Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Skip to content

Crowns and Kings

A curious story catches our attention on daf 66 of Kiddushin. King Yannai, victorious in battle, calls the Sages to dine with him. While they are feasting, a troublemaker named Elazar tries to incite the king against the Pharisees (Perushim). A second troublemaker, a Pharisee named Yehuda, tells the king that he should not serve as the high priest since his lineage is in question. His mother may have been taken captive (and raped) in Modiin and therefore Yannai is illegitimate and cannot serve as a priest, let alone high priest. This is proven to be untrue and the aforementioned Elazar then gets the king to murder the Sages and reassures him that Torah will continue without them. The story ends by saying that only with the arrival of Shimon ben Shetach is Torah knowledge restored to Israel.

This story would be interesting enough but there is another element that makes it even more fascinating 鈥 an almost parallel tale in Josephus鈥 epic Antiquities of the Jews聽 (book 13, chapter 10). The story there has different personalities 鈥 the king is Johanan Hyrcanus and not Yannai, the two inciters are called Elazar and Jonathan. It also has a different end, here the king switches his allegiance from the Pharisees to the Sadducees but we do not hear of him murdering all the Sages. But the basic outline of the story is the same: a feast, an accusation about the king鈥檚 lineage and two miscreants who incite the king to anger.

What is the background to this tale and who are the kings? What can we learn from it about the time period it portrays? The story, whether according to Kiddushin or Josephus, takes place during the period of the Hasmonean kings. Johanan Hyrcanus (Josephus鈥 king) is Simon the Maccabees鈥 son. Although not formally declared a king, he ruled over Israel from 134 to 104 BCE. Yannai (Kiddushin鈥檚 king) is Alexander Yannai, Johanan鈥檚 son and the king from 103 to 76 BCE. Both rulers were powerful and expansionist, both were also high priests and both were controversial. The Gemara (Berachot 29) tells us that Jonathan Hyrcanus became a Sadducee at the end of his life; Yannai killed the Sages and a civil war raged during his reign.

Coin of Johanan Hyrcanus

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The other significant fact to know about this time period is that it is the beginning of the sectarian divisions in Judaism. While it is hard to know exactly when Jews begin to identify themselves as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and other miscellaneous groups, the earliest sectarian texts we have are from the time period of the Hasmonean kings. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the greatest library of sectarianism we possess, has veiled references to evil priests and kings that seem to refer to Hyrcanus and Yannai. We can also date the earliest of these texts to the second century BCE, exactly the time period we are dealing with in these stories.

The Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Israel Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So who is this story about, Hyrcanus or Yannai? Much scholarly ink has been spilled about this incident and the majority of modern scholars prefer Josephus鈥 version, that the king in question is Hyrcanus (the father). This is because Josephus is an earlier text than Kiddushin and he tells his tale in the context of the general story about Hyrcanus鈥 reign. In contrast, the Gemara鈥檚 version has no context at all, except for the reference to Shimon ben Shetach at the end. It could be about any king at any time. In addition, the accusation of a woman raped by captors fits better with Hyrcanus鈥 mother, who lived during the Maccabean Revolt and the attacks by Greek soldiers, than it does for Yannai鈥檚 mother who lived in a time of relative peace. There are however a minority of scholars who accept the Gemara鈥檚 version of events. Yannai was known to have conflicts with the rabbis and we have a number of stories that indicate that (Sanhedrin 19, Berachot 48 and others). The story also emphasizes that Yannai took the 鈥渃rown of the monarchy,鈥 讻转专 诪诇讻讜转. Hyrcanus was not a king and is never designated as such on his coins, but Yannai was. Lastly, Yannai and Shimon ben Shetach have a long history of engagement with each other and we know that Yannai鈥檚 wife, Salome Alexandra who became queen herself, was Shimon鈥檚 sister.

Machaerus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

We will not solve the puzzle of which ruler is the one in the story. But no matter who the king is, the story is a time capsule showing us sectarian conflict and dissatisfaction with Hasmonean rule. This conflict would burst out in the civil war in Yannai鈥檚 time and become ever more pronounced until the Temple was destroyed. But its seeds were already planted in Hyrcanus鈥 time.

Professor Vered Noam in an article about this tale ( adds an interesting perspective. She notes the unusual and even archaic language used in Kiddushin 鈥 verb forms that are Biblical (讜讬讘讜拽砖, 讜讬讘讚诇讜) as well as language and themes that parallel two Biblical stories. The first and most obvious one is the Book of Esther. The action takes place at a feast, there are two schemers (like Bigtan and Teresh), the king persecutes innocent people after being incited by a villain. The term keter malchut only appears in the Bible in the Book of Esther.

The other parallel is to the story of the rebellion of Korach (Bamidbar 16). Here too we have similar themes 鈥 Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of taking the 鈥渒ingship鈥 as well as the priesthood. There are also linguistic parallels 鈥 the word to separate 讜讬讘讚诇讜, the word 爪讬抓 (frontplate) and others.

Professor Noam suggests that the story in Kiddushin is part of an ancient sectarian text that survived, but unusually, it is not one written by the Essenes or the Sadducees, but by the Pharisees. It imitates and even parodies the style of texts we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls and it justifies the Pharisees and sets them up as the successors of Moses and Aaron against the successors of Korah. The Pharisees emerge in the story as the innocents, against the villainy of Yannai and the machinations of Elazar and Yehuda.

This is significant since we have almost no sectarian texts from the Pharisees and their name is rarely mentioned in Rabbinic texts. As the victors in the conflict, they present themselves as the mainstream. But here we have a historical memory of a time when the rabbis struggled against the other groups that represented themselves as the true Jews. That is why our story, whether it is about Hyrcanus or Yannai, is so significant 鈥 it unearths part of the hidden history of the Pharisees, our ancestors. Without them there would be no daf yomi!

Pioneer members of the organization that founded Kvutzat Yavne in southern Israel studying Gemara in the 1930s

Zoltan Kluger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
Scroll To Top