A Jewish queen of courage, integrity, and piety – with a volatile husband ready to wreak destruction upon her people – with a male relative marked for death after committing the “crime” of upholding Judaism – and with a plan to save the Jews and restore their splendor.
And, by the way, it’s not Queen Esther.
Welcome to Queen Shlomziyon Street in Jerusalem.
Running from Jaffa Street past Ben Sira Street, then meeting up with King Solomon Street right outside Mamilla, Queen Shlomziyon Street immortalizes a woman who lived centuries after Queen Esther – but whose story is no less fascinating, and who deserves every inch of the prime real estate that bears her name.
Queen Shlomziyon – also known as Queen Salome Alexandra – was the wife of Alexander Yannai, himself a grandson of the vaunted warrior Simon the Maccabee and the first Jew to claim the title of king since the fall of Jerusalem to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. Such a moment should have been a triumphant and glorious one – and it might have been, had not Alexander Yannai been a man of arrogance, brutality, and derision toward the traditions and the values he had been entrusted to uphold.
How arrogant? How brutal? How derisive? The following is just a sample:
On Sukkot, with his people gathered in the Holy Temple for the sacred water ritual, Alexander Yannai deliberately spilled the water upon his feet rather than – as prescribed and practiced for centuries – upon the altar. When the enraged assembly protested by throwing their etrogim at the king, Alexander Yannai ordered his troops to put down the rebellion – by massacring six thousand of the Jews who had come to celebrate Sukkot.
Alexander Yannai allied himself with the nobility of the Second Temple period – the Sadducees – and replaced the learned judges of the Sanhedrin with uneducated Sadducees whose loyalty to him was absolute.
Mindful of the authority and popularity of Jerusalem’s sages – also known as the Pharisees – Alexander Yannai mounted a horrific campaign to murder the leading rabbis of the time. Eight hundred Pharisees sought sanctuary in a fortress – and all eight hundred were slaughtered when Alexander Yannai captured their hiding place.
Queen Shlomziyon, however, was nothing like her husband. When Alexander Yannai was away from Jerusalem on military campaigns, she had ruled in his place with kindness, benevolence, and devotion. And on his deathbed, Alexander Yannai realized his own terrible failings – and formally handed his kingdom over to his wife.
The next ten years were among the most joyous, most serene, and most prosperous in the history of the Jews. Queen Shlomziyon established perhaps the first system of universal public education in history, putting the responsibility for educating children not upon the family but upon the government; reorganized the Sanhedrin and installed her brother, the exalted sage Shimon ben Shetach – whose life she had, incidentally, saved by outwitting her husband – as its president; and ensured that each town had access to scholars, teachers, and judges.
But Queen Shlomziyon also ruled with cunning and intelligence. She ended the unpopular foreign wars her husband had started, adhered scrupulously to treaties with the powers of the time, increased the size of her army by fifty percent, and participated in military campaigns to strengthen her nation’s borders. Even Josephus – the chronicler of Jewry in the time of the Romans – had admiring words for Queen Shlomziyon and her deeds.
According to talmudic legend, Queen Shlomziyon’s reign was marked not only by earthly happiness but by miraculous abundance. In order to preserve workers’ ability to labor and to earn their wages, rain never fell during the week – only on Shabbat. Grains of wheat grew to the size of kidneys, barley grew as large as olive pits, and lentils as big as gold denarii. The sages, we are told, saved some of these crops – as proof of what can be achieved under a leader like Queen Shlomziyon, and to inspire future generations.
I’m inspired. Are you?