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The Unknown Heroine of the Holiday

December 5, 2012 By:
Judy Petsonk, JE Feature
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I was walking down a street in Jeru­salem when I came to a sign: Queen Shalom-Zion Street. A Jewish queen who was not named Esther — and I had never heard of her! I had to find out more. I read an account of her life by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus. In an archaeological site at Jericho, I walked on the mosaic floor of her winter palace.

That’s how I met the unsung heroine of Chan­ukah.

Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion) was married to a grandson of the Maccabees. She ruled Judea in the first century BCE. Combine Cleopatra and Hillary Clinton and you’ll have some idea of this remarkable woman, who commanded armies and signed treat­ies, and was the only woman to sit alone on the throne of Judea.

Why was Shalom-Zion the heroine of Chanukah? Because she saved the endangered Maccabee legacy. We honor the Maccabees because they fought for the right to practice Judaism. When Syria’s Hellenistic (read Greek) rulers outlawed circumcision and other Jewish practices, the Maccabees and their followers responded with arrows and stones, defeating Syrian war elephants.

But the Maccabees’ opponents also included corrupt High Priests and other wealthy Judeans who wanted to become part of the Hellenistic Greek civilization dominating the Mediterranean world. Judaism’s internal enemies persisted. Even after Judea became independent of Syria, wealthy Judeans tried to tempt the leadership toward Hellenism.

Two generations after independence, the High Priest and King Alexander Janneus, a grandson of Simon Maccabee, mocked the traditions, even when officiating in the Holy Temple. Disgusted by the corrupt priests, common people shifted their loyalty to pious teachers, called rabbis or sages or — by their enemies — Pharisees (separatists). Queen Shalom-Zion was a follower of the rabbis.

Her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetakh, was leader of the Pharisees and head of the Sanhedrin, the representative assembly of Judea. Shalom-Zion’s husband Alexander Janneus loathed the Pharisees. He fought a six-year civil war against them. According to the historian Josephus, Janneus crucified 800 Pharisee leaders.

After Janneus died, Queen Shalom-Zion ruled alone. She helped the Pharisees to return and re-establish their schools. She had mikvah pools for purification built throughout Judea. Four years after Shalom-Zion’s death, Rome invaded. Later the Temple was destroyed and the Jews exiled from their land. But by this time, priestly sacrifices were no longer essential to Jewish belief. Judaism had become portable. Led by their rabbi-teachers, Jews carried their faith wherever they went.

How shall we credit Queen Shalom-Zion for midwifing the transition from Temple Judaism to rabbinical Judaism? When we light the Chan­ukah candles, let’s take a minute to honor the shamash, the servant candle, which lights all the others. The shamash relights any candles that go out. By helping the rabbis spread their teachings among the people of Judea, Queen Shalom-Zion rekindled the light of Jewish faith, and enabled us to rekindle these lights in our own generation.

Judy Petsonk is the author of the historical novel Queen of the Jews. She will be speaking at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley at 10 a.m., on Sunday, Dec. 9, and at the Germantown Jewish Centre, 400 W. Ellet St., Phila­delphia, at 7:30 p.m., on Wednesday, Dec. 12.

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