How Judah The Maccabee Was Erased From (and Restored To) Jewish History

Coin Minted By Antigonus Mattithias (40–37 BCE) using menorah as rallying call in his battle against Herod the Great. Antigonus lost marking the end of an Independent Jewish State in Antiquity

Here is a secret.

Judah the Maccabee is never discussed in the Talmud. Or hardly any Jewish text before 1800.

Look at the Rambam, the Ramban, Rashi, Judah HaLevi, Joseph Caro, and virtually any Jewish scholar who lived before the 1800s and Judah is completely absent.

So what did Jews before 1800 know about the history of Hanukkah? The best place to start is with the special prayer said on Hanukah in synagogue (not the blessings we say at home):

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons….”

Today the emphasis is usually on the five sons, in particular Judah and Simon. But neither is mentioned in this prayer. The “history” book for Jews in the Middle Ages that purported to tell the story of Hanukah was called as Megelat Antiochus. In this story, Judah is killed in one of the first battles and is never mentioned again. The victory we know as belonging to Judah is given to his nephew who was not even alive when Judah victoriously entered the Temple and led the work to purify it from the Greek defilement. after it was defiled by the Greeks. Today most Jews have never even heard of this “hero” of Hanukkah, John Hyrcanus.

Ancient copy of fragment of Megelat Antiochus

In this way, Hanukkah is unlike any other holiday in the Jewish calendar. The message of Passover has not changed nor the most fundamental passages of the Haggadah. Rosh Hashanah is still the birthday of the world even if that may have no scientific support. On Yom Kippur the gates of redemption still shut, at least metaphorically, at sunset.

In contrast, the holiday we celebrate beginning tonight is infused with meaning and significance that would be unfamiliar to even the Jew of Toledo, Ashkanaz, Morocco, or Vilna.

The Exorcism of Judah From Jewish History

During the Second Temple period it appears that Judah was a revered national hero. The 13th day of Adar (the day before Purim) marked the holiday Yom HaNikanor celebrating Judah’s victory over the Greek general that led to the liberation of Jerusalem. We do not know much about this holiday but throughout the Hasmonian Dynasty Yom HaNikanor was something akin to a 4th of July Independence Day celebration.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the transition of Jewish authority from Judaea to Babylonia, the Sages declared the 13th of Adar to be the Fast of Esther. Around this same period the Sages introduced the explanation that Hanukkah was about the Miracle of the Oil and not the military success of Judah and his brother.

In short, the Sages deliberately wanted to erase Judah and his brothers from the Jewish narrative.

The Book of the Maccabees

Many readers are no doubt asking: What about the Jewish apocryphal which includes the Books of the Maccabees?

The term Jewish apocryphal is a modern concept. The sages never recognized such a category of books much less identified the books that fell into the category. Since they were not in the official Bible, the Books of the Maccabees were similar to popular novels of our day that 10 years later are quickly forgotten. The Books of the Maccabees are not mentioned in any Jewish commentaries or text until the 1800s.

But the Books of the Maccabees were not lost — they were included in the Catholic Bible. True. But Jews were forbidden to read the New Testament. While no doubt some may have read these works, their inclusion in the Christian Bible would have made them suspect to the extent they contained “facts” not already accepted within the community.

The only other source for the story of the Maccabees is the Roman historian, Josephus. Josephus, however, was seen a Jewish traitor who lacked any credibility. He claimed to be a descendant of the Maccabees but when after serving as a General for Jewish forces in the Galilee during the First Jewish Revolt he showed himself a coward by offering to assist the Romans in exchange for his life. Jews treated Josephus and his work with the same disdain they did the writings of Christians. (As a passing note it is interesting that for this reason the story of Masada was not referenced in any Jewish sacred text or commentary. While the Journals of Christian pilgrims often note passing Masada while visiting the Red Sea, Jewish pilgrims prior to the 18th Century are silent).

The Unforgivable Sins of the Maccabees

Today we view Judah and his brothers as heroes. But the surprising truth to most is that the Talmudic sages saw the Maccabees as usurpers of the High Priesthood.

After Judah liberated Jerusalem the Greeks offered peace terms that permitted Jews to observe their tradition but also required Judaea to recognize Greek rule and the right of the Greek King to appoint the High Priest from within Zakok family of Cohanim. The elders of Judaea accepted these terms. Judah and his brothers did not.

