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Chanukah 5777: Wembley Synagogue: The Three Crowns

Synopsis: Three Crowns and Chanukah

The consequences of the Maccabean revolt radically altered the course of history and led to a struggle for the future direction of both Judaism and the Jewish people; the ripples of which we still feel today. This session will look at the religious consequences of how this struggle between those arguing for the supremacy of the Keterim (Crowns) of Malchut (Kingship), Kehuna (Priesthood) and Torah brought about rabbinic Judaism as we know it today… and the Jewish vision for a better tomorrow.



Three Crowns

Coins from the time of the Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus

Tonight I want to touch on the political consequences of the Chanukah story in terms of a struggle for the future direction of both Judaism and the Jewish people, the ripples of which we still feel today.

There are many ways to interpret Chanukah.

Let me touch on one such way which I was recalled due to recent events:


Some years ago my boss who had been European and Latin America’s Director at the JDC returned from the 20th Anniversary of the Jewish Community Centre in Havana which was marked at Chanukah.

The JCC had a new director from Argentina and he was tasked to give a speech about Chanukah.

Every year the JCC would send out formal invites to officials in Cuba including the President who would not turn up. As the party started the Presidential cavalcade turned up and in walked Castro.

The new director was shocked and a little fearful of sticking to his prepared speech which after all focussed on the story of a revolt against a tyrannical despotic dictatorship so he kept in simple.

He stood up and said the following:

“The story of Chanukah happened after a war. The Jews walked back into their desecrated Temple and wanted to light the menorah. They found a small pot of oil that would last only a day. They were concerned because it takes eight days to make new oil. However, this little pot of oil lasted 8 days. This is the story of Chanukah. Thank you very much”…

He sat down pleased with himself and ever so slightly relieved.

Suddenly, Fidel stood up:

“This is not the story of Chanukah” Castro announced

“Fidel knows the story of Chanukah. The Jews had been occupied by an imperialist force that denied the Jews their way of life, imposing on them a foreign culture whilst suppressing, oppressing the will of the people.”

“Faced with this colonialist imperialist tyranny the Jewish people felt crushed until amongst them a man called Judah Maccabi and his family raised a small revolutionary force. They encouraged the people to rise up to defeat the imperialist forces and sent them away from their land… Just like Fidel did 40 years ago in Cuba”.

“That… that is the story of Chanukah”…

This session is not about historiography per se but to look at the political and religious struggle that emanated from the Maccabean Revolt and namely what Jewish scholars and historians refer to as the struggle between the three crowns: keter malkhut; keter kohanut; and keter torah (the crown of kingship, priesthood and the Torah.

Following the Maccabean Revolt the leaders consolidated their power. The Hasmonean family simultaneously took control over the Kingship and over the Priesthood. They created a new line of Kings that were from the Kohanim, the tribe of Levi and not Davidic, from the tribe of Judah. The accepted wisdom today is that was unwise, a usurpation of the Davidic line, one that led not to the independence of the Jewish people but an interregnum between Greek influence and Roman one: one that would see at times brutal infighting over social, political and religious issues, that would eventually see not only the fall of the Hasmoneans but the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel for almost 2000 years. In truth, the Hasmonean claim to independence was fragile as it often required them to pick sides carefully between the Ptolemy in Egypt and the Syrian Seleucids. All the while, the Hasmoneans tried to extend their own geo-political influence between the Jordan and Mediterranean. The original Hasmonean Kingdom centred on the areas around Jerusalem and Jericho. Within 100 years this had spread both the Galil to north and the lands of Idumea to the south. The forced conversion of the later would result in the Hasmoneans themselves being usurped by a young Idumean named Herod. The short-lived Herodian dynasty was at best a vassal or client Kingdom under Rome and eventually usurped itself by direct rule by Rome under a Governor.


The Hasmonean claims to kingship are probably not as problematic as we view them today. The Tanakh warns Jews about selecting Kings: in the book of Samuel the great judge himself resists the call to have a king: the true King of the Jewish people is Hashem. Saul, David and Solomon all have their flaws followed by a long list of Davidic Kings that are fairly underwhelming. The issue with the Hasmoneans is that they spent more time in battle than in the Holy of Holies. They never sured up the independence of Judea but instead made it a valuable jewel in the crown of any would be Emperor wishing to secure the road and trade routes between Africa, Asia and Europe. Israel would remain at the crossroads of trade until it could be bypassed by the Suez Canal and air travel.

The Hasmoneans were High Priests and Kings but their Majesties were eager to win over power by bumping off rivals: murder was one method and slicing off the ears of their rivals was another (making one King-High Priest ineligible for the position). The failure of the Hasmonean leadership was evident for all to see. By the time the Herodian dynasty and Rome had taken over the people were looking for a reason for their loss of newly found independence. As Rome tightened its grip on the Jewish people and went from being somewhat philo-Judaic to anti-Judaic the Jews looked for redemption: they looked to the Prophets and the restoration of the Davidic line. As oppression builds up the call for Messiah grows. By the time Jerusalem is under direct rule of a Roman Governor by the name of Pontius Pilate new Messiahs are popping up left right and centre and continue to do so for several decades to come.

