The Unsung Heroine Who Guaranteed the Jewish Future
Roam the marketplaces of Jerusalem,
look about and take note;
search its streets…1Yirmiyah 5:1.
I have always been fascinated by the vast amount of history one can discover by exploring the streets of Jerusalem. For example, in the area at the center of the city known as Kikar Tzion (Zion Square), lies Shlomtzion HaMalka Street. Originally called Princess Mary Street, the name was changed in 1948, after the establishment of the state.2Peres, Judy. “A Trip Down Historical Avenues.” Chicago Tribune, 21 March 1998. Who was this woman, Shlomtzion HaMalka, the only woman mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls?3For Shlomtzion’s likely name, see Kenneth Atkinson, Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Warrior Monarch of the First Century B.C.E., McFarland, 2014, pages 17-25.
Little is known about Shlomtzion’s early life. She was the daughter of Shetach Ben Yossi and the granddaughter of Yossi Ben Yochanan Ish Yerushalayim, a member of one of the first Zugos, pairs of Tana’im in the early Mishnaic era. She was also the sister of the great sage and head of Sanhedrin, R’ Shimon Ben Shetach.4Kiddushin 66a.
Her given name was likely Shulamis, but there are references to her which use various other names as well, e.g. Shel Tzion, Shulamis, Shalminin, and Salome Alexandra. The name by which she is best-known to history, of course, is that of Shlomtzion, the moniker given to her by the Jewish masses of her time in recognition of her having brought peace to Zion.
Shlomtzion is first introduced to us during a tumultuous time for K’lal Yisroel, around the year 119 BCE, at a time when Yochanan Hyrcanos, who was both the fourth ruler of the Chashmonai dynasty and the Kohen Gadol, had made radical changes in policy that had a devastating impact on the political and religious landscape of Jewish life. 5Kiddushin 66a.
At the height of the long-running conflict between the Perushims and Tzadukim, Yochanan Hyrcanos established domestic policies that initially aligned with the mandate of the Perushim, while continuing to strategically maintain cordial relations with the opposing faction, the Tzadukim. However, when the Perushim questioned his fitness to serve as Kohen Gadol, Yochanan Hyrcanos switched his allegiance from the Perushim to the Tzadukim.
With the Perushim now considered his enemy, he dispatched orders to have all leaders of the Perushim put to death. At least two of those leaders escaped execution: R’ Yehoshua Ben Perachia, the Nasi at the time, who fled to Egypt, and R’ Shimon Ben Shetach, who was hidden by his sister Shlomtzion, despite the fact that she was also Yochanan Hyrcanos’ daughter-in-law.6Sotah 47a. It’s clear from all historical accounts that Shlomtzion truly was a righteous and G-d-fearing woman, despite being surrounded by a morally degenerate and spiritually deficient family and social milieu.
Shlomtzion was married to Yochanan Hyrcanos’s eldest son, Yehuda Aristoblus, who was also a Tzaduki. Yochanan Hyrcanos passed over Yehuda Aristobulus as his chosen successor, instead designating Shlomtzion to be next in line. Upon his death, however, Yehuda Aristobulus took the reins of rulership against his father’s wishes, and in an effort to secure his power, promptly jailed both his brother, Alexander Yannai, and his mother, who died of starvation while imprisoned.
No longer satisfied to call himself Nasi (prince), as the proceeding four Chashmonai leaders had been known, he had himself crowned as a Melech (king). Initially, he was allied with his younger brother Antignous, but eventually Yehuda Aristobulus ordered his guards to execute his brother on suspicion of sedition. No longer finding any use for the position of Kohen Gadol, he sold it to the highest bidder. Just a short while later, Yehuda Aristobulus, whose health had been failing, died without an heir.
In the year 91 BCE, Shlomtzion, seeking to fill the vacuum of national leadership, arranged for her deceased husband’s brother, Alexander Yannai, to be released from prison. He performed the ritual of a levirate marriage (Yibum) and married her and had himself crowned as King of Judah.7Doros HaRishonim vol. 2 pg. 460. He also assumed the position of Kohen Gadol, a consolidation of power and influence that historically had lain at the root of the conflict between the Perushim and his Chashmonai predecessors. During the reign of Alexander Yannai, the Perushim became even more vocal in their opposition, and the two groups remained at an impasse, until one fateful day, when Shlomtzion turned the tide.
