If you’ve been through Hebrew school, you most likely learned about Judah the Maccabee, son of Matityahu, the courageous warrior who routed out the Seleucid Greeks from the Holy Land in the miraculous chain of events that we celebrate every year on Chanukah.

But what do we really know about Judah, or his four brothers? The Talmud gives us no information, leaving us to comb through various texts dating back to the Second Temple era, when the Maccabean revolt took place.

This account is mainly based on Megillat Antiochus, a text that was preserved within the Jewish community and which some even read every year on Chanukah. At times it has been supplemented with information found in the books of Maccabees, Josephus and other sources, as indicated in the footnotes.1

However, it should be noted that many of these events have been obscured by the sands of time, and that no texts known to us can be believed to be entirely accurate portrayals of what took place.

Section from handwritten Aramaic Megillat Antiochus, from an old Yemenite siddur (Credits: Davidbena at en.wikipedia.org)
Section from handwritten Aramaic Megillat Antiochus, from an old Yemenite siddur (Credits: Davidbena at en.wikipedia.org)

Yehudah HaMakabi—Judah the Maccabee

Yehudah2 was the eldest of the band of brothers,3 known for being the leader of the Jewish revolt and the mightiest of them all. His father compared him to the original Yehudah, the mighty son of Jacob, who was himself compared to a fierce lion.4 While he is commonly described as the triumphant warrior who liberated Jerusalem and restored Jewish rule, according to Megillat Antiochus he was actually killed quite early in the war, even before his father passed away.5

The Megillah recounts that the brothers came home to Matityahu, declaring that they could not continue to fight because Yehudah was killed—that since he was as strong as all of them combined, they would not be able to succeed without their older brother and leader. With no alternative, old Matityahu took his son’s place and led his sons into battle.6

However, according to the books of Maccabees and Josephus, Yehudah carried on, leading his brothers in battle, rededicating the Holy Temple, and leading the Jewish people both militarily and spiritually as the high priest.7 This continued for about three years, until his untimely death in the battle of Elasah.8

He was succeeded by his younger brother Yonatan, who took over his positions and led the Jewish people in his stead.9

It is quite interesting that even while being so celebrated in secular texts, he is not mentioned even once in the Mishnah or the Talmud, or even in the special Chanukah additions to the prayers. The only rabbinical mention of him is in the brief passages about him in Megillat Antiochus.

That being said, Yehudah HaMakabi is known, and rightfully so, as an outstanding Jewish hero, a champion who fought for Judaism, Jews, and the right to serve G‑d without any intrusions from our oppressors. He is believed to have been the one to initially lead his brothers in battle until his untimely death, and will forever have our admiration as Judah the Maccabee.

Yehuda leading the Maccabees in battle (Gustave Dore)
Yehuda leading the Maccabees in battle (Gustave Dore)

Shimon HaTarsi—Simon Thassi

Shimon10 was the second11 of the band of brothers; he is known for outliving all his brothers, eventually assuming leadership of the Jewish people and becoming the progenitor of the Hasmonean royal dynasty.

His father compared him to the original Shimon, the son of Jacob, who avenged his sister’s honor and destroyed the city of Shechem.

The book of Maccabees relates that Shimon was chosen by his father before his death to take his place as the social and ethical leader of the people, leaving the military and political control to Yehudah. As Matityahu said, "Listen to Shimon, your brother, for he is wise and sensible, and he will be to you as a father."12

Shimon stood by his brother Yehudah in battle, and after Yehudah’s death, he stood by his brother Yonatan as well. After both were ultimately killed, Shimon took control of the military leadership of the Jewish people.13

Shimon handled the political upheavals that were happening in and around the land of Judea, striking deals, taking sides and maneuvering the stormy seas of diplomacy efficiently. Shimon’s reign lasted about nine years.14

