This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Assideans for Everyone*

It was the Hasmonean family under the leadership Judah Maccabee, who succeeded in removing the yoke of Greek oppression and purifying the defiled Temple in Jerusalem.

However, they were not the first group to take up arms against Antiochus and the Hellenizers in defense of Jewish tradition.

According to the Books of Maccabees, there had been a prior attempt at Jewish resistance, spearheaded by a group called the "Assideans." There is no doubt that this term, which is preserved only in Greek transliteration, reflects the original Hebrew word Hassidim, "pious ones." Although the Hassidim fought fiercely for their cause, and were successful in their initial campaigns, the Greeks soon discovered their Achilles heel: As long as the devout freedom-fighters refused to wage war on the Sabbath, they were setting themselves up as easy targets, and their ranks were soon decimated by a series of Saturday massacres.

The turning point in the Hanukkah story occurred when Mattathias the Hasmonean ruled that it was permissible to wage defensive warfare on Shabbat. Once Mattathias and his sons had taken charge of the military campaign, the remaining loyalist forces joined the Hasmonean resistance, and little was heard afterwards from the Assideans as a separate group.

It is widely believed that the biblical book of Daniel was composed by these Assideans. Although the book is ostensibly relating stories that occurred centuries earlier, in the Babylonian courts of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, it reflects the historical situation and Jewish religious values at the time of the Hellenistic persecutions.

Employing a bizarre symbolic language of dreams and mythic beasts, Daniel tells of a supremely evil empire that will arise and oppress God's faithful. So invincible will this empire be that it can be brought low only through direct intervention by the Almighty himself, and not by any human agency. When God finally steps in to take an active part in the course of history, he will bring to a climax the succession of wicked kingdoms, and thereby initiate a radical new age in which humans will finally live in accordance with God's will.

The themes described here express eloquently what must have been the dominant mood among the Jewish faithful during the early stages of the Hanukkah story. The Hellenizing traitors seemed invincible, and there was no suggestion that their successes would ever cease; while the laws of the Torah were being trampled with impunity.

The author of Daniel provided assurances to his beleaguered readers that God would not allow this situation to continue perpetually. The tables would soon be turned, and those who maintained their faith under adversity would eventually be vindicated when God exacted vengeance on the sinners.

The historical records tell us almost nothing about the Assideans as a religious movement, other than the basic facts of their struggle against Hellenists and the unfortunate consequences of their strict Sabbath observance. They seem to have maintained some measure of distinct identity even after joining up with the Maccabean forces. At a later stage in the events, they fell victim to another unfortunate policy choice when (unlike Judah Maccabee) they consented to acknowledge the authority of the Hellenizing Jewish High Priest Alcimus. The latter returned the favour by slaughtering sixty of the Hassidim.

As often occurs in scholarship, the scarcity of solid facts serves as an open invitation to later generations to flesh out the details with hefty doses of imagination and ideological bias. In surveying the last two centuries of historiographic writing, one is overwhelmed by the confidence with which writers were able to describe the beliefs and values of the enigmatic movement of the Pious.

For several traditional Jewish historians, it was obvious that the ancient Hassidim were the forerunners of the type of Judaism that would later be known as Rabbinic. Some writers go so far as to identify by name the movement's founder: Simeon the Just, one of the earliest known names in the chain of transmitters of the Oral Torah. Proponents of this view drew support from the fact that the Talmud makes occasional references to a group that it calls "Hassidim of early times." Another obscure figure from the Mishnah, Yosé ben Jo'ezer of Seredah, is designated a Hassid, and a tradition recorded in the Midrash includes him among the victims of Alcimus' treachery.

A markedly different picture emerges from the writings of some secular Jewish scholars. One of the most distinguished historians of the Hellenistic era asserted with unwavering certainty that the Hassideans should be seen not merely as defenders of ancestral religious traditions, but as the champion of socio-economic class interests.

According to this view, the revolt against the Greeks was nothing less than a Marxist class struggle, with the pious Hassideans representing the interests of the urban populace of Jerusalem, including craftsmen, workers and petty traders. As one historian put it: "The law of Moses’Ķ became the war-cry of the masses, just as Greek culture was the watchword of the aristocracy. When the urban plebs took up arms to oppose the Hellenizing government with force, it was natural that the Hasidim’Ķshould be the popular directors and leaders of the insurrection."

What a convenient coincidence that those ancient pietists, as depicted by these historians, were motivated by the same socialist ideology that guided the Labour-Zionist pioneers of the twentieth century!

In much recent scholarship, the view has taken hold that the Hassideans were an ascetic, non-violent group who later evolved into the Essene movement that withdrew from Jerusalem to pursue a life of spiritual purity in the Judean desert. This reconstruction has been copied so often from writer to writer that it seems to have achieved the status of confirmed fact.

What is exasperating about this claim is not simply that it lacks documentary corroboration. In actuality, it utterly contradicts the few facts that are known about the Hassideans. After all, they were mentioned chiefly as a military group who waged a war (albeit an unsuccessful one) against the Hellenizing forces! The Book of Maccabees speaks of them as "mighty men in Israel," and it requires some chutzpah to interpret this expression as an allusion to spiritual prowess. Only an obstinate disregard for the sources would allow then to be portrayed as non-violent ascetics.

It would appear that this audacious twist of scholarly fantasy is symptomatic of a more general pattern among historical writers. It reflects the desperate quest of Christians to uncover roots of their faith in earlier forms of Judaism. After working so hard to dissociate themselves from the "arid legalism" of Pharisaic and Rabbinic religion, they turned their attention to less prominent sects of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.

On the whole, this scholarly enterprise led to far-reaching misrepresentations of the Essenes, the Hassidim, the Pharisees, and for that matter, the early Christians.

When all is said and done, what is most extraordinary about this episode is the inexplicable attraction that the ancient Assideans have continued to exert upon later generations. In their own time, it is true, they were pushed to the sidelines of history, defeated by their enemies and superceded by the Hasmoneans.

Nevertheless, recent generations have been competing vigorously to claim them as their spiritual ancestors.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressDecember 7 2001, pp. 22-4.

  • Bibliography:
    • Finkelstein, Louis. The Pharisees, the Sociological Background of their Faith. 3rd ed, Morris Loeb series. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962..
    • Sandmel, Samuel. Judaism and Christian Beginnings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
    • Tcherikover, Victor, 1959, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, First ed, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.
    • Vermès, Géza, 1956, Discovery in the Judean Desert, New York: Desclee
    • ---, 1995, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, London: Penguin