Close your eyes and picture Arnold Schwarzenegger: His Uzi has just jammed, he’s got one arm in a sling, he’s about to take on 300 bad guys all at once – and he’s wearing a yarmulke. That’s who Judah Maccabee was!
“Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” Exodus 15:11
In the beginning. We begin the story of Hanukkah during the reign of the Greek king, Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and the Land of Israel and annexed them into his kingdom. He was a benevolent king who allowed the people in all of his lands to continue to observe their own religious beliefs and customs. Nevertheless, during this time of quiet, many Jews chose to assimilate into Greek culture. This group was termed Hellenistic Jews.
Alexander’s empire divided
When Alexander the Great died, his Empire was divided amongst his generals. The Land of Israel has given to Seleucus. For over 100 years the Jews were afforded much of the same privileges and rights as other citizens of the Empire. However, Antiochus III, the great-greatgrandson of Seleucus, was forced to fight a costly war against the Romans. As a result the Jewish people fell out of favor with Antiochus III and thus the beginning of the end of equality for the Jews in the Syrian-Greek Empire.
In 174 BCE Antiochus III’s son, Antiochus IV, began his reign over the Empire. He was a harsh and cruel king; a tyrant of reckless nature and contemptuous of religions and customs that were not his own.
Antiochus IV – the cruel king
Antiochus IV wanted to unite his kingdom under his religion, worship of the Greek idol Zeus. Within the Empire he stifled all Jewish Law. He removed the righteous High Priest Yochanan from the Temple in Jerusalem. Yochanan was replaced with his brother Joshua – a Hellenistic Jew who called himself by the Greek name Jason. Jason used his position as High Priest to infect the priesthood and the Jewish people with the traditions and religion of the Greeks. Jason was soon replaced by another named Menelaus who defiled the Temple with the worship of Greek idols.
Yochanan was outraged by his brother’s behavior and that of Menelaus. When Antiochus IV was away fighting a war against Egypt Yochanan began to rally the Jews to disobey the new customs and religion being forced on them. The Jewish people were afraid of Antiochus’ reprisals and mostly did nothing. However, when the Romans spread a rumor that Antiochus IV had been killed, the Jewish people rebelled against Menelaus causing him to flee.
Much to the horror of the Jews, Antiochus returned from battle alive and enraged by Roman meddling and Jewish rebellion. He ordered his army to strike out against the Jews killing thousands. Antiochus IV then ordered a series of extremely harsh decrees against the Jewish people and religion.
All Jewish worship was forbidden. All Scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Observation of Shabbat, the Brit Milah, and abiding by Kashrut were all prohibited under penalty of death. As the soldiers went town to town ravaging the Land of Israel they forced Jewish inhabitants to worship their pagan idols and eat the flesh of pigs. Many complied, but some refused and died for their beliefs.
One day Antiochus’ soldiers arrived in a town called Modiin just outside Jerusalem. An old, great priest named Mattiyahu was an inhabitant of this town. The soidiers built an altar to their pagan idols in the center of town and ordered Mattiyahu to worship at it. Mattiyahu refused. A Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattiyahu took out his sword and killed him, and his sons and neighbors sprang on the Greek soldiers killing or chasing them away.
Mattiyahu knew when Antiochus IV heard of this rebellion there would be a heavy price to pay. He fled together with his sons and neighbors to the hills of Judah. Here they lived in the caves and encouraged all loyal and courageous Jews to join them. They formed legions and would carefully leave the caves to attach outposts of Greek and Syrian soldiers and destroy pagan altars.
When old Mattiyahu was on his deathbed, he called his sons together. He encouraged them to defend G-d’s Torah. He asked that the tactical leader be Shimon the Wise and in battle the leader be Judah the Strong. Judah was known as Maccabee – a contraction for “Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim HaShem” translated as “Who is like you, O G-d.” This was sung to G-d by Moses and the Israelites after G-d parted the Red Sea giving them safe passage and destroying the Egyptians (Exodus 15:11).
Rise of the Maccabees, and the fall of Antiochus
Judah’s followers became known as “The Maccabees” and caused great havoc to the Empire. Eventually Antiochus sent one of his best generals to wipe out this little band of Jewish fighters. Even though the Empire’s army was much better equipped and greater in number, the Maccabees were triumphant in battle again and again.
Antiochus IV realized that he needed to put an end to this rebellion once and for all. He sent an army of 40,000 men in to the Judean hills. When Judah and the Maccabees heard the army coming they cried, “Let us fight to the death in defense of our souls and our Temple!” The Maccabees fought with G-d in their hearts and the honor of Judaism in their souls. They fought for their Torah and for their Temple. After a series of bloody battles, it was done. They had defeated the powerful army of Antiochus.
With their victory, the Maccabees climbed a mountain outside Jerusalem and looked upon the city. On the 25th of Kislev they descended the mountain to liberate Jerusalem and reclaim their Temple. As they marched into the Holy City they were distressed by what they saw – idols, impurity, and filth everywhere. They entered the Holy Temple and were shocked to see the same. Jerusalem and the the Temple needed to be made Holy again for G-d.