Coin Minted By Antiochus IV in Akko “God Manifest on Earth”

Today many Jews know that Judah was called the Maccabee meaning hammer because of his strength and courage. Recently some scholars have suggested that Maccabee may mean that he suffered from a physical deformity causing his face to look like a hammer. No one with such a deformity can ever serve as High Priest. In this view the term Maccabee was used by the Rabbis to remind us that neither Judah nor anyone from this line were qualified to be High Priest.

After Judah’s death his brother, Jonathan, became a major military force that made him a king maker among the various contenders to the throne after the death of Antiochus V. Jonathan leveraged this power to have himself appointed High Priest by Alexander Balas. The Sages, however, did not recognize this appointment. While the Maccabees were from a priestly family they were not from the family of Zakok, the only bloodline within the Cohanim from which the High Priest could come.

When Jonathan was killed in the various palace intrigues within the Seleucid Empire, his brother, Simon, achieved independence for Judaea. As the last surviving brother of the family that had led the fight against the Seleucid Empire for almost 30 years, Simon was beloved by the masses. The First Book of Maccabees records that Simon was appointed by the people with the assent of the priests to serve as High Priest and de facto ruler “until a trustworthy prophet should arise.” This qualification reflects the fact that everyone knew the Hasmonian Dynasty created by Simon were not anointed by God for this purpose.

Coin of John Hyrcanus: “Yehohanan the High Priest and the Council of Jews”

The Sages never reconciled with the Hasmonian dynasty. The Sages never praise the successes of the early Hasmonian rulers in extending Jewish rule to equal the boundaries of King David. They are critical of the forced conversion of conquered nations. They ignore what should have been a major cause of celebration: the total burning of the Samaritan competing Temple on Mt. Gezerim.

This disdain is reflected in the stories they do tell of these rulers. On one Sukkot the Sages recall with apparent satisfaction how the grandson of Simon is pelted with etrogim in the Temple Courtyard while acting as High Priest. They use the death of John Hyrcanus as the story of a man who by repudiating the Pharisees in favor of the Sadducees on his deathbed voids all the good deeds before that moment.

In approximately 41, Agrippa I was appointed King of Judaea by Claudius. Agrippa I appears to have feared being rejected by the Judeans as a usurper of the throne. His grandfather (Herod the Great) was a convert hated by both the masses and Sages alike. Agrippa had been educated in Rome and was probably more familiar with Homer than the Mishanic teachings of his day. To many Jews he must have seemed identical to the Roman Procurators who had used their rule of Judaea for their own gain.

Coin By Agippa I showing him sacrificing Pig with Claudius

Agrippa, however, was also the grandson of Herod the Great’s first wife: Miriam who was a Maccabean princess. Though the Maccabees had not ruled Judaea in almost 100 years, the appointment of a man with Maccabean blood fired the imagination and hopes of the masses.

The Talmud recalls a story that both underscores the enduring power of the Maccabean blood line and the disdain the Sages held for that same lineage.

Soon after being appointed King of Judaea, Agrippa came to Jerusalem for Shabbat. He was given the honor of reciting the Haftarah. According to the Talmud, when Agrippa came to the line in the blessing after the Haftarah, “And thou shall not have a stranger rule over you” he began to cry knowing that the people would no doubt see him with his Roman accent and ways as a stranger who had no right to rule. But the people, so drawn to the Maccabean dream, called out “No, Agrippa, you are our brother” thereby endorsing the Roman appointment of this client king.

Instead of trumpeting this moment as a sign of Jewish unity, the Talmud sees this as the moment when God decreed the destruction of the Second Temple because they were seduced by a usurper to the Throne of Israel.

To the Rabbis, Hanukkah could not be seen in any way as glorifying the Maccabees. This would be no different than the people’s acceptance of Agrippa I.

The absence of Judah and his brothers from the Jewish narrative was not inadvertent or the result of chance. It was a deliberate effort to remove any reference to them from the Jewish consciousness.

The Revival of the Maccabees

The Jewish experience has survived its conflict with multiple cultures starting with Persia and continuing with Greek and Rome and then Christianity and Islam. However, when France emancipated its Jews in 1789 Jews confronted a new environment unlike any known before. In this new environment Jews could live outside of Judaea as equals with the native population provided they simply pledge their fidelity to their host country. The jury is still out on what this means to Jewish continuity and how to best cope in this new world environment.

