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Why Were They Called "Maccabees"?

Why Were They Called "Maccabees"?


The word Maccabee has become synonymous with the small band of Jewish freedom fighters who freed Judea from the Syrian-Greek occupiers during the Chanukah saga in the Second Temple period (read about the Maccabees here).

This term originally applied only to Judah, who led the group following the death of his father, Matityahu, and is referred to in early writings as “Judah Maccabee” (Judas Maccabeus in Greek).1

The name is commonly spelled מכבי, but sometimes מקבי as well. What does it mean?

“Who Is Like G‑d?”

Perhaps the best known explanation is that the word “Maccabee” is composed of the initial letters of a verse the Jewish people sang after G‑d split the sea: “Mi kamocha ba’eilim Hashem (מי כמוך באילים י׳), “Who is like You among the mighty, O G‑d.”2

It is said that this phrase was the battle cry of Maccabees, written upon their banners and shields.3

Mighty or Hammer

Some explain that the word “Maccabee” is related to the Greek word meaning “strong” or “fighter.”4

Others explain that it comes from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” makav, either because Judah was the “hammer of G‑d,” his features somewhat resembled that of a hammer, or because his earlier occupation was that of a blacksmith.


Some suggest that it comes from the word Hebrew word mekabeh, which means “to extinguish.” The Maccabees endeavored to snuff outthe fire of the Greeks, which spread death and desolation throughout the land of Israel.

Matityahu the Priest

The father and patriarch of the family was Matityahu the Kohen (“Priest”). Thus, some explain that the word Maccabee was actually an acronym for the the initial letters of his name, Matityahu Kohen Ben (son of) Yochanan.5

“G‑d’s Glory”

Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, known as the Shelah, writes that the word מכבי can be unscrambled to form an acronym for the words in Ezekiel: Baruch Kevod Hashem Mimkomo (ברוך כבוד י׳ ממקומו), "Blessed is the glory of the L‑rd from His place."6

He explains this in the context of the sages’ statement that “whomever disputes the reign of the House of David, it is as if he has a dispute against the Divine Presence.” The Maccabees had sinned because they took the kingdom for themselves, even though they were not of Davidic stock. Nevertheless, they were called Maccabees, an allusion to the verse "Blessed is the glory of the L‑rd from His place," implying that they didn’t cause any blemish in the Divine Presence, since the original intention of Judah and his siblings was for the sake of heaven.7

Bringing G‑dliness into the World

The mystics explain that the word Maccabee has the numerical value of 72 (מ=40, כ=20, ב=2, י=10), alluding to the 72-letter Divine Name.8

The Chassidic masters9 further explain that both verses connected with “Maccabee” denote drawing G‑d’s presence into the world. “Who is like You among the mighty, O G‑d” refers to G‑d as both “mighty” and “G‑d.” The first term implies the restraint needed to create a reality devoid of His overt presence. The latter represents the revelation of His presence. Placing the two words together represents a merging of the two dynamics.

"Blessed is the glory of the L‑rd from His place" has a similar theme. The Hebrew word for “blessed” also means to “draw down.” Thus, we are drawing His presence from “His place,” a state of hiddenness, into our reality.

And that’s ultimately what Chanukah is all about—bringing light and holiness into the darkness, a process that will be completed with the coming of Moshiach. May it be speedily in our days!

See I Maccabees 2:1-5 and Josephus XXX; although the book is called Maccabees, in reality, it only started to be referred to as such many years after it was written.
See Tzoror haMaor, Parshat Va’etchanan; Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz in his work Shnei Luchot haBrit, Mesechet Tamid, Torah Ohr 2, as well as many other sources.
Seder Hadorot 3622; see also Me'or Eynaim, Imrei Binah 2:21.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer) in Torat Moshe, Miketz, and his commentary on Shulchan Aruch Even Haezer 129.
Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Mesechet Tamid , Torah Ohr 2.
Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, Shnei Luchot Habrit, Mesechet Tamid , Torah Ohr 2.
See Besha’ah Shehikdimu, Sefer Hamaamarim 5672, vol. 2, p. 765.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Pete WA December 7, 2017

I just read recently, though I forget where exactly, that the Torah is compared to a rock and the Jew to a hammer who must break this rock apart into its seventy odd facets. Reply

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