Story of Hanukkah: Who Were the Maccabees?
Depicting a handful of Torah scholars as elite soldiers versed in warfare is an false distortion of the historical record and diminishes the miracle.
This week we will celebrate the holiday of Chanukah.
As a person matures, he builds on and get a more profound understanding of the insights he acquired in his childhood. For example, we can’t compare the Bible we learned in elementary school to our in-depth study with the Bible commentaries as adults.
It is the same with Chanukah. When we were young, we learned a superficial and shallow view of the Hasmoneans, but the time has come to understand them in a more profound way.
Let us begin with the Rambam’s words at the beginning of Laws of Chanukah. It says 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 extended their hands against their 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 G-d 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."
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. He also explains why we celebrate eight days: because it was the minimum time necessary to produce oil and bring it in those days 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 on 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 Chanukah: 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 one day only was found with the stamp of the High Priest but the oil burned for eight days in a row.
Today, when they describe the events of Chanukah, there are those who present things in a completely different light. Judah Maccabee is frequently illustrated as a muscular man with a shock of hair blowing in the wind, without a beard, and 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 person. He and his brothers were G-d-fearing men and Torah scholars who realized that the Greeks were destroying the people spiritually and corrupting them morally. When they saw that there were Jews who were failing this difficult trial and becoming Hellenists and behaving like gentiles, their hearts bled and they decided to go out and fight a battle which 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 and means “Who is like You among the powerful, G-d?” This is the slogan that they chose with which 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 their bodies but their souls. He wanted them to abandon their religion. If the Jews had come to Haman or Hitler, and told them that they are ready to change their religion, these mortal enemies would not have given up on their program of extermination. Their goal was to eradicate any remnant of the Jewish nation, G-d forbid. Antiochus however, did not want to wipe out the Jews, he only wanted to wipe out Judaism. He wanted us to adopt Greek culture.
All Western culture that we see today has its source in Greece. The word "Olympics" comes from the Greek, "stadium" is a Greek word, and the cult of the body comes from Greece. The Maccabees fought this worldview against all odds, and with full confidence in G-d’s assistance.
Judaism teaches us that it is important to keep our body healthy, so we can fulfill our spiritual goals according to the Torah, and live happy and content in This World and the Afterlife. 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 G-d and say: "You gave over the strong into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few."
Shabbat shalom and happy Chanukah.