The Court of the Chashmonaim

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by David Strauss
Dedicated in memory of Abraham Gontownik z"l 
on the occasion
of his twentieth Yahrzeit, 
and in honor and in
of the births of our grandchildren during the past year,
Avraham Meir to Shira and Ari, Asher Leo to Jordana and Ranan,
and Jack Sutton to Bellene and Yoni

The Gontownik Family
In the first chapter of Tractate Avot, the Mishna traces the tradition of the Oral Law from Moshe Rabbeinu to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. Mishna 4 tells of Yose ben Yoezer of Tzereda and Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem, who apparently lived during the years 200-170 BCE, and mishna 5 reports that "Yehoshua ben Perachya and Nitai the Arbelite received [the tradition] from them." Yehoshua ben Perachya lived during the years 140-110 BCE. Owing to the large gap in time between these two pairs of Sages, it stands to reason that there was an additional link in the chain of tradition between them. This period is likely to have been the period of Matityahu the Chashmonean and his sons, or, as the gemara puts it, "The court of the Chashmonaim" (Sanhedrin 82a; Avoda Zara 36b).
In this shiur, we will focus on one particular aspect of the wars waged by Yehuda the Maccabee – the contribution of the court of the Chashmonaim to the shaping of Jewish law, the passing down of the Torah tradition, and its continuity from one generation to the next.
The Laws of War
            We will begin with a famous ruling issued by Matityahu and his court for their generation:
Many people who were concerned for virtue and justice went down to the desert and stayed there, taking with them their sons, their wives, and their cattle, so oppressive had their sufferings become. Word was brought to the royal officials and forces stationed in Jerusalem… A strong detachment went after them, and when it came up with them ranged itself against them in battle formation, preparing to attack them on the Sabbath day, and said: “Enough of this! Come out and do as the king orders and you will be spared.” The others, however, replied: “We refuse to come out, and we will not obey the king's orders and profane the Sabbath day.” The royal forces at once went into action, but the others offered no opposition; not a stone was thrown, there was no barricading of the hiding places. They only said: “Let us all die innocent…” The attack was pressed home on the Sabbath itself, and they were slaughtered, with their wives, children, and cattle, to the number of one thousand persons.
When the news reached Matityahu and his friends, they mourned them bitterly, and said to one another: “If we all do as our brothers have done and refuse to fight the gentiles for our lives and institutions, they will only destroy us the sooner from the earth.” So then and there they came to this decision: If anyone attacks us on the Sabbath day, whoever he may be, we shall resist him; we must not all be killed, as our brothers were in the hiding places. Soon they were joined by the Chasidean party, stout fighting men of Israel, each one a volunteer on the side of the Law. (I Maccabees 2:29-41)
Matityahu permitted waging war on Shabbat. Historians tend to understand the allowance in its plain sense – namely, that the Halakha that prevailed until that time prohibited all forms of fighting and self-defense on Shabbat. This, however, is impossible, for the Jewish People could not have survived over a thousand years of history in their country had they not fought on Shabbat! It is absolutely clear that the gentiles everywhere would have discovered the "secret;" they would have exploited it on a weekly basis for the purpose of annihilating Israel. And if it is argued that the allowance had once existed but was forgotten, it is impossible that a law that is so crucial for survival would have been forgotten by everyone.
It therefore seems that the halakha that "saving life [piku'ach nefesh] overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat" was never forgotten; it was known already in the early days of Israel's wars. Matityahu's "innovation" was that the laws of war constitute a special halakhic category that encompasses various laws and extends beyond the laws of piku'ach nefesh.
If we were to consider the matter from the perspective of the ordinary laws of piku'ach nefesh, it seems that there was no point to the war waged by the Chasidim against the armies of the Greeks and Hellenists who besieged them. The Greeks were men of war, whereas the Chasidim in their caves were looking after their families, with no military organization and no weapons. The stones, the boiling water, and perhaps the few swords held by the rebels could not have saved them, in a natural manner, from the hands of the legions of the Greek army and its supporters. Had the battle been fought on a weekday, the Chasidim would likely have tried to extract from the Greek army a costly price of blood, and most probably they would have succeeded, seeing that waging war in the cliffs of the Judean Desert is difficult even for a trained army. In the end, however, they would have fallen into their enemies' hands and died. Since the war was forced upon them on Shabbat, the Chasidim chose to die without offering resistance. The desire to extract a price of blood from the Greeks, when it was known from the outset that in the end the rebellion would fail, did not in their opinion justify the desecration of Shabbat.
