Monarchy of the Chashmonaim

hero image

Following the victory over the Greeks, the Chashmonaim assumed the monarchy of Klal Yisrael. This, despite the fact that they were Kohanim and not from Shevet Yehudah. They were not descendants of Dovid Ha’Melech. According to the Ramban (in parshas Vayechi), this was a grave error on their part, and caused their ultimate downfall. So much so that Chazal tell us that anyone who says that he is a descendant of the Chashmonaim is assumed to be an eved, a descendant of non-Jewish slaves! This was their punishment, explains the Ramban, for having rested permanent control of Jewish monarchy for 200 years; that eventually their own slaves usurped and swallowed them up.

The Rambam, though, does not seem to concur with this position. “In the time of the second Beis Ha’Mikdash,” writes the Rambam (Hilchos Megillah v’Chanukah 3:1-2), “when the kings of Greece enacted decrees against the Jews, and negated their religion, and did not allow them to be involved in Torah and mitzvos, and cast their hand upon their belongings and their daughters, and they entered the sanctuary, broke open breaches therein, and defiled their pure items, and the Jews suffered greatly under them, and the pressure was exceedingly intense for the Jews, until the Lord of our fathers showed them mercy, and rescued them from their hands and saved them, and the sons of Chashmonai – the Kohanim Gedolim – rested control and killed the Greeks and saved the Jews from their hands, and they appointed one of the kohanim to be the king, and monarchy was restored to the Jewish People for more than 200 years, until the second destruction. And when the Jews overpowered their enemies and eradicated them, it was on the 25th of Kislev, and they entered the sanctuary and found no pure oil other than one jug which contained enough oil for only one day, and they lit the set candles from the oil of that jug for eight days until they crushed olives and produced new, pure oil.”

The Rambam is describing the positive events of Chanukah. If he held like the Ramban that it was a terrible error for the Chashmonaim to take over the monarchy, he would not have recounted it here. Clearly, the Rambam is indicating that the Chashmonaim assuming control of the monarchy, and holding it for 200 years, was a positive development. Other Rishonim, as well, are of the same opinion (Derashos Ha’Ran, 7th Derasha, Abarbanel). How, though, do these Rishonim address the Ramban’s essential argument that the pasuk in parshas Vayechi – as explained by Chazal – is indicating that Jewish monarchy must be in the hands of Shevet Yehudah?

Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky answered this question as follows. The monarchy that Chazal designated as being the exclusive role of Shevet Yehudah is only a permanent monarchy. Temporary monarchy is not taken into account in this regard. Temporary leadership does not detract from Shevet Yehudah’s status as sole authorized bearer of Jewish monarchy. And the whole situation of Bayis Sheini was of a temporary nature. First of all, the aseres ha’shevatim were not in Eretz Yisrael at that time. They had been exiled by Sancheriv and did not come back to Eretz Yisrael for the time period of the second Beis Ha’Mikdash. So, to begin with, only a small minority of Klal Yisrael was present. Also, there was no prophecy during that time period. On top of all of that, there were parts of Eretz Yisrael that remained under the control of other nations. The Torah leaders of that time-period knew that it was not the final redemption. They knew that Bayis Sheini would not last forever, and that the Jewish People would be compelled, in the not-too-distant future, to return to exile. Therefore, they assigned a designation of “provisional” to the state of affairs of that time. For that reason, they deliberately avoided appointing a king from the house of Dovid Ha’Melech. They understood that, since the destruction of the first Beis Ha’Mikdash, the next time a king would be appointed from the house of Dovid Ha’Melech, it would be a permanent king. It would be Melech Ha’Mashiach.

According to this approach, the question of why the Chashmonaim were eventually killed out and taken over by non-Jewish slaves is no different than, for example, the question of why Rabi Akiva and his contemporaries were brutally murdered. Just because something awful happens to a great tzaddik, or even a group of great tzaddikim (and all are in agreement that the Chashmonaim were tzaddikim of the highest order – the Ramban calls them chasidei elyon without whom Torah and mitzvos would have been forgotten from the Jewish People), does not mean that we can assume that they must have personally done some aveirah to deserve it. The question of tzaddik v’ra lo is an age old one, and it is not necessarily our business to know why certain tragedies take place.

(From Rebbetzin Twersky)
Provided courtesy of