The Gemara recounts8Brachos 48a. the following story: Alexander Yannai and Shlomtzion were sitting at a banquet, when a dilemma arose. As a result of the execution and exile of the sages, the scholarly leadership was non-existent, and it became clear that there was no one at the table in a position to lead the bentching. The King asked the Queen what to do. Shlomtzion responded by saying ‘if I bring you a man to lead, will you show him no harm?’ Alexander Yannai agreed, and Shlomtzion brought her brother Shimon Ben Shetach out of hiding, and he proceeded to lead the bentching.
Following this incident, Shlomtzion took advantage of this short reprieve to bolster the position of the Perushim, convincing her husband that the Sages posed no threat to him personally or to his kingdom. He agreed to appoint her brother as the head of the Sanhedrin, and in that position, Shimon Ben Shetach began a successful effort to bring his fellow sages out of exile and back to Jerusalem, thereby reinstating the Sanhedrin as a legislative body governed by both the Written and Oral Law. 9Megillas Taanis 10.
In an effort to rectify the damage caused by the campaign against Torah leadership and Rabbinic authority that had plagued the Land of Israel for more than a generation,Shimon Ben Shetach, together with Yehoshua Ben Perachia, instituted a school system throughout Judea in which children would begin their Jewish education at the tender age of 6 or 7.10Yerushalmi Kesubos 8:11. Unfortunately, this collaborative enterprise imploded not long after its inception, circa 75 BCE.
The two brothers-in-law, Alexander Yannai and Shimon Ben Shetach, had a dispute over how to resolve a case of three hundred Nezirim who could not afford the proper Korbonos required to absolve themselves of their Nazirite oath. The two agreed to split the financial burden, but while King Alexander Yannai paid his part in birds for the sacrifices, Shimon Ben Shetach cancelled the Nazirite vows of the one hundred and fifty Nezirim for whom he had taken responsibility, absolving them of their debt.
This “creative accounting” incensed the King, and Shimon Ben Shetach had to flee for his life.11Yerushalmi Brachos 7:2. This relatively minor conflict between these two most powerful leaders in Klal Yisroel of the time, was the catalyst for yet a flaring anew of the Judean civil war between the Tzadukim and Perushim, resulting in the deaths of at least 50,000 people, and the crucifixion of 800 Rabbis.
It was at this time that the infamous story of Succos12Succa 48b. in the Beis HaMikdash took place. The Mishna recounts the story of Alexander Yannai (not referred to by name in the Mishna), serving in the self-appointed role of Kohel Gadol, was performing the Water Libation ritual. A tradition that the Tzadukim strongly opposed due to its lack of mention in the Written Torah. While pouring the water, he poured it on his feet instead of on the Mizbeach. As a Tzaduki, he did so, not to comply with the rabbinic halacha handed down in the Oral Tradition.
The people observing him were enraged and began pelting him with their esrogim. The attack was so violent that the projectiles chipped off part of the Mizbayach, and the King was critically injured. Alexander Yannai retaliated by calling his mercenaries into the Beis HaMikdash and ordering them to attack the civilians, nearly 6,000 of whom were killed on that Succos day in the Beis HaMikdash.
Sometime later, Persian dignitaries who were visiting in the Land of Israel requested an audience with the revered sage, R’ Shimon Ben Shetach, whom they had met on a previous occasion. Alexander Yannai overcame his animosity towards his brother-in-law and permitted him to return to Jerusalem in peace.13Yerushalmi Brachos 7:2. This brought about a reconciliation between the two and an end to the civil war. At the end of his life, Alexander Yannai warns his beloved wife: Fear not the Perushim or the Tzadukim, but beware instead the threat of the charlatans who pose as Perushim, who “act like Zimri, yet want the reward of Pinchas”.14Sota 22b.
