Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Sadducee King Yannai

Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai or Y’honatan in Hebrew) served as the second Hasmonean king of Judea from 103 BCE until his death in 76 BCE. The third son of John Hyrcanus, he succeeded his older brother Aristobulus I, and married his late brother’s wife, Shlomtzion, as she had not yet borne any children. They had two children together, Aristobulus II, who served as High Priest from 66-62 BCE, and Hyrcanus II, who succeeded his brother in 62 BCE. While Alexander Yannai identified with the Sadducee fringe, his wife Shlomtzion supported the Pharisees, the more traditional rabbis, as her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, was a leading Pharisee. As descendants of the Hasmoneans, Alexander Yannai claimed to be a member of the priestly caste, and served as the High Priest, as did his father. The rabbis opposed having one individual serve both as king (who was supposed to descend from the tribe of Judah) and High Priest (tracing lineage to Aaron, the brother of Moses, who were from the tribe of Levi).

Alexander Yannai’s reign is most remembered for the wars he waged, both to expand his kingdom and the brutal civil war that ensued.

One year during Sukkot, Alexander Yannai, acting as High Priest, refused to follow the Mosaic tradition of pouring a water libation in to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem’s altar, and instead, poured the water on his feet. This rebellious act so incensed those traditionalists gathered at the temple to witness the water libation, they pelted the High Priest/King with their etrogim (citrus fruits Jews take on the festival of Sukkot). Alexander Yannai ordered his troops to kill those responsible for the insult. 6,000 Jewish pilgrims were massacred in the Holy Temple’s courtyard. This incident greatly inflamed the Jews, and was one of the prime causes of the Judean Civil War that began during Alexander Yannai’s tenure. The rebels sided with the Greek Selucids, who defeated Alexander Yannai and his mercenaries in Shechem. Eventually Alexander Yannai rebounded and had 800 Jewish rebels, mostly Pharisees, crucified in Jerusalem. Prior to their brutal executions, he executed their wives and children in front of them while he and his concubines dined.

Alexander Yannai died on the 2nd of Shevat, 76 BCE. Megillat Ta’anit, an ancient listing of important dates on the Jewish calendar, classifies the day of Alexander Yannai’s death as a Jewish holiday.

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