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Drash In The Days of Mattathias

 Drash, By Mark L. Berch, Given in 1998


 Hanukah is usually approached as a moral fable. The evil Greek idol-worshiping invaders versus the brave Jewish freedom-loving resistance, and may the best god win! Such a view of Hanukah is not only a gross oversimplification, it's materially false. Worse, such ignorance robs us of any real opportunity to see whether those events are relevant to this day. And the irony is, we know more about the historical origins of Hanukah than about any other ancient holiday.

Our best sources are the First and Second Book of Maccabees, and the writings of Josephus. These sources don't always agree. We get additional information from the 4th Book of Maccabees, the Book of Daniel, and some non-Jewish sources, mostly Greek historians. The Books of Maccabees were not included in the official Jewish canon --- the Tanach. Fortunately, the books were rescued from oblivion by the early Christians. They felt a strong affinity to the tales of resistance and martyrdom, seeing parallels to their own early history of being persecuted by the Romans. First Maccabees, the only one written in Hebrew, has been lost, but before that happened, it was translated into Greek as part of the Septuagint.

Our story begins with Alexander the Great, whose armies conquered a vast swath of territory. All along the way, Greek cities were set up. The mixture of post classical Greek culture and some oriental practices became known as Hellenism. It was the most advanced civilization ever seen, because of its immense scope. It brought architecture, sculpture, biology, mathematics, numerous literary forms, philosophy, astronomy, geography and more. They had versatile financial institutions, far-flung commerce and new governmental forms. It was dazzling and overwhelming. Many cultures began an immediate decline on contact with Hellenism. The upper classes were particularly attracted, for Hellenism gave them access to a rich cosmopolitan culture, and opportunities to make money in commerce. The local culture, deprived of the active participation of its upper class, would become enfeebled. Further, Pagan cultures often had no real problems with Hellenism. They had their own gods, the Greeks came with more. So what? You just drop a few more gods in the fonts folder; so much the better. And if you were defeated, or exiled, well, that just meant that the Greek gods were stronger, and why worship a lesser god?

The Jews, in some ways, were different. Hellenism broke down barriers between peoples, but Jews to some degree relied on barriers to keep their separate ways. They had an imageless god, and multiple gods were absolutely forbidden. In fact, Jews had one thing that Hellenism lacked, which was a satisfying and vibrant religious culture that met the spiritual needs of the people. Moreover, many Hellenistic practices were abhorrent to them. Nonetheless, Hellenism made substantial progress, especially into the upper strata of Jewish society. Without this, the story would be very different, for much of this was Jew versus Jew. The struggle was partially an anti-colonial uprising, and partly a civil war.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the empire split into three parts. For a century, Judea fell under the Ptolemaic empire, based in Egypt, but in 198 BCE, Antiochus III seized all of Judea, so that the Jews were now under the Seleucid empire, based in Babylonia and Syria, with the capital in Antioch. Jews continued to have religious freedom, both under him, and his successor, Seleucus IV. But his successor, Antiochus IV, changed everything.

He was an ambitious man. He wanted to bring all of Egypt under the Seleucid empire, in part to emulate Alexander, and in part for fear of Rome. He did not want Rome, the ascendant power in the West, to gain a major beachhead on his southern flank, for he felt that war with Rome was inevitable. Judea, being on the main line of communication between Syria and Egypt, was important, and he feared that the Ptolemies were trying to ally with the Jews. So he sought to tighten his grip on Judea. It was an extraordinary act of miscalculation. Had he simply left the Jews alone, he probably would have gotten just what he needed from Judea, namely, a solid ally and a lack of trouble. But as it was, resistance to his measures proved to be a significant factor in the ultimate collapse of the mighty Seleucid empire. But the blame cannot be laid solely with him, for Jewish political instability provided an opportunity for his meddling.

The office of High Priest was more than just the top ritual position. Ideally, he would be a community leader, sage, and upholder of the faith. It was passed from father to son. A clan, known as the Tobiads, wanted to obtain that office for one of their own. There were among the upper classes of Jews would-be assimilationists, greatly attracted to Hellenistic culture and to the financial opportunities it brought. A group of such Tobiads had gained favor in the Seleucid court at Antioch when Antiochus III took over Judea. At the time of Antiochus IV, the High Priest was one Onias III. He was a pious man greatly respected by Jews of Judea and elsewhere. But the grip of the High Priesthood on temporal affairs had already been weakened by earlier Tobiad family machinations in Egypt. Three brothers headed the pro-Seleucid party in Jerusalem: Lysimachus, Menelaus and Simon, the Temple administrator. These brothers tried to frame Onias III as being pro-Egyptian, and may have encouraged the Seleucid authorities to try to appropriate the vast Temple treasury. The attempt was rebuffed. Onias III went to Antioch to explain that there was no insult intended by this rebuff--- the Temple was just off limits to gentiles, and also to clear his name against Simon's charges. But when he got there, Seleucus IV had just been murdered and the evil Antiochus IV was enthroned. The High Priest's rivals took advantage of his absence, connived with the new ruler, and Onias was deposed, replaced by his brother Joshua, or Jason, to use his Hellenized name.