Had the same Chasidim examined the law in accordance with the laws of war, and not in accordance with the standards of piku'ach nefesh, they would have been permitted to wage battle even on Shabbat, to fight against their enemies and to inflict as much damage as possible. The glasses donned by a halakhic decisor dealing with the laws of war allow him to consider the events from a broader perspective than that of the specific event about which he was asked. In the laws of war, halakhic weight is given to the desire to deter the enemy from embarking on a similar attack against a different group of the faithful on the following Shabbat. Had the Chasidim desecrated Shabbat, even if they would not have succeeded in saving themselves, they would have contributed thereby to the general struggle against the Greeks. According to the laws of war, such a contribution to the struggle against the Greeks justified granting an allowance to desecrate Shabbat.
In the wake of that difficult Shabbat, Matityahu argued that in the given reality, the war being fought over the observance of the mitzvot was a war of defense for Israel's survival, and the laws of war therefore applied to it. In doing so, Matityahu lay the cornerstone of the renewed kingdom of Israel, which had been dormant since the end of the First Temple period.
The Laws of Zealotry
Let us now turn to the first halakha instituted by Matityahu, even before he instituted the allowance to wage battle on Shabbat:
As he finished speaking, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modi'im as the royal edict required. When Matityahu saw this, he was fired with zeal; stirred to the depth of his being, he gave vent to his legitimate anger, threw himself on the man, and slaughtered him on the altar. At the same time, he killed the king's commissioner who was there to enforce the sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. In his zeal for the Lawhe acted as Pinchas had against Zimri the son of Salu. Then Matityahu went through the town, shouting at the top of his voice: “Let everyone who has any zeal for the Law and takes his stand on the covenant come out and follow me.” (I Maccabees 2:23-28)
Matityahu permitted himself to execute without a trial, without a warning, and without the Sanhedrin one Jew (who offered the sacrifice) and possibly two (the King's commissioner). He did this in accordance with the law of zealotry – a law derived from the action of Pinchas the son of Elazar, who killed Zimri the son of Salu, prince of the tribe of Shimon, when the latter brought a Midyanite woman to his brothers in a challenging and provocative manner (Bemidbar 25:1-9). From the time of Pinchas to the days of Matityahu, we know of no other person who acted on the basis of this law. After such a long break, the law can be viewed as an innovation of Matityahu. 
What is this law based on? There seems to be a connection between it and the principle that "a transgression performed with good intention is better than a mitzva performed with evil intention" (Nazir 23b). This principle was stated in connection with Yael, the wife of Chever the Kenite, who strayed from the laws of modesty and hospitality when she killed Sisera in the war that he fought against Devora and Barak (Shoftim 4:17-22). R. Kook connected this halakha to special enactments instituted for the purpose of saving the nation (Responsa Mishpat Kohen, nos. 143-145).
The law of zealotry seems to be part of the broader halakhic category of the laws of kingship and kingdom. In this halakhic category, the goal of securing the nation's welfare and survival stands above all other prohibitions and all other halakhic values, even above the prohibitions of bloodshed and prohibited sexual relations. A person who conducts himself as a zealot assumes responsibility for the fate of the nation and its survival, as is naturally expected of the king of Israel. Pinchas, the first zealot, sought to save the nation from the plague that it suffered in the wake of the sin involving Baal Peor, and he succeeded in his mission. Centuries later, Matityahu adopted the same approach in order to save the nation from drowning in Hellenism, even though there was no immediate threat of physical annihilation as there was in the days of Pinchas.