Shimon’s demise is a sad story. Shimon’s son-in-law Ptolemy (Talmai) plotted to overthrow Shimon and his sons, giving himself free rein in Judea. Ptolemy invited his father-in-law, together with the whole family, to the Duk fortress for a holiday celebration; amid the festivities, he had Shimon and two of his sons killed, and other family members were taken hostage. Messengers were sent to kill another son, Yochanan Hyrcanus, who was not at the party.15

Yochanan Hyrcanus gathered his troops and fought back, laying siege to Ptolemy and his forces. Ptolemy, trying to fend him off, threatened and then killed his mother-in-law and another remaining brother, until he ultimately escaped, leaving the control of Judea in Yochanan Hyrcanus’s hands. Yochanan Hyrcanus followed in his father’s ways and successfully led the Jewish people for about 30 years.16

It should be noted that many of the subsequent members of the Hasmonean dynasty were far from righteous. They were often antagonistic to the Torah sages, at times going so far as to ruthlessly persecute and murder them.

Yochanan HaGadi—John Gaddi

Yochanan17 was the third18 of the band of brothers; he is often seen as the least prominent of his brothers, since he was neither the official leader of the Jewish people nor died a spectacular, heroic death (see Elazar).

Yet in Megillat Antiochus he is hailed as the hero of the story. He is the only one of the brothers who has any identifying details told about him: he is referred to as a kohen gadol (high priest),19 and the whole Chanukah story begins in the Megillah with Yochanan:

General Nikanor, sent by Antiochus to tyrannize the Jewish people, arrived at the Holy Temple. After murdering a great many Jews, he set up an idolatrous altar there and then slaughtered a swine on it, bringing its blood into the holy site. Yochanan heard about what had happened, and he set out to avenge the Temple’s defilement and the persecution of his brethren. He fashioned himself a long thin sword and hid it under his garments. He came to the Temple’s gates, demanding an audience with Nikanor, who granted his request.

Nikanor greeted him fiercely: “You must be one of those who rebelled against the king and are opposed to him.”

Yochanan replied, “Sir, that is me, but I have come here now before you, and I will do whatever you command me.”

Nikanor was satisfied with this reply, and offered Yochanan the king’s protection if he were just to offer a swine on the altar.

Yochanan responded: “I would do so, but I worry that if my fellow Jews find out, they will surely kill me. If you send everyone out, and leave me here on my own, then I will not hesitate to do as you command.” Nikanor obliged, and the two were left alone.

Yochanan whispered a silent prayer, took three steps, and stabbed Nikanor in the heart with the weapon he had hidden.

Yochanan then arose, rallied his people, and fought back against Nikanor’s legion triumphantly, winning them a great, but only temporary, victory.

He returned and built a pillar, naming it after himself, “Maccabee, slayer of the mighty.”20

This, of course, angered Antiochus terribly, and one thing led to the next, resulting in the Chanukah story.21

Yochanan was compared by his father to Avner ben Ner, a great and mighty warrior, the general of the Jewish army during King Saul’s reign.22

In the Book of Maccabees he is mentioned a few times as leading different legions in battle.23 His life ended when he attempted to entrust a large fortune that he was carrying to the Nabataean tribe, and was captured and killed by the sons of Jambri. His surviving brothers Yonatan and Shimon avenged his death by attacking the Jambris during a wedding celebration, killing hundreds and reclaiming the fortune.24

An illustration of Hashmonen martyrdom (Woodcut, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860).
An illustration of Hashmonen martyrdom (Woodcut, Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860).

Yonatan HaVaphsi—Jonathan Apphus

Yonatan25 was the fourth26 of the band of brothers; he is known for assuming Yehudah’s position after his death and leading the Jewish people for nearly two decades, transforming the Jews from a band of rebels into a power to be reckoned with.27

Yonatan was compared by his father to the original Yonatan, the son of King Saul, who successfully fought against the Philistines, protecting the Jewish people. 28

The book of Maccabees relates that Yonatan and Shimon often worked as a team throughout the ongoing battles. After Yehudah’s death, when the mantle of leadership was passed to Yonatan, Shimon stayed by his side.

