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Nadav Sharon





An Ancient Precedent for the Yom Kippur War?



APA e-journal

Nadav Sharon





An Ancient Precedent for the Yom Kippur War?






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An Ancient Precedent for the Yom Kippur War?

Two Roman conquests of Jerusalem (Pompey in 63 B.C.E. and Sosius in 37 B.C.E.) purportedly happened on “the day of the fast,” during which the Jews barely defended themselves. Is this a reference to Yom Kippur and why didn’t the Jews defend themselves?


An Ancient Precedent for the Yom Kippur War?

Pompey enters the Jerusalem Temple. Painting by Jean Fouquet, circa 1470.

The Yom Kippur War

In his book, The War of Atonement, Chaim Herzog describes how

[The Egyptian and Syrian] operations staff decided on the tenth of Ramadan or 6 October, for the start of the campaign…
[T]he Israelis would assume that Arab soldiers would not engage in military operations during the fast of Ramadan, but 6 October… was also the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur when alertness would be at its lowest level.[1]

The attack may have surprised Israelis and Jews around the world, but it may have not been unprecedented. As we will see, the Romans appear to have thought of it first.

From Pompey to Herod: A Sketch of Two Conquests of Jerusalem

The Hasmonean State of Judea essentially came to its end with the conquest of the Temple by the Romans in 63 B.C.E. However, some vestiges of Hasmonean authority remained until another conquest of Jerusalem, in 37 B.C.E. The details are intricate and complicated but here is a simplified version:

Upon the death of the Hasmonean Queen Salome Alexandra (Shelamzion or שלומציון המלכה) in 67 B.C.E.,[2] her two sons Hyrcanus II and Aristobolus II battled over the throne. Although Aristobulus was able to take the throne, intermittent civil war continued until the arrival of the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) in Damascus in the Spring of 63 BCE, when both Hasmonean brothers requested his support.

Pompey initially deferred his decision and asked the brothers to keep the peace. When, however, Aristobulus disregarded Pompey’s request and set out for Judea, Pompey pursued him. Though Aristobulus eventually surrendered, his supporters barricaded themselves in the Temple. A long siege ensued, but in the end the Roman army, along with Hyrcanus’ soldiers, took the Temple in a violent assault. Many Judeans were killed, Aristobulus and his family were exiled and Hyrcanus was made high priest, but not king, as Judea was kept under the watchful eye of the Roman governor of Syria. 

Hyrcanus remained high priest for many years to come. With his advisor, Antipater, a Jew of Idumean origin, and the father of the future king Herod the Great, at his side, they were able to navigate the complicated changes of power in Rome during the Roman civil wars that were taking place then. Yet, during this period, Judea did not remain calm. Aristobulus and his two sons, Alexander and Antigonus (Mattathias), as well as other Judeans, took advantage of numerous opportunities to lead revolts. However, the Romans put down all such revolts.

But, when the Parthian Empire overran the Roman forces to the west of the Euphrates River, in 40 B.C.E., and took Syria and parts of Asia Minor, Antigonus, the son of Aristobolus II, joined forces with them. In exchange for money and allegiance, they agreed to take Judea for Antigonus and make him king. When they took Jerusalem Hyrcanus was captured and maimed, and Phasael (Herod’s brother) committed suicide, but Herod escaped to Rome, where the Senate appointed him king of Judea.

As the Romans expelled the Parthians, Herod struggled to take Judea. Eventually, after almost three years, and with the aid of a massive Roman force, led by the Roman general Gaius Sossius, Herod took Jerusalem following yet another long siege. Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king, was then executed by Marc Anthony, and Herod’s 33 year rule as king of Judea commenced.  

Two Conquests of Jerusalem on “the Fast Day”

In his monumental history of the Jews, the Jewish Antiquities, Yosef ben Mattityahu, better known as Flavius Josephus, draws an intriguing parallel between the two conquests that enclose this period.

Regarding Pompey’s conquest in 63 BCE, Josephus wrote:

[T]he city was taken, in the third month, on the Fast Day, in the hundred and seventy-ninth Olympiad, in the consulship of Gaius Antonius and Marcus Tullius Cicero. (Ant.14.66)[3]

Following the second conquest, he writes:

This calamity befell the city of Jerusalem…on the festival of the fast, as if it were a recurrence of the misfortune which came upon the Jews in the time of Pompey, for they were captured by him [Sossius] on the very same day, twenty-seven years later. (Ant.14.487–488)[4]

Thus, according to Josephus, Pompey and Herod not only laid siege on Jerusalem and conquered it, but both attacked the city on the same day, “the fast day.” What was this “fast day”?

Some scholars have suggested that the “fast” in either case, or in both, was the fast of Tammuz, or perhaps some other public fast day or a fast proclaimed due to the siege.[5]However, throughout the literature of the Second Temple period, this phrase, in Greek (hē nēsteia in Philo; Josephus; New Testament) and in Hebrew (יום/מועד התענית in the Dead Sea Scrolls), unequivocally denotes Yom Kippur. According to this, in a span of 26 years, the Temple was taken twice on that holiest day of the Jewish calendar! This is quite a set of precedents for the surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur of 1973!