The Talmud paints a colorful and textured portrait of Alexander Yannai and his complex and adversarial relationship with the Rabbis, while also providing insight into the strength and poise that his wife, Shlomtzion, possessed. It’s quite remarkable that Shlomtzion was able to maintain a harmonious relationship with her volatile husband, who held her in the highest esteem, recognizing that these impressive character traits made her immensely qualified to manage the kingdom.
Before he died in the year 73 BCE, Alexander Yannai directed that his wife serve as the interim monarch, until their two sons became of age to inherit the throne, making her one of two Queen Regents in the history of Judah (the other being her polar opposite, the wicked Atallah). He also instructed her to align the kingdom’s domestic, political, and religious policies with the Perushim because they would ensure the longevity of the Chashmonai Dynasty.15Sota 22b. After his passing, she appointed their older son Hyrcanos II, a Porush, as the Kohen Gadol, and Aristoblus II, a Tzaduki, as the ethnarch16The ruler of a nation or people. of Yerushalayim.
Under Shlomtzion’s rule, Shimon Ben Shetach was finally able to preside over the Sanhedrin in peace, in full accord with Torah law, and without fear of the government. He invited Yehuda Ben Tabbai to return from Egypt to lead the Sanhedrin together with him.
These nine short years in which Shlomtzion ruled were marked by societal calm and blessing. The Gemara17Ta’anis 23a. teaches that during her reign, rain invariably fell on Wednesday and Shabbos evenings, when it would be least disruptive, and that wheat grew as big as kidneys, barley as big as olive pits, and lentils as big as golden dinars. She strengthened the army to the point that no outside forces dared to threaten the kingdom of Judah, and she brought about economic reform that stabilized a country that had been wracked by war for so long. This nearly decade’-long period was the most tranquil one of the Second Commonwealth. After a twenty-year lapse, the sovereignty of the Torah was restored, the country grew strong, and enemies from without remained at bay.
Unfortunately, this happy time would prove to be short-lived. Before the queen’s death,18Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13:16:5. Aristoblus had already begun flexing his strength. It is likely that had Shlomtzion not died in 65 BCE, her own son would have had her assassinated. Upon her passing, a three-month-long civil war erupted between her sons, which brought the evil Herod to the throne, paving the way for the eventual destruction of the Temple.
These turbulent episodes in Jewish History raise the following question: The peaceful years of Shlomtzion HaMalka’s reign lasted less than a decade, preceded and followed by bloody civil wars, the latter of which was the beginning of the end for national Jewish life in that era. What was it about that brief interlude of prosperity and peace that made them the highlight of the Judean Kingdom during the Second Commonwealth?
The answer may be that these nine years, coupled with the intermittent preceding years during which the Perushim were in power, solidified the supremacy of rabbinic leadership over the Jewish people. This period helped halt the downward spiral that Torah life had taken reversing the trajectory and propelling it in the right direction. The Torah leadership during the Civil War of Hyrkanos and Aristoblus consisted of Shamaya and Avtalion, followed by Hillel and Shammai, the last of the Zugos. These four giants fortified and prepared the transmission of Torah to enable the nation to survive the travails of Galus, making the necessary decisions so that the Jewish People could remain intact as a nation in exile for two millennia.
A mere two decades after Hillel’s passing, the Sanhedrin would take leave of the Temple Mount in the year 29,19Doros HaRishonim vol. 2 pg. 719. the first step in the Exile that would culminate forty years later. It was the strategies implemented and preparations made during that time that gave us the moral fortitude and spiritual infrastructure that has allowed us to still be here today. All of this quite possibly would never have happened without the wisdom and perspicacity of Shlomtzion HaMalka.
Title: Depictions of Alexander Yanai and Shlomtzion
Source: Prima pars Promptuarii iconum insigniorum à seculo hominum…
Author: Guillaume Rouillé
Printing location & year: 1553
Title: De Joodse Koning Alexander Jannaeus, een Machabeer, doed agt-honderd voorname Joden over Oproerigheid tegens syn Koninglyke regeer-zugt binnen Jerusalem aan Kreissen slaan; terwyl hy dat Grouwel-stuk van een verheven laatse, daar hy met syn Wyven maaltyd houd; met vermaak aansiet.
Description: The execution of the Pharisees by Alexander Jannaeus.
