Who Were the Maccabees?

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Rabbi Zamir Cohen

This month we will celebrate the holiday of Hanukah.

As a person matures, he develops a more profound understanding of the insights he acquired in his childhood and builds on them. For example, we cannot compare the Torah we learned in elementary school to our in-depth study with the Torah commentaries as adults.

It is the same with Hanukah. When we were young, we learned a superficial and shallow view of the Hasmoneans. Now the time has come to understand them in a more profound way.

What the Rambam Tells Us About Hanukah

Let us begin with the Rambam’s words at the beginning of the Laws of Hanukah. He writes as follows:

“In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people to nullify their faith and prevent them from observing the Torah and its commandments. They [the Greeks] extended their hands against their [the Jews’] property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure.

“The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the Gd of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand.

“They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple. When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse that contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit lights from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.”

Two Miracles

From the Rambam’s words we can see that the Greeks’ main reason for waging war against the Jewish people was to destroy their unique Jewish identity, and this was why the Hasmoneans went to war against them. The Rambam also explains why we celebrate eight days: because that was the minimum time necessary in those days to produce oil and bring it to the Temple. Once they had produced the required amount of oil, there was no need for a further change in the laws of nature. The fire that had burned miraculously from the small amount of oil went out, and it was possible to use the new oil to light the Temple Menorah.

Actually, two miracles occurred on Hanukah: the first miracle was as we say in our prayers: “You gave over the strong into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.” The second was the miracle of the cruse of oil: a small jug with pure oil sufficient to burn for only one day was found with the stamp of the High Priest but miraculously the oil burned for eight days in a row.

The Real Maccabees

Today, when describing the events of Hanukah, there are those who present things in a very skewed light. Judah Maccabee is frequently illustrated as a muscular man with a shock of hair blowing in the wind, without a beard, and with a defiant look in his eyes – as if he were an Attila the Hun. The historical fact is that Judah Maccabee was a completely different type of person. He and his brothers were Gd-fearing men and Torah scholars who realized that the Greeks were destroying the people spiritually and corrupting them morally. When he and his brothers saw that there were Jews who were failing this difficult trial and were becoming Hellenists and behaving like gentiles, their hearts bled. They decided to take a stand and wage a battle that had no logical hope of succeeding. The entire campaign against the Greeks was a battle over the spiritual existence of the Jewish people.

Maccabi is an acronym of the words Mi kamocha b’elim Hashem which means “Who is like You among the powerful, Gd?” This is the slogan that they chose as a rallying call to launch their war. After all, what did Antiochus want? Unlike Haman, who wanted to destroy, kill, and exterminate all Jews, Antiochus did not seek to kill the Jews’ bodies but rather their souls. He wanted them to abandon their religion. If the Jews had come to Haman or Hitler and told them that they were ready to change their religion, these mortal enemies would not have given up on their programs of extermination. Their goal was to eradicate any remnant of the Jewish nation, Gd forbid. Antiochus, however, did not want to wipe out the Jews, he only wanted to wipe out Judaism. He wanted us to adopt the Greek culture.

Greek Culture Versus Our Culture

Much of Western culture that we see today has its source in Greece. The word “Olympics” comes from the sacred Greek site Olympia, where the ancient Olympic games were held. The word “stadium” derives Greek as well, and the cult of the body comes from Greece. The Maccabees fought this worldview against all odds, and with full confidence in Gd’s assistance.

Judaism teaches us that it is important to keep our bodies healthy, so we can fulfill our spiritual goals according to the Torah, and to live happily and with contentment in This World and in the World to Come. But our body must not become an object of worship.

Logically, the war led by a handful of Torah scholars against the powerful and trained Greek army was a war they had no chance of winning. But from the moment they were willing to sacrifice themselves for Heaven – victory was theirs. And for this we praise and thank Gd and say: “You gave over the strong into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.”