We look for miracles on Hanukkah – the festival of light. But what were actually the miracles associated with this war and victory over the Greeks? To some, the story of the jug of oil lasting 8 days (instead of 1) is the miracle; to others winning the war was miraculous. I think that equal to all these miracles is the fact that Jews regained self-determination in the period after the war. The establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty – with all its problems and issues – as a Jewish self-governing body in the land of Israel after centuries of foreign rule, is a big part of why the holiday continued to be celebrated and added to the yearly holiday cycle. Who are these people who established the dynasty and ran it for over 100 years? It’s time to find out – Who were the Hasmoneans?
Many have heard of Judah Maccabeus, head of the Jewish revolt, but few have heard of his little brother Simon Thassi. Judah is one of the 5 sons of Mattithias: John, Judah, Elazar, Jonathan, and Simon. During the war, both Judah and Elazar are killed. Their brother John is captured by the Nabateans to the East, leaving only Jonathan and Simon. Jonathan, a very popular, charismatic leader, tried after the war to establish a state by negotiation with the Greek generals and leaders. Talks went on for 18 years until he was finally captured by the general Tryphon who delivered an ultimatum to Simon: if Jonathan’s two sons were not sent, then Jonathan would be murdered. Simon was caught in a bind. If he did give up the boys, there was no guarantee that Tryphon would return Jonathan. If he didn’t give up the boys, Simon would be accused by the Jewish people of directly causing the death of the extremely well-loved Jonathan. Simon decided to send Jonathan’s sons to Tryphon, who killed them all before turning to attack what he deemed would be a grieving and, therefore, weakened Judean army. Simon, however, met the Greeks in Hadid where he routed Tryphon’s army.
Simon’s allied himself with the Seleucid king, Demetrius II, against Tryphon, a brilliant diplomatic move. Simon asked the king for freedom from taxation and his request was granted. It’s as if the British upon hearing of the refusal of the colonists to pay the tea tax had simply said, “Okay.” Freedom from taxation was a step to self-determination. Simon was appointed to rule by the Jewish priests and aristocracy, and his kingship was even recognized by Rome. It’s crazy to think that after losing sovereignty, being exiled from their homeland, returning only to live under foreign rule, waging (and winning) a brutal war against the Greeks and against assimilation within the Jewish people, negotiating for decades, and culminating with the murder of their beloved leader, the Jews finally had sovereignty over their own country.
Simon the Hasmonean ruled over Judea from 141-135 BCE, serving as both king and High Priest in the Temple. What he was able to accomplish was no less a miracle than a jug of oil or even a victory in war. Simon the Hasmonean stood at the helm of the renewed Jewish state, which had both religious and political independence. Unfortunately, power would be Simon’s undoing as well. His son-in-law, Ptolemy, invited Simon and his sons, Mattithias and Judah (named after Simon’s father and brother), to a banquet. After they were drunk, Ptolemy killed them, hoping to wrest power from his father-in-law. According to I Maccabees 16:17:
So he [Ptolemy] committed an act of great treachery and returned evil for good.
Thus, both Simon and his older brother Jonathan were killed with their sons. For Simon, however, there was another son to carry on the dynasty and preserve the independence of the Jewish nation. (We’ll meet him tomorrow.)
Although Simon Thassi may not be a commonly known name today, because of his great contribution to the Jewish people and his role in the continuing Hanukkah miracle, Simon became the #1 name for Jewish baby boys for 300 years!
If you want to visit the place where Simon Thassi won against Tryphon, you can easily visit Tel Hadid near Shoham. If you don’t have time to stop, just remember Simon when you are traveling on Route 6, between the Nachshonim and Ben Shemen exits through the tunnel under this archaeological site.
For last year’s first day of Hanukkah post, see here.