Judah Maccabee Street

A stroll of less than ten minutes northwest from Machane Yehuda will land you on the perfect street to explore this season – and it’s not Yehuda HaMaccabi Street. No, I’m kidding – of course it is.
Judah Maccabee is well-known to us at the hero of Hanukkah and the leader of the second century B.C.E. rebellion against the Syrian-Greeks occupying the Holy Land. Against the might of one of the most powerful armies in history, Judah, his brothers, and their small band of fighters stood for independence and freedom – and, as the Hanukkah hymn “Maoz Tzur” relates, prevailed by God’s “saving power.”
But there is much more to Judah than we may realize. The third son of Mattathias, a priest from Modiin who instigated the uprising against the forced Hellenization of his people, Judah succeeded his father as commander of the Jewish rebels in the year 166 B.C.E. Quickly distinguishing himself as a warrior and a leader, Judah was awarded the title “Maccabee” – perhaps meaning hammer and praising his skills as a fighter, perhaps an acronym for “Mi chamocha ba’elim, Adonai,” “Who is like You, Adonai, among the gods?” to remind his soldiers of the One in Whose name they fought, or perhaps denoting “the One chosen by God.”
Whatever the significance of the appellation, Judah Maccabee fulfilled it. Relying on guerrilla tactics and his familiarity with the terrain, Judah Maccabee managed to weaken the confidence and the resolve of the Syrian-Greeks and won a series of skirmishes – most notably, the Battle of Nahal el-Haramia, where Judah’s fighters defeated a division of Seleucids and killed their commander Apollonius. The victory must have been an especially profound one for Judah, as he took as booty Apollonius’ sword and used it for the rest of his life – including, presumably, in his final battle before the rededication of the Temple, where he and his forces killed 5,000 Syrian-Greeks in hand-to-hand combat. Immediately afterwards, Judah led his army up Mount Zion and chose learned priests to assist him in purifying God’s sanctuary.
It is worth noting that while Judah Maccabee lived to see the Temple reconsecrated, he did not live to see the reestablishment of a Jewish kingdom in Israel. Less than five years after the Maccabees’ triumph, Jerusalem was besieged by the Seleucid general Bacchides – and Judah Maccabee was killed defending the city. This was his final charge as commander of the Jewish forces: “Never let it be said that I ran from a battle. If our time has come, let us die bravely for our fellow Jews.”
Judah Maccabee’s victory was a victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many – and, one might say, the chosen over their would-be oppressors. But according to the earliest contemporaneous accounts found in the Book of the Maccabees, the victory was primarily a military one – a triumph of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and sheer determination. It was not until much later that Jewish tradition came to emphasize the role of God in Judah’s amazing defeat of King Antiochus’ legions – and to tell the story of the miraculous oil that burned eight days.
So which aspect of Hanukkah is more important – the liberation of the land or the rededication of the Temple? Which aspect of Judah Maccabee should we emphasize – the fierce warrior or the kindler of the eternal flame?
Especially this Hanukkah – and maybe every Hanukkah – we need both. Our nation has learned all too well that there is a time to fight, and that without the ingenuity, the resourcefulness, and the sheer determination of our warriors, there would be no Jewish sovereignty and no Jewish freedom. But we are – and we must be – more than warriors. We are also restorers of ruined places, deliverers to downtrodden people, bearers of light amid darkness. We are keepers of an eternal flame, and an eternal covenant.
So let’s give Judah Maccabee – who rekindled the flame and gave his life to keep it burning – the last word: “Victory in battle does not depend on who has the largest army,” he counseled his soldiers. “It is the Lord's power that determines the outcome. Our enemies are coming against us with great violence, intending to plunder our possessions and kill our wives and children.
“But we are fighting,” he concluded, “for our lives – and for our religion.”