And Judah, and his brethren, and all the congregation of Israel decreed that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the fifth and twentieth day of the month of Kislev, with joy and gladness (I Maccabees 4: 58).
Although today we tend to take the festive lights and seasonal atmosphere of Hanukkah for granted, the institution of the holiday as proclaimed in the first book of Maccabees was in fact no simple matter. A very clear prohibition exists against adding holidays – or any other additional commandments, for that matter – to those already appearing in the Torah. The Talmud in tractate Megilla debates the permissibility of the holiday of Purim with its mandated reading of the Book of Esther extensively. The ninth chapter of the Book of Esther itself hints at the tension between the hesitant attitude of the sages of the generation, on the one hand, and Mordechai and Esther’s insistence on making the one time celebrations an annual event, on the other. On whose authority were the days of Hanukkah instituted? By what license do we bless the Hanukkah candles in God’s name?
What is the blessing recited upon lighting Chanukah candles? One blesses, “Blessed are You God… Who has commanded us to light the Hanukkah candles.” Where in the Bible were we so commanded? … Rav Nehemiah said, From, “Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will tell you” (Deut. 32: 7) (Shabbat 23a).
The Talmudic passage quoted above points to rabbinic authority as the source of the laws of Hanukkah. The Book of Maccabees seems to imply that the leaders of the Hasmonean revolt against Hellenism viewed their role as extending beyond the military sphere into the cultural and spiritual realm. The establishment of the festival was not their only or even their most significant contribution. Our sources for the following discussion are, in the main, the Books of Maccabees, with some additional illumination from Talmudic passages.
Rather than focusing on the wars of Judah Maccabee, and his military strategy, which have been widely discussed elsewhere, we will explore the spiritual heritage he created together with his father Mattathias, the priest-turned-warrior, through the activities of the legal body the Talmud calls the “Hasmonean rabbinical court.”
At the time when the events commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah took place, Judea was a minor province in the Seleucid Empire. The open, assimilative culture that characterized this Hellenistic regime posed a singular challenge which the Jews of Judea were ill-equipped to fight. Towns settled by the soldiers of the empire’s garrisons brought this culture into their midst, creating areas of economic co-operation and opportunities for social integration. The Olympic Games, with their emphasis on universal human values and the brotherhood of nations, sought even then to promote unity – under the umbrella of one global, international culture. It was this process of gradual encroachment on unique Jewish values that Mattathias and his sons sought to block, subtly shaping Jewish law to combat specific threats as they arose. Ostensibly, however, the main reason for the revolt was the new laws instituted by the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV in 167 BCE, outlawing the observance of Jewish customs and introducing idolatrous practices into the Temple service.
Reviving a Kingdom
We will start with a reform resulting from one of the first skirmishes in the Maccabees’ military struggle against the Seleucid authorities:
Then many that sought after judgment and justice went down into the desert to live there, they and their children, and their wives, and their cattle, because afflictions increased upon them. And it was told to the king’s men, and to the [Seleucid] army that was in Jerusalem in the city of David, that certain men who had broken the king’s commandment were gone away into the secret places in the wilderness, and that many were gone after them. And forthwith they went out towards them, and made war against them on Shabbat day. And they said to them: “Do you still resist? Come forth, and do according to the edict of King Antiochus, and you shall live.” And they said: “We will not come forth, neither will we obey the king’s edict, to profane the Sabbath day.” And they made haste to give them battle. But they answered them not, neither did they cast a stone at them, nor seal off the secret places, saying: “Let us all die in our innocence, and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully.” So they gave them battle on the Sabbath: and they were slain with their wives, and their children, and their cattle, to the number of a thousand persons.
And Mattathias and his friends heard of it, and they mourned for them exceedingly. And every man said to his neighbor: “If we shall all do as our brethren have done, and not fight against the heathens for our lives, and our laws, they will now quickly wipe us off the face of the earth.” And they determined in that day, saying, “whosoever shall come up against us to fight on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him: and we will not all die, as our brethren that were slain in the secret places.” Then was assembled to them the congregation of the righteous, the valiant of Israel, every one that had a good will for the law (I Maccabees 2: 29-42).
