The Scepter Parted from Judah

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayechi – פרשת ויחי
January 11, 2020 - יד טבת תשפ
The Scepter Parted from Judah
Jacob blessed his fourth son, Judah, with the promise of future leadership in Israel: “The scepter shall not pass from Judah, nor the mace from between his legs, that tribute to him may come and to him the submission of peoples (Genesis 49:10)” (Robert Alter translation).
Because this verse is a famous crux, there are many alternative (and widely divergent) translations of it. Professor Alter’s rendering does not implicate eschatology. There is, however, a long interpretative tradition of reading עד כי יבוא שילה as meaning that the Messiah will be of Judahite descent (Onkelos). More specifically, the redeemer who will sit on the throne of Israel will be of Davidic descent since, through Nathan the Prophet, God promised David: “And thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure forever before thee; thy throne shall be established forever (II Samuel 7:16).”
The Talmud stresses that the pre-messianic Judahite leadership over Israel did not cease with the fall of the Davidic monarchy at the end of the First Temple era. Rather, the institution of the Exilarchate in Babylonia, and the Torah leadership of Hillel’s descendants in Eretz Yisrael in the early centuries of the Common Era constituted fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 49:10 (Sanhedrin 5a).
Ramban comments that the Hasmonean sons of Mattathias were punished with violent deaths because that family illegitimately took the kingship for itself and thereby undermined the Divine promises made to the tribe of Judah and the household of David. Ramban further criticizes the Hasmoneans on the theory that priests are especially unsuited for temporal rule, as Scripture implores them to focus solely on their ecclesiastical responsibilities (Numbers 18:7). His commentary is widely known and is recalled every year on Hanukah. It fostered the popular notion, accepted initially even among scholars, that the sages did not hold the Hasmonean dynasty in high regard.
One of the classic questions asked in connection with Hanukah is why mention of the holiday is virtually omitted from the Mishnah. Many answers have been suggested, but the one attributed to the Hatam Sofer by his grandson is probably the most widely known: “Rabbi Judah the Prince (generally known as Rabbi), the codifier of the Mishnah, was a descendant of King David. The miracle of Hanukah occurred through the Hasmoneans, who usurped the kingship and did not descend from David. Rabbi regarded this as evil and he omitted the miracle from his composition (Hut Ha-Meshulash, p. 37).” A similar answer, attributed to the Chidushei HaRim, cites Ramban’s commentary in claiming that the house of the Patriarchate was bitter over the usurpation of power by Hasmoneans, and that Rabbi omitted the laws of Hanukah from the Mishnah because of that hostile attitude.
Yet, the views that the sages thought ill of the Hasmoneans’ assumption of political authority, and that Rabbi excluded information from his codification of the Oral Law out of Davidic pique, did not withstand recent historical scrutiny.
In a groundbreaking article written in the 1940s, Gedaliah Alon proved that the sages did not have a uniformly negative view of the Hasmoneans. Alon’s assessment was confirmed by subsequent research by Shmuel Safrai. Several of the Hasmonean monarchs are, in fact, remembered fondly. John Hyrcanus is credited with hearing an oracle in the Holy of Holies (Tosefta Sotah 13:5). The days of Salome Alexandra were remembered for being a time of righteousness and extreme agricultural bounty (Sifra Behukotai 1:1). Only Alexander Jannaeus has a wholly negative legacy -- not because of his exercise of power but because of his alliance with the Sadducees against the Pharisees.
Rabbinic literature states clearly that any Israelite could lawfully occupy the throne of Judea (Horayot 13a). If a worthy candidate could not be found from the tribe of Judah, an appropriate candidate from the tribe of Benjamin (or any other tribe) could properly be crowned (Midrash Tannaim Deuteronomy 17). Only converts were excluded; Scripture explicitly limits the kingship to native sons: “One from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother (Deuteronomy 17:15).” Accordingly, the Pharisees expressed early opposition to Herod’s appointment by Rome as king of Judea. Herod responded with violent fury (Baba Bathra 3b). Herod’s grandson Agrippa I was on better terms with the Judean religious establishment than Herod had been; his brief tenure is remembered more positively. The masses flattered Agrippa by reassuring him at the Hakhel ceremony that he was, in fact, their brother, and thus a lawful king (Mishnah Sotah 7:8). As full-blooded Jews, the Hasmoneans did not face the challenges to their authority encountered by their Herodian mixed-blood successors.
The Talmud does include several stray remarks that voice objection to a priestly monarchy אין מושחין כהנים מלכים (Yerushalmi Shekalim 49d). Rabbi Yudan regarded such a kingship as violative of Genesis 49:10. Rabbi Hiyya bar Ada pointedly noted this juxtaposition of verses: Deuteronomy 17:20 blesses the righteous monarchs with long days and dynastic succession; the following verse (18:1) reads: “The priests, the Levites, even all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel.” (Philosophically, one can appreciate a desire to separate religion from politics and civil law; it is an issue that has roiled the State of Israel for many years, at least so far as matters such as control of the Chief Rabbinate, the definition of Jewishness for purposes of the Law of Return, marriage and divorce, and the extent of participation of women in public events like prayer at the Western Wall are concerned.)
