The halachic legacy of Maccabean warfare

On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks. Yet almost nothing about this victory is recorded within classic rabbinic literature.

JUDAH MACCABEE as portrayed by Arthur Szyk; Lodz, 1930s.  (photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
JUDAH MACCABEE as portrayed by Arthur Szyk; Lodz, 1930s.
(photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks. Yet almost nothing about this victory is recorded within classic rabbinic literature. Our information primary draws from I and II Maccabees, two distinct works composed toward the end of the second century BCE.
I Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew but only survived through a Greek translation preserved in the Septuagint. Likely written by a member of the Hasmonean court residing in the Land of Israel, it preserves a more complete and sympathetic record of the Hasmonean battles. (Josephus, the 1st century CE historian, probably drew much of his information from I Maccabees).
II Maccabees was written in Greek by a pious but unknown author in North Africa or Egypt. The work focuses on the Temple and the fate of Jerusalem, and provides limited details about the military conquests of the Hasmoneans. Neither of these works were included in the Hebrew Bible and they were not necessarily available to Jews over the centuries. Accordingly, they played no role in halachic (Jewish legal) literature. Only as Jews entered Western armies and fought in Israel’s battles did some figures begin to explore the halachic legacy of their books, particularly as the Hasmonean wars were embraced by Zionist figures looking for precedents of Jewish military bravery.
One of the striking aspects of the Maccabees was that they were kohanim (priests). Indeed, one early 20th-century writer on the propriety of Jews serving in Western armies raised the possibility that the Book of Maccabees proves that kohanim could serve in such armies, even as proof texts were almost always taken from other models. The Maccabees’ ability to serve as both spiritual leaders and warriors was a striking statement that military service is not a contradiction to the pursuit of holiness. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook homiletically argued that this was one of the primary teachings of Hanukkah, namely that the physical and the spiritual may be melded together in sanctity, in contrast to a Greek model that separates the two.
This belief was epitomized by Mattathias who slew a Hellenized Jew who sought to bring a foreign sacrifice in the city of Modi’in (I Maccabees 2:25-28). The text goes on to compare him to the biblical character of Phineas, who joined the ranks of kohanim after zealously spearing Zimri and Cosbi for public fornication (Numbers 25:8-13). Mattathias then called out, “Whoever is zealous of the law, and maintains the covenant, let him follow me,” clearly invoking a similar statement by Moses after the sin of the Golden Calf that led the tribe of Levi to distinguish itself by killing 3,000 of the offenders (Exodus 32:28-29).
IN SPITE of these passages, it should be noted that some Talmudic figures looked wearily upon Phineas’s actions and rabbinic decisors have generally ruled against such zealousness. In any case, Mattathias continued to use force to facilitate ritual circumcisions that had been a part of the decrees against Jewish practices.
The Maccabees also had no hesitation in following biblical war practices of killing all of the men in a given enemy city or army. One particularly gruesome moment occured with the defeat of the Seleucid general Nicanor in a battle with Judah Maccabee at Adasa (near Beit Horon). After killing all of his soldiers, the Jewish fighters cut off Nicanor’s head and hands and hung them from a pike in Jerusalem. Such behavior goes against Biblical precedent that demands treating enemy corpses with respect, yet it was seemingly approved by the sages as a fitting “measure for measure” punishment for Nicanor’s mocking of Jewish sovereignty and ritual (Ta’anit 18b). The day of victory, the 13th of Adar, was recorded as a holiday in Megillat Ta’anit, but was ultimately nullified when the Temple was later destroyed.
The seemingly clearest legal precedent established by the Maccabees was their ruling that one may fight on Shabbat. After Mattathias’s initial rebellion, many Jews fled to the desert. When the king came to battle with them on Shabbat, some Jews (possibly Sadducees or other similar sects) refused to violate the holy day, leading to their slaughter. The Maccabees, on the other hand, asserted that Jewish law permits warfare on Shabbat and defeated their enemies.
This position was also affirmed by the sages, albeit without making any fanfare of the Hasmonean precedent. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the IDF’s first chief rabbi, invoked the Book of Maccabees in his extensive treatise on warfare on Shabbat and retrieving corpses from the battlefield. Such an approach was strongly opposed by Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria, who feared that admissions of Hasmonean innovations would lead to the pedagogically-harmful conclusion that halacha (Jewish law) underwent historical innovations not recorded in authoritative texts.
In this vein, one of the more puzzling decisions by Judah was to grant military exemptions to anyone who had recently wed, built a house or planted a vineyard (I Maccabees 3:55). The text makes clear that it is referring to the verses in Deuteronomy which provide similar exemptions. Yet in rabbinic tradition, no such exemptions are provided in “commanded wars” to defend Jews and their homeland, which would seemingly encompass the Hasmonean battles. While one scholar, Rabbi Neria Gutel, has tried to show how these legal ruling may be harmonized with the rabbinic tradition, this remains a difficult task.
For these reasons, many scholars simply omit the books of Hasmoneans from their halachic discourse. The legacy of the Hasmoneans has regained new importance with the renewal of Jewish sovereignty and military power, yet it remains problematic to incorporate legal insights from writings of unknown authorship which were not included in any authoritative Jewish canon.
The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a post-doctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University Law School.