Author: Willem Swidde (1660–1697)
Title: Evil Merodach, Bab[ylon] Rex – Evil Merodach, King of Babylon
Source: Epitome historico-chronologica gestorum omnium patriarcharum, ducum, judicum…
Publisher: Sumptibus Fausti Amidei, 1751
In 1989, a meeting was convened between the Tibetan spiritual leader known as the Dalai Lama and a group of Jewish scholars. The exiled Tibeten leader sought to learn the ‘secret technique’ the Jews had used to survive in their Diaspora, hoping to apply it for the good of his own people, who were losing their connection to their homeland and indigenous culture after only thirty years in exile, rather than the two thousand year exile the Jews have endured
One wonders: Did those scholars share with him the story of Shlomtzion HaMalka?
When the “Night of Bavel” Occurred
We do not yet know, on which date “the Night of Bavel” occurred. If we can discover the exact date that Nevuchadnezzar succeeded to the throne, we would automatically know when the “Night of Bavel” took place.
We find a clue in the Midrash, when it discusses the fact that the only time we fast at night is on Tisha B’Av. We also fast at night, of course, on Yom Kippur, but it could not have been Yom Kippur, as that would contradict the verse mentioned in the Midrash that Daniel went to his fast, to seek out compassion regarding the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Yom Kippur night is not the time to mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.
Was the Night of Bavel, then, on Tisha B’Av eve?
The Feast That Took Place on the Fast
Our sages do not tell us when Nevuchadnezzar was crowned. However, Divrei HaYamin LeMalchai Bavel – the histories of the Babylonian kings, provides a date.
In the Jerusalem Chronicle it says:
For twenty-one years Nabopolassar had been King of Babylon, when, on 8 Abu [Av] he went to his destiny; in the month of Ululu [Elul] Nevuchadnezzar rturned to Babylon and on 1 Ululu [Elul] he sat on the royal throne in Babylon.20https://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-5-jerusalem-chronicle.
The above-mentioned Nabopolassar, according to the chronicle, is the father and predecessor of Nevuchadnezzar.
The chronicle clarifies the date of Nabopolassar’s death, and this identifies the date of the beginning of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign to be the 8th day of Av.
Therefore, Belshazzar’s feast, which was on the 70th anniversary of this date, was also on the 8th day of Av, at midnight. According to Jewish law, that is the night of Tisha B’Av!
Tzafoh HaTzafis, Aroch HaShulchan
Let us revisit the scene that took place in Babylon,
on Tisha B’Av at midnight, 3391 AM.
It is the 70th anniversary of Nevuchadnezzar’s reign.
52 years have passed since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.
Daniel is wandering the dark roads of Bavel, and his Jewish brethren are on the lookout for him. Most probably, he is going home after reading the Eichah.
“Hey! There he is! Rabbeinu Daniel, all the bad and harsh prophecies which Yirmiah the prophet prophesied have already come upon us. The one good prophecy which he prophesied has yet to come about!”
They ask him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”
He is surprised. Don’t they know? He answers, “To fast, it’s Tisha B’Av, isn’t it!?”
Moments later, the Chaldeans spot him, since they too are on the lookout for him.
“Hey! There he is! Belteshazzar [Daniel], you are coming with us. The King has ordered your presence!”
His Jewish brethren call out to him, “Rabbeinu Daniel, where are you going?”
He answers, “To the feast, I guess. History is about to happen! The prophecy of Yeshaya the prophet is about to be fulfilled!”
What does Yeshaya the prophet foresee for that very night?
“Tzafoh hatzafis, aroch hashulchan – set up the watch, set the table.”21Yeshaya 21:5. This refers to Belshazzar’s feast, for Yeshaya prophesied that Bavel would fall at the time of the feast.
As the verses continues, “And there they come, mounted men – horsemen in pairs!”
“Then each spoke up and said, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon! And all the images of her gods have crashed to the ground!”
“That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Daryavesh the Mede received the kingdom.”22Daniel 5:30–6:1.
We now understand what the Midrash means by the “Night of Bavel”. We also know the date of the fall of Babylonia. That was the night on which both a fast and a feast took place, and a most pivotal night in the making of Jewish history.