The halakhic opinions in the Talmud referred to above and involving a priestly monarchy were formulated by Amoraim centuries after the Hasmonean dynasty had ruled Israel, and several generations after the Mishnah had been codified by Rabbi. In fact, throughout most of the Second Temple period, the High Priest was both the political and the spiritual leader of Judean Jewry. This certainly was the situation under the Persians, the Ptolemies, and the early Seleucids. The Hasmoneans were not the first High Priests to exercise authority that reached far beyond supervising the cult at Mount Moriah. They were, however, the first priests to assume the title of king, something only possible after the overthrow of foreign suzerainty. Even after the Second Temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the priestly class continued to press its case for continued dominance of Judean politics, and refused to submit quietly to the growing authority of the rabbis.
The Hasmoneans’ assumption of political power was much less problematic than their usurpation of the High Priesthood. For centuries, the High Priesthood had been the rightful patrimony of the Zadokite line. The Hasmoneans, by contrast, descended from the lower priesthood and resided in the backwater of Modi’in. Jonathan Apphus, brother of Judah Maccabee, secured the High Priesthood for himself in 153 BCE by entering into a diplomatic arrangement with Alexander Balas, a contender for the Seleucid throne. Arguably, the appointment of Jonathan possessed no more validity than Antiochus’ appointment of Jason or Menelaus two decades earlier.
The Talmud records an incident of open Pharisaic objection to Hasmonean control of the High Priesthood.  Judah ben Gedadya challenged Jannaeus: “The king’s crown is sufficient for you. Leave the crown of the priesthood to the true sons of Aaron (Kiddushin 66a).”
Other leading medieval sages disagreed with Ramban’s harsh assessment of the Hasmoneans. Maimonides acknowledged the legitimacy of non-Davidic kings with the caveat that, unlike the eternal line of David, such dynasties would not enjoy longevity (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:9). He referred to Jeroboam, who had Divine sanction to strip the Davidic king Rehoboam of his control over the northern tribes of Israel (I Kings 11:39). Ran explicitly exonerates the Hasmoneans of wrongdoing, claiming that their dynasty was not a violation of Genesis 49:10 (Derashot HaRan 5).
The claim, attributed to the Hatam Sofer, that Rabbi omitted Hanukah from the Mishnah out of personal or familial resentment toward the rival Hasmonean clan seems to assume a surprisingly questionable moral compass for the great Nasi. Rabbi Joshua Aaron Zvi Weinberger, a disciple of the Hatam Sofer, asserted that Shlomo Sofer had, in this regard, misquoted his grandfather. Weinberger considered it a Hillul Hashem, or sacrilege, to ascribe such petty motivation to the editorial decisions of Rabbi in connection with his compilation of the Mishnah. Weinberger insisted, instead, that all of Rabbi’s actions, including the omission of Hanukah, were made for the sake of Heaven, The omission had nothing to do with Rabbi’s descent from David, argued Weinberger; rather, it reflected only that the Hasmoneans were usurpers who ought to be forgotten (Tzitz Eliezer 19:26). In a revised edition of the Hut Ha-meshulash, the key paragraph was emended to read, “When the Holy Rabbi wrote the Mishnah with Divine inspiration, he omitted the miracle of Hanukah.” According to this reading, the textual omission reflected not umbrage taken by Rabbi, a Davidide, but the will of God.
However, one must be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming the conclusion.  It cannot be assumed that Rabbi personally was responsible for the omission of Hanukah from the Mishnah. There are several reasons:
1) That assumption presupposes that Rabbi had the ability radically to manipulate the text to match his own preferences. While some traditionalists would so argue, the great historian Saul Lieberman was skeptical. He concluded: “We do not know exactly what part Rabbi Judah the Prince played in the systematization of the Mishnah.” (Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 96).
2) Any claim that Rabbi, a descendant of King David, was aggrieved personally by the Hasmonean usurpation of the Judean monarchy is dubious -- because, indeed, Rabbi’s claim of Davidic descent is itself dubious. In an article published in 1895, the scholar Israel Levi was the first to cast serious doubt on the Gamalielian dynasty’s claim of Davidic descent. He considered it a fabrication datable no earlier than the reign of Judah I. David Goodblatt, writing a century later, confirmed these suspicions. The earliest reference to the Patriarchal family’s royal ancestry is a statement (attributed to Rav) that Rabbi descended from David (Shabbat 56a). Another tale, involving disparaging remarks made by Rabbi Hiyya’s sons about Rabbi, implies the rejection of Patriarchal claims of Davidic descent even by Rabbi’s closest collaborators (Sanhedrin 38a). This propaganda campaign, designed to confer greater monarchical legitimacy on the Palestine Patriarchate, ultimately worked. Even the Church father Origen knew of the claim that such Patriarchs were considered a fulfillment of Genesis 49:10.
[The historically correct explanation for the omission of Hanukah from the Mishnah was first proposed by Louis Ginzberg and was more recently confirmed by Moshe Benovitz. After the destruction of the Second Temple, and throughout the Tannaitic era, Hanukah was not widely observed in the Land of Israel. The holiday was endowed with new meaning and importance only in the late third century, under the auspices of Rabbi Yohanan]
Observant Jews eagerly await the full restoration of Israel and Torah to their former glories. As Jewish history has shown, non-Davidides can play, and have played, a major role in the flowering of our redemption and the preservation of Torah. Genesis 49:10 might mean that a scion of Judah will be at the forefront of our final redemption. Such a messianic figure would build upon the great work of his Zionist and rabbinic predecessors. May he come speedily in our days!
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