leaders. He then gave an order to the Chief of the prison that when he would die, they should be put to death, so that instead of celebrating the king's death, the people would be mourning the death of their spiritual leaders.

However, Queen Shlomith Alexandra happily decided to spoil the king's cruel Plan. When the King died, she told no one about it. Instead, she took off the King's ring and sent it to the Chief of the prison with an order in the King's name to free the Elders. Only after their release from prison did the Queen make known that the King was dead.

Because of the miracle of the release of the Elders, the Sages designated that day, the 2nd day of Shevat, as a holiday, when no fasting is allowed and no Hespeidim (eulogies) are made.

The people, who were so thankful to old Mattathias, and his brave sons, the first Hasmoneans, who were ready to sacrifice their lives to preserve the purity and holiness of the Torah and spiritual Jewish life, were deeply disappointed with the descendants of the Hasmoneans, who, sadly, did not follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. The later Hasmoneans had other aims, their own interests, rule and power. Their irresponsible leadership brought about not only the loss of their kingdom, but also ruin to the land and, finally, the destruction of the Beth Hamikdosh.

Despite all the terrible times they lived through, the Jewish people remained spiritually strong, even stronger than before. They threw off all alien influence and ideology of the Sadducees, who, in time, disappeared entirely. Some of them returned to their original Jewish source, others became assimilated and lost to the Jewish people.

The Tannaim and Sages remained the true spiritual leaders of the people. Thus, the chain of Torah and Massorah from Sinai remained whole and strong to this day.

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