Q. Aside from Queen Esther, what can you tell me about Jewish queens?A. The Queen of Sheba was probably the most famous Biblical queen, but she was not Jewish. Hers was a prosperous realm in south-west Arabia, and when she “heard of the fame of Solomon because of the name of the Lord”, she paid a visit to Jerusalem and was amazed at his wisdom and his magnificent palace. The story, told in I Kings 10, is embroidered in apocryphal and rabbinic literature and in Josephus.
Some of the Jewish queens in the Bible, such as Michal, the wife of David, were not highly regarded by history. Others, like Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, were considered as outright wicked women.
Post-Biblical Jewish queens had a better reputation. Two in particular who were referred to in Talmudic literature were respected for their piety and political abilities, such as Salome Alexandra (Sh’lomtzion), who ruled Judea in her own right from 76 to 67 BCE. Her husband Yannai had supported the Sadducees at a time of great tension with the rival Pharisees. 50,000 people lost their lives in the struggle, according to Josephus; to mark his victory the king had 800 of his opponents crucified and many of the surviving Pharisees left Judea to save their own lives. The king himself did not survive for long. Stricken with a mortal illness, he urged his wife to make peace with the other side.
She not only brought back the Pharisee exiles but ruled so wisely in her own right that the nation was calm and at peace, and there were such wonderful harvests that the grains of corn were said to be as big as olives. Her brother, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, ensured that the Pharisees would support her, and he is credited with “restoring the Torah to its ancient glory”. Because of Salome’s piety the sages regarded her as having saved Judaism.
The second famous Jewish queen was Helen, wife of king Monabazus of Adiabene. Sympathetic to Judaism, she and her family helped the Jews to stand out against Rome. Helen herself became Jewish towards the end of the last century BCE, as did her son, Izates. Deciding on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she brought with her a number of golden gifts for the sanctuary. However, she found the country in the grip of famine, and the queen and her son, who was now the ruler of his country, imported food to alleviate the starvation.
Five of her grandchildren came to Jerusalem with her to learn Hebrew and be instructed in Judaism. On her death she was interred in Jerusalem, as was her son the king, who had died shortly before. The rabbis had a high opinion of her courage and determination and recorded that one of her descendants was a student of the great Rabbi Akiva.