What do yom tov sheni, smoke signals, and Samaritans have in common? The answer is Sartava, a very pronounced mountain that rises dramatically from the floor of the Jordan valley.
We learn in the Mishnah that originally before we had the set calendar that we have to today; the Sanhedrin would only declare the month after it had received and accepted the testimony of 2 witnesses. Once it was shown that the testimony cooberated with the facts. The Beis Din would send out the word to the Jewish world. For six months of the year they would send out messengers on Rosh Chodesh to announce its findings. They were the months of Nisan in which Pesach falls, the month of Av because of Tisha B’Av, Elul because of Rosh Hashanah, Tishrei to tell over when the first of the month was, and to set Succos in its proper time, Kislev for Chanukah, and on Adar for Purim. During the times that the Beis Hamikdash was still standing they would also send in the month of Iyar for Pesach Sheni. This was done to ensure that everyone would keep the holidays on the same day. These messengers could not travel on Shabbat or Yom Tov.
Another method was also employed, that was via smoke signals. This was done when the previous month was lacking, IE it had 29 days instead of 30. The people living outside Jerusalem were not aware that the month was a short month, and since they had not heard differently kept the next day as the thirtieth. In order to rectify this, the Beis Din would make smoke signals traveling north of Jerusalem, via the mountains. This system enabled the population centers in Bavel to get the information in real time, thus enabling them to keep up with their counter parts in Eretz Yisrael. Sartava was one of the stops according to the Mishnah.
One day seeing an opportunity at hand the Kuthim (Samaritans) ascended the mountains and lit the fire on the wrong day. The Beis Din declared that smoke signals were no longer a viable option and stopped them all together. From that point on, Jews in exile had to be dependent only on the messengers. Any community that was more than 10 days outside Jerusalem would have to keep 2 days of Yom Tov out of doubt.
As this mountain was located in the heart of the area where the Kuthim came from (the area is still called Samaria today) it is tempting to suggest that the drama unfolded on this very mountain.
Today one can ascend this wind swept mountain and see remains of what was once one of the mightiest fortresses in the land of Israel. The fortress was called Alexandrium after its builder Alexander Yani. After his death his wife Shlomit ruled together with the Sages in what would be come the golden age of the Second Temple Period. She gave the Pharisees all but three of her fortresses: Alexandrium, Hyrcania (just south of Jericho), and Macherus (located on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea). It was at these installations that she stored her wealth.
After her death the kingdom was mired by civil war between her two sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. The two of them were Sadducees through and through. They sidelined the sages and ultimately brought the end to Jewish autonomy in Israel by asking Rome to arbitrate between them. Pompey chose the weaker brother Hyrcanus and his wily advisor the Edomite slave Antipater (who was the father of Herod). Aristobulus was taken to Rome.
Aristobulus’s son Alexander escaped from Pompey and sought to gain back Jewish independence. He mustered 10,000 footmen and 1,500 horsemen and fortified 3 fortresses, one of them Alexandrium. War ensued and things did not go well for the Jewish side. The defenders of Alexandrium surrendered after a long siege, and were allowed to leave unharmed. The Romans ascended and dismantled the fortress.
Sometime later Aristobulus escaped from Rome and tried to fight as his son had before him. He set about rebuilding Alexandrium. Aristobulus went out from here with an expedition of 6,000 men to take Macherus. They were attacked, and although they fought valiantly (5,000 died) they were defeated. Aristobulus made it to Macherus with the remainder of his army. After two days he surrendered and was deported back to Rome.
Alexander would try again and fail. This time it was by Mt. Tabor in the Galilee. Roman rule was established, Jewish autonomy lay in ruins like those at the top of Sartava.