This was Matityahu's first halakhic innovation: Even in times of decrees against the Jewish spirit, and not only when Jews are in physical danger, there is room for zealotry. Like the allowance to wage war on Shabbat, this law is also connected to the laws of kingship.[1]
Forced Circumcision
A third halakha that we learn from Matityahu is found later in the book of Maccabees:
Matityahu and his friends made a tour, overthrowing the altars and forcibly circumcising all the boys they found uncircumcised in the territories of Israel. (I Maccabees 2:45-46)
Matityahu and his friends forced the people to undergo circumcision. They turned the personal, family mitzva into a national mitzva, which obligates them to forcibly circumcise those whom they found uncircumcised. They may have seen before their eyes the figure of Yehoshua the son of Nun, who circumcised the people of Israel at Giv'at Ha-Aralot at the time of their entry into the Promised Land, on the eve of the extended war against the Canaanite nations over the establishment of the first Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel (Yehoshua 5:2-7). Matityahu may have felt a need to renew the covenant with God before he conquered the land from the Greeks and on the eve of the re-establishment of the kingdom of Israel. Matityahu renewed this covenant through the renewal of the covenant of circumcision.
Why didn't the Jews voluntarily circumcise their sons during the period of the Greek decrees? It is reasonable to assume that many of those who failed to fulfill the mitzva of circumcision did so out of fear of the Greek authorities. The Seleucid regime behaved in an unparalleled cruel and violent manner against those who circumcised their sons:
Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death according to the edict with their babies hung round their necks, and the members of their household and those who had performed the circumcision were executed with them… They chose death rather than… profanation of the holy covenant, and they were executed. (I Maccabees 1:60-63)
The severe decrees were issued primarily (but not only) against circumcision, because this is what distinguished the people of Israel from the gentiles with a marked physical difference, and thus erected a barrier between them regarding marriage as well. This separation between the nations contradicted the values of Stoic philosophy, which the Seleucids had adopted, and did not allow the assimilation of the Jews into the empire. In this respect, Matityahu and his friends forced circumcision onto the Seleucid regime, which sought to forcibly obliterate the covenant of Avraham, rather than onto those who underwent circumcision and their parents.
Indeed, we find in the Talmud that the court of the Chashmonaim declared war on intermarriage: 
When R. Dimi came, he said: The court of the Chashmonaim decreed that one who cohabits with a heathen woman is liable to punishment on account of Nashga [i.e., nidda, shifcha, goya, and eshet ish]. When Ravin came, he said: On account of Nashgaz [i.e., nidda, shifcha, goya, and zona]. (Sanhedrin 82a)
This decree is a clear derivative of the struggle over circumcision. The war that began to preserve the physical difference between Jews and gentiles continued in the struggle for the sanctity of marriage, the Jewish home, and the Jewish family, and against the Hellenizing assimilation. In doing so, Matityahu continued to follow in the zealous path of Pinchas the son of Elazar, who killed Zimri the son of Salu after he brought the Midyanite woman to his brothers. The Torah prohibits marriage to gentile women, and the court of the Chashmonaim instituted a prohibition against casual sexual relations with them.
The three halakhot that we have discussed share a common element. The main law that we learn from the court of Matityahu is the ability to declare a violent struggle against the ruling power in Eretz Yisrael, which includes even that of Hellenist Jews. The four books of Maccabees describe the unbelievably cruel torture and murder that was carried out against those who dared not to accept the ways of the Hellenists and instead faithfully kept God's commandments. Matityahu and his court declared war against the Hellenists, until victory.
Yehuda the Maccabee, the son of Matityahu and his first successor as leader of the revolt, wisely shifted the struggle from a civil war between the Chasidim and the Hellenists to a war of national liberation. This war against the Seleucid empire succeeded, as the Rambam writes at the beginning of Hilkhot Chanuka (3:1): "And sovereignty returned to Israel for more than two hundred years."

[1] We cannot discuss the laws of zealotry without repeating a hundred times the principle that "not everyone who wishes to pass as a scholar [or in this case, as a zealot] may do so." Many of those who wish to save the people at a given moment are liable to lead to their ruin by way of an unwise act or moment of megalomania.