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The Maccabees: The Jewish Freedom Fighters

The Maccabees: The Jewish Freedom Fighters

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The Maccabees were a band of Jewish freedom fighters who freed Judea from the Syrian-Greek occupiers during the Second Temple period. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G‑d.” Led by Judah the Maccabee and his four brothers, they trounced the Greek interlopers and restored the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to the service of G‑d. Their victory is celebrated during the holiday of Chanukah.

The Background

More than 2,000 years ago there was a period of time when the Land of Israel was part of the Syrian-Greek Empire, ruled by the dynasty of the Seleucids. In 174 BCE (3586), Antiochus IV ruled the region. He was called Epiphanes, meaning "the gods’ beloved," but people called him Epimanes ("madman"), a title more suited to the character of this harsh and cruel king.

Wanting to unify his kingdom through common religion and culture, Antiochus tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing the practice of all Jewish law. He also meddled in the affairs of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, installing idol-worshipping High Priests who paid him handsome tributes.

At that time, Antiochus was also engaged in a successful war against Egypt. But messengers from Rome arrived and commanded him to stop the war, and he had to yield. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a rumor spread that a serious accident had befallen Antiochus. Thinking that he was dead, the people rebelled against Menelaus, the corrupt High Priest, who then fled together with his friends.

Antiochus returned from Egypt enraged by Roman interference with his ambitions. When he heard what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to fall upon the Jews. Thousands of Jews were killed. Antiochus then enacted a series of harsh decrees: Jewish worship was forbidden, and the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burnedJewish worship was forbidden, and the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. Many brave Jews refused, preferring death.

Mattityahu: The First Maccabee

One day, the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modiin where Mattityahu, a respected and elderly priest, lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, "I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant that our G‑d made with our ancestors!"

Thereupon, a Hellenized Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar.

Mattityahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened, and would certainly send troops to punish him and his followers. And so, Mattityahu and his sons and friends fled to the hills of Judea.

Judah the Maccabee Strikes Back

All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions, and from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus.

Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue to fight in defense of G d’s Torah. He asked them to follow the counsel of their brother Shimon the Wise, and their leader in warfare was to be their brother Judah the Strong, or Judah the Maccabee.

The Maccabees won battle after battle, including one in which they fended off an army of more than 40,000 men.

Then the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian vandals. Judah and his followers built a new altar, which he dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in the year 139 BCE (3622).

Since the golden Menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to create light for only one day.By a miracle of G‑d, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil was available By a miracle of G‑d, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil was available. That miracle proved that G‑d had again taken His people under His protection. In memory of this, our sages appointed these eight days as a holiday of annual thanksgiving and lighting candles.

The Maccabees Rule Judea

The Maccabees and their descendants took the throne of Judea for themselves. This was a problem because they were priests, descendants of Aaron. Their job was to serve in the Holy Temple and guide the people in spiritual matters. It was the place of the descendants of King David, from the tribe of Judah, who were supposed to sit on the royal throne. Indeed, it did not take long until the monarchy of Judea was dragged down into a series of unending power grabs and bloody intrigue, with king after king trying to imitate the very same Greeks their ancestors had ousted from the land.

Yet, for all their shortcomings, the Maccabees leave us with an empowering message that resonates in all times and all places: Never cower in the face of tyranny. Do your part, trust in G‑d, and success is sure to come.

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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