Clearly, Mattathias permitted the Jews to fight on the Sabbath. Historians tended to understand the dispensation literally, as if until this point in time, Jewish law forbade any kind of fighting or self-defense on Shabbat. However, it is hardly possible that the Jews could have survived for over a thousand years in their homeland under such circumstances. Their hostile neighbors would have quickly discovered that they could exploit such a restriction, and dedicated their weekends to the destruction of the Jewish people. Nor can we imagine that such an existentially vital loophole could have been forgotten until it was renewed by Mattathias.
It would seem that the issue at hand was not whether or not the Sabbath could be desecrated for reasons of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) – when the decision could make the difference between life and death – because whether or not they chose to fight, the defenders of this desert stronghold were doomed. The besiegers were professional Seleucid soldiers, while the Jewish men fighting on the cliffs of the Judean Desert were poorly organized and ill-equipped, and were trying to protect not only themselves but their families. Any defense they could mount using stones, boiling water, or even the few swords or spears they may have been able to lay their hands on could only delay the inevitable. If the attack had come on a weekday rather than on the Sabbath, they would have gone down fighting, selling their lives as dearly as possible – but they would not have survived. Attacked on the Sabbath, with no way to save themselves, they chose to die without any show of resistance. Exacting a high price for their deaths did not, in their view, justify desecrating the Sabbath.
This is the logic dictated by the laws of survival or pikuah nefesh as they apply to individuals. When national considerations are taken into account, however, the picture – and the law – changes. Fighting on a national scale is governed by the laws of war, which apply regardless of the anticipated outcome of the battle. Considerations such as the deterrence of similar attacks come into play. Had the devout Jews sheltering among the cliffs desecrated the Sabbath by fighting, they would have contributed to the overall struggle against the Greeks, even though they could not have saved their own lives. According to the laws of war, they would have been permitted to fight on the Sabbath.
It seems that Mattathias’ halakhic innovation in the wake of that terrible, bloody Sabbath, was to rule that the Jews who chose to engage in guerilla warfare against the Seleucid authorities should no longer be considered as individuals, but as fighters in a national struggle governed by the laws of war. Suddenly, the followers of the Hasmonean priest were no longer oppressed subjects, bowed beneath the yoke of a Hellenist empire. They were proud citizens of the Kingdom of Israel, finally raising itself from the dust in which it had languished since the death of the last independent king of Judah, Josiah ben Amon, in the final years of the First Temple Period.
The Law of Zealotry
Mattathias’ bold decision was hardly out of character. The confrontation in Modi’in which sparked off his revolt, presumably not long after the decrees of Antiochus IV in 167 BCE. might or might not have been spontaneous on his part, but it too involved a halakhic decision which could not have been taken lightly:
Now as he left off speaking these words, there came a certain Jew in the sight of all to sacrifice to the idols upon the altar in the city of Modi’in, according to the king’s commandment. And Mattathias saw and was inflamed with zeal, and his reins trembled, and his wrath was kindled according to the judgment of the law, and running upon him he slew him upon the altar: Moreover the man whom King Antiochus had sent, who compelled them to sacrifice, he slew at the same time, and pulled down the altar. And he showed zeal for the law, as did Phineas with Zimri the son of Salu. And Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: Every one that has zeal for the law, and stands by the covenant, let him follow me (I Maccabees 2:23-28).
Mattathias took the liberty of executing a Jew – without a trial, without forewarning and without the Sanhedrin – as well as a Seleucid official. His precedent was the law of zealotry, a law inferred from the drastic steps taken by Phineas son of Eliezer against Zimri, prince of the tribe of Simeon, when the latter publicly engaged in ritual idolatry with a Midianite priestess of Baal Peor (Numbers, 25). As no-one from the time of Phineas to that of Mattathias had ever had recourse to this law, Mattathias’s action can be viewed as something of an innovation.
The law of zealotry has much in common with the laws pertaining to kings, in that it takes national priorities into account, justifying actions involving even the most severe of prohibitions, including murder. Only a king of Israel, or a leader prepared to bear the burden of responsibility for the welfare of the entire nation can rightfully wield such power. Phineas used it to save the nation from the plague resulting from the sin of Baal Peor. Mattathias, too, decided to take the law into his own hands, but his purpose was to save his people from the spiritual threat of assimilation posed by Hellenism, even though the nation was in no immediate danger of physical extinction. Taking up the reins of responsibility, he acted.
The explosive potential of the law of zealotry cannot be understated. Not everyone who claims to act in the name of God, or the national good, is entitled to do so. A leader swayed by a misguided interpretation of events or by momentary megalomania could bring his nation to the brink of destruction. If anything, in our current inflammatory situation, it behooves us to adopt legislation utterly forbidding anyone to act under the law of zealotry.