The miracle of the endless oil
They began in the Temple, clearing it of all pagan idols and building a new altar. The golden Menorah has been stolen by the Syrians and Greeks so the Maccabees made a new one from what they could find. They wanted in light the Menorah to rededicate the Temple to the One True G-d. They rummaged though the ruins seeking a flask of sanctified oil, but all had been defiled. Finally, they found a small jug in which the Kohen seal was still intact.
They carefully poured the oil into their makeshift Menorah even though they realized that there was only enough oil for one day. They also realized that it would take eight days to sanctify more oil for the Temple. Nevertheless, the Maccabees had faith and dedicated the Holy Temple and lit the Menorah.
Then a great miracle occurred. The oil burned through the first night an on to the second, then on to the third. The oil continued to burn for eight nights until more oil was ready for the Temple. This miracle proved that G-d was with the Maccabee all along. They fought for what they believed and held fast in face of death with G-d at their side. Their faith in G-d and the Torah never wavered and G-d showed them His Divine presence.
Two thousand years ago, one family led by one man stood between the mighty Greek army and the conquest of the Jewish people. The family was the Hasmoneans, and the man was Judah Maccabee.
The Greeks were different from other empires. They didn’t just want your land, your resources and your riches — they wanted your national essence, your culture. They wanted you to think like them, live like them and even be entertained like them. The problem was most Jews weren’t buying, and the Greeks didn’t appreciate that. So the Greeks brought pressure to bear on the Jews.
Women who insisted that their sons be circumcised were killed along with their babies. Brides were forced to sleep with Greek officers before they could be with their husbands. Jews were required to eat pork and sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods. The teaching of Torah became a capital crime. The sages and their students went into hiding in order to study and preserve the Torah. Secret weddings were held. Most Jews did anything and everything to remain Jewish. Many were tortured and murdered for their defiance.
A period of darkness and suffering descended upon the Jews of Israel. And then came the Hasmoneans. The Hasmonean family was led by Mattisyahu and his five sons: Shimon, Yochanan, Yehudah (Judah), Elazar and Yonasan. Mattisyahu was a devout man who could not bear to see Judaism and the Jewish spirit crushed. It was his family that led the revolt against the vastly superior Greek forces.
Mattisyahu understood that the battle was far less for national liberation than it was for spiritual and religious liberation. Though Mattisyahu’s valor provided the initial spark for the revolt against the Greeks, he died shortly after the rebellion grew into a full-fledged war. The mantle of leadership passed from Mattisyahu to his son Judah, and with that the course of history was forever changed. Judah Maccabee was a fearless leader, a brilliant battlefield tactician and a man capable of inspiring thousands to take up arms in the battle for the preservation of Judaism.
It was Judah Maccabee who conceived of ways for the Jewish forces to out-maneuver the larger, better equipped and seasoned Greek army. When at last the Jews captured Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple and witnessed the miracle of the oil, it was with Judah Maccabee as the leader of the Hasmonean family and at the head of the Jewish army of liberation. Arnold, step aside!
If you are traveling somewhere in the world and you want to know if American culture has reached that place, don’t look for an American flag, look instead for the “Golden Arches.” If McDonalds has arrived, then Steven Spielberg can’t be far behind. Can you imagine that today there are places in the world where Levi jeans sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars, that Croatia is starting to produce basketball players talented enough to be NBA All Stars, and that somewhere behind the Great Wall of China there are countless people who can’t get enough pirated CDs of rap music? The Greeks would have been awfully jealous because this is exactly what they were trying to do with their culture.
For more on the History of Greece and Alexander the Great read here:
They wanted their philosophy, form of worship, entertainment, arts, literature, theater and athletic games to become the defining elements for peoples national and daily lives everywhere. At the time of the Greek conquest there were two kinds of Jews living in Israel. First, there were those who decided that Hellenism represented an attractive alternative to Judaism. For them, Hellenist culture was the way of the future, the way to gain acceptance into the larger Greek society and the way to prosperity. Some abandoned Judaism altogether and some relegated it to a secondary role in their lives, but all of them believed that they belonged more to the theater and the gymnasium than to the halls of Torah study and the Temple. These Jews were the Hellenists. The second group, and the larger of the two, was the traditional Jews — the “ardently orthodox” of their day. This group continued to lead a Jewish life despite the Greek persecution and despite great risk to their very lives. When the Hasmoneans launched their revolt, it was this camp that provided the men who would come to be known as the Maccabees. The Jewish rebellion was a great event in Jewish history, but tragically, the war against the Greeks was also a civil war. Not all Jews sided with the Maccabees, who to some represented “the past.” Many Hellenized Jews aligned themselves with “progress” and with the future.
As a result, Jews battled with one another for the right to define the future of Jewish life and the Jewish nation. In many ways the story of Chanukah is the story of how one man and one family can make all the difference in the world for an entire people. It was the inspiration of Mattisyahu, the leadership of Judah Maccabee and the stubborn tenacity of the dedicated Jews that literally saved the Jewish people and the Jewish way of life. As a Jew, don’t ever think that you can’t make a difference.
Read more about the Maccabees here.