Misplaced Skepticism about Josephus’ Dating

However, many scholars are skeptical of this synchronization of the two conquests with each other and with Yom Kippur. They have raised certain considerations that seemingly contradict the possibility that the conquests could have even occurred in Tishrei, and often rather suggest that they occurred in the summer, July-August. However, such considerations seem to be based on errors or unnecessary assumptions and interpretations. These considerations cannot be fully dealt with here, but the following is just one illustrative example:[6]

Scholars have argued that Herod and Sossius’ conquest (37 B.C.E.) could not have occurred in the autumn because the five-month siege began in early spring. That assumption is based on Josephus’s mention of a cheimon (winter) that postponed Herod’s siege:[7]

With the confidence of his victory [in a previous battle], Herod would instantly have marched upon Jerusalem, had he not been detained by a cheimon of exceptional severity. (War 1.339)[8] 

However, the Greek word cheimon means both winter and storm, and the plain impression of the passage in Josephus is one of an unexpected delay, so “storm” is a more suitable translation. While storms are most common in the Land of Israel in the winter, spring storms are certainly not unheard of. Consequently, a five-month siege that began after a cheimon, a spring storm, could have ended on, or close to, Yom Kippur.[9]

Some other evidence, in fact, seems to point to the time near Yom Kippur, as the likely time of the conquests. Thus, for example, regarding the first conquest (63): Pompey is said to have left Northern Syria on his way to Damascus in early spring. On his way, he achieved many things and fought a number of battles. Upon arriving in Damascus, he met delegations of various peoples, including Judean delegations. Next, he prepared to march against Nabatea, but then aborted that plan in order to pursue the Hasmonean king, Aristobulus II, through the Jordan Valley, and only after various maneuverings and negotiations, did he come to lay the siege on Jerusalem. It is unlikely that he accomplished all this, in addition to the three months of the siege itself, by mid-summer, and an early autumn date of the conquest is more likely.

The Conquests on the Sabbath?

The Roman historian Cassius Dio (160-230 CE), also describes these conquests. He, however, does not mention any “fast day” saying instead that they occurred on “the day of Saturn,” that is, the Sabbath (Dio, 37.16.2-4; 49.22.4). Dio, however, wrote well after the events and is often faulty in his history of this period. Nevertheless, Dio’s specification of the Sabbath fits with another approach taken by some scholars,[10] that “the fast day” referred to in Josephus is not Yom Kippur but Sabbath, which some non-Jewish Greco-Roman sources believed to be a fast day. For example, in a letter to Tiberius, Augustus, the first Roman emperor, wrote: 

Not even a Jew…fasts so scrupulously on his Sabbaths as I have today. (Suetonius,Divus Augustus 76.2)

These scholars, thus, argue that Josephus’ “the fast” originated in a non-Jewish, Greco-Roman, source, he was using, and in that source the phrase referred to the Sabbath; but Josephus misunderstood his source and thus formed the synchronization of the two events.

Strabo’s Account and “the Day of the Fast”

Indeed, in his Antiquities, Josephus used a variety of sources—sometimes explicitly mentioning them and sometimes not—to enhance his main narrative. One such source was the Greek historian and geographer Strabo, whom Josephus explicitly quotes a few times in his narrative of this period. Strabo wrote a monumental history, Historical Sketches (Historica hypomnemata), which is now lost, and also Geography which has survived. In his Geography, Strabo in fact recounts some of these events in Judea including Pompey’s conquest, about which he wrote:

He (Pompey) seized (the city), it is said, after having waited for the day of the fast, when the Judeans regularly abstained from all work; (already) having filled up the trench and having thrown the ladders. (Geography 16.2.40; translation—mine)

So, it certainly seems that Josephus’ datum of “the fast day” came from Strabo. But what did Strabo mean by this? Could he have simply meant that the conquest took place on the Sabbath?

Sabbath as a Fast Day: Latin versus Greek Texts

Aside from Augustus’ letter, the assumption that Jews fast on the Sabbath appears clearly in three other extant sources (Pompeius Trogus, Petronius, and Martial), and those sources are all in Latin. The description of the Sabbath as a fast day never appears among Greek authors such as Strabo. More importantly, all of these sources explicitly denote the day they are referring to as the Sabbath; nowhere is it referred to simply as “the fast day.”

In contrast, the Greek author Plutarch quite clearly refers to Yom Kippur as the Jews’ “so-called Fast” (Quest. Conv. 4.6.2). Thus, there is no reason to simply assume that, by speaking of “the day of the fast,” Strabo meant the Sabbath rather than Yom Kippur.

A Day on Which Fighting is Forbidden?