A further, perhaps even more controversial element of the Maccabees’ religious reforms involved one of the greatest points of friction between Jewish and Hellenist society – circumcision.
And Mattathias and his comrades went round and about, and they destroyed the altars. And they circumcised all the children whom they found within the confines of Israel that were uncircumcised, with force (I Maccabees 2: 44-45).
Mattathias and his comrades resorted to religious coercion, turning a commandment observed within the confines of every private family into a national responsibility, compelled by the power of authority.
This radical act of enforcement was symbolically charged; a nation-wide drive ensuring that every male was circumcised signified a renewal of the Divine covenant with Abraham. There was a precedent – Joshua had reaffirmed the people’s commitment to the covenant by commanding that the people circumcise themselves just after the Israelites of the Bible entered the Promised Land. Mattathias’ ambition did not fall far short – his intention was to wrest Judea from the Seleucid Empire and to reestablish the Jewish monarchy.
The use of religious coercion in the particular case of circumcision must be taken in context. As a salient physical difference distinguishing Jews from other peoples of the Hellenist Empire, circumcision acted as a barrier between Jews and gentiles, and was an active discouragement against intermarriage. This ran counter to the Stoic philosophy and values of the Seleucids; their aim was to integrate the disparate peoples under their rule into one imperial culture. The Seleucid regime of Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed circumcision, as well as other Jewish practices, and was unparalleled in its brutal violence towards all those defying its anti-Jewish legislation, especially those who circumcised their sons:
Now the women that circumcised their children were slain according to the commandment of King Antiochus. And they hanged the children about their necks, and the members of their households, and those that had circumcised them, they put to death…and they chose rather to die…and would not break the holy law of God, and they were put to death: (I Maccabees 1: 63-66).
And two women were accused of having circumcised their children. These women they publicly paraded about the city, with their babies hung at their breasts, then hurled them down headlong from the wall (II Maccabees 6: 10).
Essentially, by enforcing circumcision as part of his revolt, Mattathias was empowering his co-religionists to act without fear of retribution from the authorities – forcing circumcision on the embattled Seleucid regime, rather than on the circumcised Jewish infants and their parents.
Struggling with Assimilation
There were, however, Jews who had chosen to dispense with circumcision of their own volition. Enthusiastic admirers of Grecian culture and habits, many sought to restore their foreskins by surgical intervention so that they could exercise nude alongside other athletes in the gymnasium without embarrassment (the word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek for “to train naked”). Both the Roman Jewish historian Josephus and the Book of Maccabees describe the construction of the gymnasium in Jerusalem, under the Hakra – the citadel on the southern part of the Temple Mount:
And when Jason distressed Menelaus and the sons of Tobias, they fled to Antiochus, and informed him that they were desirous to leave the laws of their country and the Jewish way of living according to them, and to follow the king’s laws, and the Grecian way of living, wherefore they desired his permission to build themselves a Gymnasium at Jerusalem. And when he had given them leave, they also hid their circumcision, so that even when they were naked they might appear to be Greeks. Accordingly, they left off all the customs that belonged to their own country, and imitated the practices of the other nations (Antiquities of the Jews XII, 5:1).
And they built a place of exercise in Jerusalem, according to the laws of the nations. And they made themselves foreskins, and departed from the holy covenant (I Maccabees 1: 14-15).
Mattathias may well have forced circumcision on these Hellenized Jews too, as part of the battle he was waging for the spiritual survival of the Jewish people.
The Talmud actually refers to legislation from this period as enacted by “the Hasmonean rabbinical court”:
When R. Dimi came, he declared: The Hasmonean rabbinical court decreed that one who cohabits with a heathen woman is liable on four counts (Sanhedrin 82a).
The Torah clearly forbids intermarriage with non-Jewish partners. The Hasmonean rabbinical court ruling was an additional decree, outlawing casual relationships. The battle for the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the Jewish home and family was paramount in the struggle against Hellenist assimilation.
Judah Maccabee, the son of Mattathias who famously succeeded him as leader of the rebellion, managed to turn the struggle from a bitter civil war between devout Jews and the Hellenists into a united effort of national liberation directed against the Seleucid Empire. As a result, his military victory became a festival of salvation, marked for all posterity. In Maimonides’ words, “And the kingdom of Israel was restored.”