In the wake of Emancipation Jews throughout Western Europe rushed to explore the new opportunities available to them. Many flooded to the universities in Germany where they began to study Jewish history with the benefit of sources long forgotten such as Josephus or the Books of the Maccabees. This movement to integrate secular learning with Jewish learning was called Wissenschaft des Judentums (the “Science of Judaism”). This school would be the genesis for liberal forms of Judaism. Herman Gratz was among the earlier members of this movement leading him to write the first academic study in Jewish history. One of the first volumes published in the 1860s focused on the Hasmonian period using these newly discovered sources and introducing Jews to new unsung heroes.

Gratz’s History was widely read by Jews in Europe. It offered the first opportunity for many Jews to read a systematic telling of the Jewish story. Hated by some, it was still hugely popular and continued to be a mainstay in the field for the next 100 years.

During this same period it was becoming increasing clear to a growing number of European Jews that the promise of the Emancipation was proving empty. Instead of finding more acceptance Jews were confronting the rise of modern “Antisemitism.” This term was coined in this period by Europeans who strongly opposed Emancipation for the Jews because of defects in the Jewish character. Some turned to communism or other political movements of the day calling for some form of equality. Others simply converted.

A small group of Jews in this period advocated rejecting the insincere offer of acceptance into European society in favor of reviving Jewish nationalism. This was not a nationalism based on religious principles but on utopian principles of the modern world. This was radical. It was in effect a messianic vision without any religious ideology or grounding.

These early Zionists were idealists. But they were also very pragmatic. They recognized that the battle for a Jewish homeland would not be won in one generation or even two. They knew that the movement would only succeed if the dream could be passed from one generation to another. They understood that this battle would require the loss of life, perhaps thousands of lives. They could not look to God as many were devoutly secular. In the absence of a religious commitment they sought to create a common narrative that would provide the glue to withstand the challenges and disappointments they knew lay ahead

The major movements of the day were all grounded in interpretations of history that seemingly demonstrated the natural correctness of that vision. Early Zionism set about to deliberately create this national narrative. The story of Masada and the mantra Masada Will Not Fall Again was one part of this plan.

Judah and Hanukkah was another aspect of this same effort.

Zionism meant strong opposition from the Jewish establishment as an abandonment of Jewish values in favor of a secular nationalism. Zionism countered by looking to the newly discovered history of the Hasmonian Empire as a period when Jews ruled themselves and were respected in the ancient world making treaties with Rome and defeating the Seleucid Empire. This was a time when Jews could hold their heads high and be feared wherever they went.

Judah in particular was a compelling new hero. He won not through some divine miracle but by his superior military strategy and recognizing the weakness of his enemies. He was a hero derived from modern academic study and not religious fantasy or myth.

Across the pond, Judah was appealing to American Jews for different but related reasons. Judah and his story dovetailed with many values important to Jewish life in America. In the late 19th Century Americans idealized war heroes such as Grant and later Teddy Roosevelt. Judah was their equal. He was a Jewish George Washington, the father of Jewish independence in the ancient world. He was not anything like the stereotypical Jew. He was not a banker, a tradesman, or a peasant. He was from noble birth and a man to be feared.

The Book of the Maccabees also described how Mattathias modified Jewish law and allowed Jews to fight on Shabbat. This story was almost always included in any retelling of Hanukkah. The unspoken message was clear: the Maccabees were like the first Reform Jews; modifying Jewish law to adopt to new circumstances.

Jews finally had a hero admired for his leadership as national hero and not for his talents with money or his mastery of Talmud.

In this way during the first quarter of the 20th Century, Judah became entrenched in the story of Hanukah. By the 1920s according to a recent study of Hanukah in America, Judah was the cornerstone of American Jewish celebrations even among the Orthodox community. Today, with the exception of a very few Hassidic sects, Judah the Maccabee is at least on equal footing with the miracle of oil.

If you want to see the true miracle of Hanukkah, just consider how in less than 50 years a Jewish hero unknown for centuries because of the bias of the Sages has been restored to his rightful place in Jewish history.

Modern Depiction of Judah



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