Hebrew Bible

Who Were the Maccabees?

People usually know only a handful of details from the all about Hanukkah and its story:

The Greeks were oppressive; the Maccabee family waged guerilla war; they rededicated the Temple with oil for 8 nights that should have lasted 1; happily ever after. 

While much of that is true, it misses the big picture, and the significance each event attested in writing and in archeology. To fully grasp the importance of Hanukkah—the good, the bad, and the holy—one needs to look at the Maccabees up close.

The Maccabees have made a lasting impact on Jewish and global history, but much of their story is taught as like a myth. For even before the modern state of Israel, the Maccabees were a symbol of Jewish resistance in the face of non-Jewish oppressors and when Israel was established in the mid-20th century, they became a symbol of Jewish strength in everything from sports to the modern military. It is crucial, however, to remember the social and religious context when the Hanukkah story takes place, and that is not as cheery an origin as one would hope.

From “Mattathias’s Zeal”

Later known as the Chashmonayim (hasmoneans), they are remembered for guerilla war on the Greeks, but that came out of a brutal civil war to win back the Jewish way of life. In this proxy conflict, King Antiochus first supported the urban, Hellenistic Jewish factions like the heretical Tobiads and Sadducees. After rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem for proper use with the oil that lasted 8 nights, the Maccabees advocated to keep fighting to regain control of the Holy Land.

What Does “Maccabee” Mean?
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The Maccabees were a single family of Cohanim (priests), but there were no surnames in ancient Israel, so this title is somewhat peculiar. There are a few theories, nowadays famously explained that it is from the Aramaic word for ‘hammer’ for their force in combat.

Earlier Jewish tradition stipulates it is from an acronym. It either stands for "mi chamocha ba'elim Y—" (who is like You in godly power, L-rd?") or for "Matityahu haCohen ben Yochanan", the name of the founder of the dynasty.

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How a Woman Kickstarted Hanukkah
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In some ways, Hanukkah is more significant for women than it is for men. This is because the events were initiated by an important woman, Yehudit of the Maccabees, who ended a lot of women's suffering. Of the many atrocious things the Seleucid Greeks under Antiochus did to hurt the Jewish spirit and Jewish family, on top of banning Torah learning, brit milah, and the Temple service, was that before a wedding the Greek Governor would ‘take’ the bride (using sensitive language). 

Yehudit tricked the General by getting him drunk on wine and cheese and decapitating him, defending herself and igniting a war! To commemorate her bravery, many women refrain from work for a half-hour after lighting Hanukkah candles each night. Also, in light of her tactics, before potatoes the original latkes were fried cheese!

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Hanukkah Miracles
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There were actually numerous recorded miracles during Hanukkah. 

The most famous of these is how the Maccabees found a tiny vile of oil enough for a day, uncontaminated by the Greek pagans. The oil's survival may be a miracle, so its burning for 8 nights to rededicate the Temple is another. ‘Hanukkah’ means ‘dedication’, referring to this event that the oil lasted an extra week. Some thought this was enough once they had retaken Jerusalem, but the Maccabees pushed to keep fighting to regain control of the entire Holy Land.

One other miracle that gets less press though is that 185,000 enemy troops intent on wiping out every Jew they saw died outside Jerusalem overnight—whether by plague according to the Greek records or an angel according to the Jews. Indeed, with such a tiny, amateur army there is no way the Maccabees did what they did outside diving intervention time and time again. Because the Talmud posits the oil was the reason to commemorate Hanukkah, many people suggest that the military 'miracles' were all only in order to be able to rededicate the Temple, as they did. 

To remember this history, Jews now have a mitzvah (commandment) of lighting the menorah each night for 8 nights of Hanukkah, and to make this as public as possible. This also entails telling the story of the Maccabees’ political and cultural victories actualized through G-d’s miracles.

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Publicizing the Miracles 
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A significant part of the celebration of Hanukkah is publicity, not only because the Hanukkah candles are beautiful, but as a reminder of the importance of Jewish sovereignty, and performing the commandments the oppressive Greeks tried to ban.

The Maccabees were a small voice calling out for Jews to follow the Torah, so lighting the Hanukkah menorah outside, or at the very least in a highly visible window, is how we too make a little flame have a big impact. The tradition of lighting indoors only came about in places with high concerns for violence for doing so, and thankfully most places now lack this concern.

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Hanukkah Menorah
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Lighting with oil is also more traditional when thinking about the uncontaminated oil the Maccabees miraculously found, but nothing is wrong with wax candles, which can offer their own unique beauty in many styles and colors

Like with the 8 candles of Hanukkah, the menorahs themselves should be selected to fit one’s sense of beauty. Considering the Hanukkah miracle, it is clear that G-d cares about things done in a beautiful way, since the oil miraculously burned for 8 nights instead of only the bare-minimum of 7. 

Many people also like to make public gestures of Hanukkah by getting festive Hanukkah tops, both in the sense of dreidels and fun shirts. Though less public, many have come to connect these festivities to foods like latkes and sufganiyot, each a deep-fried delicacy, again to remember the Maccabees lighting the olive oil over 8 nights of Hanukkah. 

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Maccabees After the Rededication

The most significant part of the celebration of Hanukkah is the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. To put it into historical context though, the miracle to rededicate the Temple happened in the third year of a twenty-five year war, when the Maccabees pressed to push out the Seleucid Greeks entirely. 

Even after Yehuda Maccabee died in battle, his brothers carried on from this success. It was the first time of total Jewish sovereignty since the exile of Babylon, and Jews were encouraged to keep the Torah again without persecution from Greeks or Hellenists.

Unfortunately, in later generations the family lost their way and took on many of the practices they rejected, from improper worship to violent persecution of their own people until the Romans invaded. It is important to remember that the Maccabees were real people and over-mythologizing them may lead us to forget hard-learned lessons.

When you light the 8 Hanukkah candles, remember the legacy of the Maccabees as those who fought with little against the seemingly unbeatable forces of assimilation, but that no one can rest on his laurels. 

Over the 8 days of Hanukkah, teach the story of the Maccabees and what they did to protect Jewish lives and Jewish worship and national sovereignty.

Make sure that you have everything you need for the holiday, to carry on this living history!

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