Yonatan was a brave and skilled leader. He successfully pulled through the many battles and political turbulence, while uprooting all pagan and Hellenistic influences in Judea.

Ultimately the Seleucids opted to make peace with him, granting him control of the region, at first unofficially, and eventually with open and official peace. At this point Yonatan reclaimed the position of high priest as well.29

Unfortunately, this blissful situation did not last long. After a military uprising in the Seleucid Empire, Yonatan was once again at war. Things did not play out in his favor, and he was taken hostage by the Seleucid general Tryphon (the leader of the revolt). Tryphon demanded ransom money and family members as collateral, and although Shimon complied, Tryphon did not hold back his attack on Judea, and he had Yonatan killed.30

Yonatan and his army destroying a pagan temple (Gustave Dore, 1866)
Yonatan and his army destroying a pagan temple (Gustave Dore, 1866)

Elazar HaChorani—Eleazar Avaran

Elazar31 was the fifth and youngest32 of the band of brothers; he is known primarily for the heroic feat of killing a war elephant and the high-ranking general mounted upon it.

Elazar was compared by his father to the famed zealot and priest Pinchas, the son of Elazar,33 who stood up against the desecration of Judaism and morality brought on by the Moabite women, slaying the primary sinners, avenging G‑d’s honor, and thereby saving the Jewish people from a plague.34

Elazar’s valiant death has been glamorized throughout history as the epitome of a heroic death and self-sacrifice. His death has been portrayed in many famous secular and Christian paintings throughout the Middle Ages.

The story of his death is commonly told as follows: At the battle of Beit Zechariah, Elazar saw a high-ranking military leader35 atop a mighty war elephant; he courageously approached and stabbed the elephant, causing it to fall and die, crushing him under its weight.36 However, in Megillat Antiochus the story is recounted in a more harrowing fashion with a little less background; it relates that Elazar sank in the elephants’ excrement while attempting to kill the ferocious beast.37 Also, according to the Megillah, this incident happened before the miracle of the oil and the rededication of the Temple, while Maccabees places this battle later.

Artist's impression of the heroic death of Elazar (Gustave Dore, 1866)
Artist's impression of the heroic death of Elazar (Gustave Dore, 1866)

The Inspiration: ChanahHannah

Behind every great man stands a great woman. In the case of these five men, it was their sister Chanah, who, after being expected to go through an offensive and inappropriate experience, put her foot down, urging and encouraging her brothers to protect her honor and the honor of all Jewish women.

The law at the time required every Jewish woman to spend her first night as a married woman with the Greek governor. This decree went on for a while, causing many women to either not marry or to endure this horrible violation. On Chanah’s wedding night, she spiritedly persuaded her brothers to stand up for justice and to rid themselves of the depraved governor.38

The Maccabees resolved to take on the Greeks, stormed the governor’s palace, killed him and wreaked havoc in his camp. This incident served as another spark that catapulted the already unsteady military situation into a full-on war.39

In addition to Yehudit40 (who may or may not have been a relative as well), Chanah is referred to as one of the heroines of Chanukah story, with some rabbinical sources even attributing the entire miracle to her.41

For more on this story, read: Chabad.org: Woman at War

Interesting Facts in Summary:

  1. None of the brothers died a natural death; all died in the course of their service to the Jewish people.
  2. Three of them led the Jewish people for a period of time.
  3. The position of kohen gadol was held by three of the brothers (some say four).
  4. At the point of the miracle of the oil, only three of the brothers were still alive.
  5. All of the brothers took up arms for one primary reason: to uphold the Jewish faith in the face of the sacrilegious ideas of Hellenism and Greek influences. They fought to restore Jewish freedom and uphold the security of the Jewish people. Thus they will always be regarded with our utmost admiration and fascination, giving their very name, “the Maccabees,” a near-mythical ring.