Strabo’s statement that Pompey waited specifically for a day “when the Judeans regularly abstained from all work” could equally apply both to the Sabbath and to Yom Kippur. Yet, in the context of the siege and conquest, this abstention from work would seem to refer not just to any labor but rather to some sort of self-defense.

Indeed, in a variety of ancient sources about these conquests, and especially about Pompey’s conquest, we barely hear of any Jewish resistance to the final assault. Strabo does not mention any defense; Josephus mentions only “brief resistance” (War 1.149); and Cassius Dio explicitly writes that “the defenders were captured…without making any defense” (37.16.4).

Self Defense on Shabbat: An Ancient Debate

Two opposing halakhic views about fighting on the Sabbath are known from Antiquity. According to one view, any sort of fighting is forbidden on the Sabbath (Jubilees [early second century B.C.E.] 50:12–13):

And as for any man who does work on it, or who goes on a journey, or who plows a field either at home or any (other) place, or who kindles a fire, or who rides on any animal, or who travels the sea in a boat, and any man who slaughters or kills anything, or who slashes the throat of cattle or bird, or who snares any beast or bird or fish, or who fasts or makes war on the day of the Sabbath, let the man who does any of these on the day of the Sabbath die… (Wintermute trans. in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha).

According to the other view, which is held to this day, any fighting or work that can be remotely defined as self-defense is permitted on the Sabbath. This position may have originated in the enactment of Mattathias (מתתיהו), the father of the Hasmonean dynasty and forebear of the Temple’s defenders during these sieges, in reaction to the slaughter of pious Jews who would not fight on the Sabbath, as described in 1 Maccabees 2:34–41:

But they said, “We will not come out, nor will we do what the king commands and so profane the Sabbath day.” Then the enemy hastened to attack them. But they did not answer them or hurl a stone at them or block up their hiding places, for they said, “Let us all die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.”So they attacked them on the Sabbath and they died, with their wives and children and cattle, to the number of a thousand persons. When Mattathias and his friends learned of it, they mourned for them deeply. And each said to his neighbor: “If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.” (Schiffman trans., Outside the Bible)

It would be surprising if the descendants of Mattathias disregarded his faction’s ruling and allowed themselves to be defeated and killed and the Temple to be conquered without offering any defense because of the Sabbath.

“On the Sabbaths, the Jews Fight Only in Self-Defense”

How then are we to understand the apparent lack of defense offered by the Jews on this “fast day”? The key is perhaps found in an earlier part of Josephus’ description of Pompey’s siege, which explains that due to the enormous fortifications of Jerusalem and the Jews’ defense,

[T]he labours of the Romans [in building the siege works] would have been endless, had not Pompey taken advantage of the seventh day of the week, on which the Jews, from religious scruples, refrain from all manual work… for on the sabbaths the Jews fight only in self-defense. (War 1.146; see also Ant. 14.63–64; Cassius Dio 37.16.2–3).

According to the view attributed here to the besieged, they held that only direct self-defense is permitted on the Sabbath, but that any other labor, including work necessary to hamper the building of the siege, is forbidden.

Although this halakhic position is not attested elsewhere, that is no reason to reject Josephus’ testimony. It is certainly reasonable that some Jews held such a stringent position, permitting only direct self-defense, as an intermediate point between the two extreme poles of entirely permitting and entirely forbidding any sort of self-defense. This position would in fact be entirely compatible with the context and the words of Mattathias’ original enactment, “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day.”

Yom Kippur Is “Shabbat Shabbaton”

Although this position still does not explain why the Jews offered little or no resistance to the conquests, it seems possible that Jews who held such a stringent position concerning fighting on the Sabbath, may have been even more reluctant to fight on the single holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the “Shabbat of Shabbats” (שבת שבתון). Consequently, dating these conquests to Yom Kippur, to which Strabo and Josephus seem to explicitly attest, may best explain the apparent lack of defense offered to the final assault.

In addition, an attack on Yom Kippur would have caught the defenders by surprise—all the more so because the attacking forces included Jews­—while weakened by the fast, and when the priests were quite busy with the day’s ritual and could not engage in fighting (as apparently attested by Josephus, in War 1.148-150 and Ant. 14.65-68).

The Yom Kippur Wars

Josephus’ dating of the two conquests (as well as Strabo’s dating of Pompey’s conquest) to “the day/festival of the fast” should indeed be understood as Yom Kippur, and it would make sense that either both conquests actually occurred on Yom Kippur, or at least one did and influenced the narrative of the other. If so, these conquests would indeed be ancient precedents for the attack against Modern Israel on Yom Kippur of 1973. Coincidentally, according to some reckonings, Yom Kippur of 37 BCE fell on Oct. 6,[11] the same date as the Yom Kippur of 1973.


September 27, 2017


Last Updated

September 15, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Nadav Sharon is a Lady Davis Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and he is the author of Judea under Roman Domination: The First Generation of Statelessness and Its Legacy.