The idea was simple: if only we had the true King, the true Messiah then all would be alright. Indeed some scholars coincide this period with the setting of the Biblical canon, others claim it was later. Regardless, the popularity of both Isaiah and Ezekiel come to the fore with their predictions of  eschatology, end-time and Messianism

This fervour favoured those claiming descent from David who would lead Jews into open revolt OR better after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt and the Great Diaspora Revolt individuals with links to the the House of David would be appointed either as the ‘nasi’ in the land of Israel or ‘reisha galut’ / the Exiliarch in the Persian Empire. In the end many of these individuals would either prove to be ‘useful idiots’ allowed to wear special clothing or lead Jews into other revolts which they would not survive. The last direct descendent of King David was the Exiliarch Mar Zutra who found himself crucified after an unsuccessful rebellion in 520s.

Keter Kehuna

This was sometime later. Back to the Hasmoneans. The family did not only look to build fragile alliances with foreign powers but sure up their power base by allying with rival groups within Temple and national politics: the two great philosophical camps within Judaism at the time were the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

Much has been written about these two groups through the prism of the State-Church debate and conflict in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America. Classically, the Sadducees have been seen as somewhat ‘statist’ with the power of monarchy is linked to Temple and its priests and the Temple and the priests to monarchy.

This simplifies what is actually a competition of ideas between the two groups: their differences are more to do with the nature of authority: the Pharisees purported the existence of the oral law alongside the written law; the Sadducees rejected this. They also differed on free will and predestination; the existence of heaven; and the role of non-priests in religious life. The Sadducees power came from the Temple. The rededication of the Temple brought in business and with it income and power and perhaps for the most part the Am Haaretz the people working on the land were happy to come to Jerusalem with their sin offerings, peace offerings and offering of thanks. The priests new how to create business. The three foot festivals found in the Torah were supplemented by other new festivals: we know that there were special festivals every six weeks: one for wood, another for olives etc. This innovation brought more people into the Temple complex, more half shekels being collected, more sacrifices and more business. Jerusalem was growing and becoming a major city: the Jerusalem at the end of Persian Empire and at the time of Alexander the Great numbered less than 3000 individuals. By the Roman period this had grown 10 fold, 100 fold or even 2000 fold.

The wealth generated strengthened those in charge of the Temple: namely the priests and the High Priest. Whilst for much of the Hasmonean reign the Sadducee party made up of aristocratic priests held sway: there were moments were rival Hasmoneans sided with the Pharisees.

In the world of the Sadducees the priests and the monarchy were not subject to ordinary justice processes. Indeed, the Talmud records that the priests meted out harsh justice to those who broke the rules of the cult. If a priest was found to be serving in the Temple in a state of impurity the younger priests would take him out and crush his head with a log. Their power was dependent on the Temple. They would survive the fall of monarchy but without the Temple their power base would be lost.

Keter Torah

The Pharisees argued not only about the existence of the oral law but had a more democratic approach to the Torah. They were more minded to believe that all had a share in the Torah: the priests and the laity: indeed they claimed that the priesthood did not have a monopoly over judgement claiming authority from the Torah: And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show you the sentence of judgment (Devarim 17:9).  Their idea was radical. The Torah could be shared, learnt and was for all. Others could be taught complex ideas and in turn could teach those ideas. They wanted a return of the Sanhedrin.

they were prepared to fight for their ideas and be persecuted for them. In the year 88BCE, 800 leading Pharisees were executed. Within two decades the only Hasmonean Queen to rule in her own right Sholometzion restored the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin.

The Pharisees were devastated by the various revolts and might have received the same fate as the Sadducees in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple had it not been for Yohanan ben Zakkai who as legend has it was given Yavneh by Vespesian after ‘prophesising’ he was about to become Emperor. In Yavneh, he repackaged Judaism and enabled it to be put in backpacks: Judaism and even the Temple service were made portable. The rabbinic Judaism that was to emerge would preserve the traditions of Kehuna and the memory of Malchut but most of it all purported the ideals of the Torah and made the service of the Jews portable and relevant to a world where sacrifice was replaced by prayer; the Kohanim bless the congregation at festival or Shabbat or everyday depending on which community you are from and where you live; and we pray for restoration and salvation: our faith became portable.

The failure of the Hasmoneans left a yearning for both a restoration of Kings and the Temple: of a time when a true Messiah would come and deliver a new utopian world. With its strong moral code and its vision that we can have a part in bringing about the Messiah and the utopian vision that Judaism had to offer: our faith was transformed from a national religion with a Temple at its heart to a Diaspora that dreamed of a better world and a better future: where Torah, Kingship and Priesthood come together.

In our darkest times we remember that we can be different: different to Hellenism, to Roman values, to Christianity and Islam, to totalitarian communism and secular liberalism… The Chanukiah reminds us of this religious freedom.

When we light the Chanukiah we shine a light out to the entire world. Chanukah Sameach.

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