The Jews were stunned. Their high Priest was deposed. In Jerusalem was introduced a Greek gymnasium. In this, athletic games, never part of Jewish culture, were to be held, and in the nude, preceded by sacrifices to heathen gods. Indeed, fully Hellenized Jews underwent a painful reverse circumcision. The Jerusalemites were helpless --- Jason and his party were backed by the new King of the ruling empire. Traditional Jews began to leave, including a Priest named Mattathias, who returned to his village of Modi'in. There is scholarly dispute as to how extensive Jason's hellenizing aims were.

Jason lasted three years. He paid the required tribute, and the games went on. But there was no coercion, and normal Jewish religious life continued. But this constituted only a start in the Hellenizing campaign, and it didn't go nearly far enough to suit Menelaus and other radicals. Jason was still tolerating religious separatism. Jason had to go. Menelaus spoke to the King in 172 BCE, griping about the need for more forceful Hellenization, and offering to pay Antiochus IV a lot more money. The King agreed, and sent a garrison of soldiers. Jason fled across the Jordan, and Menelaus was installed as the new High Priest.

This had a shattering effect on the Jews. Jason was at least a brother of the High Priest; Menelaus had no such connection, and may even not have been a Levite. During the first two years, he left the Temple service alone, but more heathen rituals were brought in by mercenary soldiers, and Menelaus pressured more youths to participate in the games. During his second year, Menelaus found he could not pay the additional money promised, even with heavy taxes. Summoned to Antioch, he took some Temple gold vessels with him to propitiate Antiochus, and while he was gone, brother Lysimachus made a second raid on the treasury. The Jews of Jerusalem were enraged by this, and by the news that Osnias III was murdered in Antioch while Menelaus was there. In the clash of angry demonstrators versus Lysimachus, his followers and mercenaries, Lysimachus was killed. The Jews then petitioned Antiochus to remove Menelaus, but to no avail. He was reinstalled.

Shortly thereafter, in 168 BCE, Antiochus had his own problems. His second invasion of Egypt had gone well, and he was about to put Alexandria to the siege. But Roman diplomats showed up, and demanded, in a humiliating manner, that Antiochus either withdraw or face war with Rome. He withdrew. As he moved northward back through Judea to Antioch, probably in a foul mood, he got fresh reports of civil disorder. Jason was returning from exile to try to oust Menelaus, and this revolt had a lot of local support. Antiochus viewed this rebellion against his appointee as a rebellion against himself. A major Seleucid force seized Jerusalem on the Sabbath, and conducted a massacre of thousands of its citizens. The Temple treasury was again looted, and Menelaus was again put back as High Priest. A new Fortress, called Acra, was set up just west of the Temple, and Jerusalem's walls were torn down, so that the Jews would have to rely on Acra for security. The fortress was also a garrison for the military governor and his large force of mercenaries.

Antiochus now carried out his fateful decision. His dreams of expansion were in ashes; he would have to go into a defensive mode, to consolidate his empire by tightening his grip everywhere, especially on the edges, like in Judea. The mechanism for this unity would be Hellenism. Mandatory Hellenism. Judaism, which had always been the primary obstacle to Hellenism in Judea, was now to be totally forbidden. Antiochus may also have been motivated by a contempt for Judaism and its Temple which contained no tangible god or even image to worship; we can't be sure.

What followed appears to be history's first campaign against a religion, the first attempt to stamp out a religion itself, rather than its adherents. He unleashed a ruthless campaign of extraordinary savagery. Practicing Judaism, especially Torah study, observing the Sabbath or holidays, circumcision, and prayer minyans carried the death penalty. Failing to bring sacrifices to Greek gods or to eat pig also brought death. Extreme acts of cruelty were perpetrated. In Kislev of 167 BCE, the Temple was subject to a series of abominations. All Judaica was removed, an image of Zeus was set up above the altar, and on Kislev 25, sacrificial offerings of pigs began, with the blood sprinkled on the Holy of Holies. Other horrors, including Temple prostitution were to follow. This was, as Moshe Pearlman put it "a living death" for the Temple. "The grossest affront to the Jewish faith ... precisely what Antiochus had intended" and of course was utterly demoralizing. As Elias Bickerman writes, "Never before and never thereafter was the spiritual existence of Israel so imperiled." The principle campaign was of course in Jerusalem, but the edicts were also enforced even in the Diaspora communities in the Seleucid empire.

Many fled, to caves, to the desert, to the mountains or villages. The earliest resistance was from Pietists, but they were severely constrained. The Prophets had said that Kings ruled, in effect, by Divine right. If the King was harsh, then he was merely the instrument of God's anger at the Jews for their backsliding. If the King overdid it, God would take care of the King. God, in the end would fix everything; Jews only needed to keep the faith. Their approach was utterly passive, and is in some ways reminiscence of some attitudes during the Holocaust. Second, the rules of Shabbat, at that time, did not permit exceptions. Thus, First Maccabees records that when some Pietists were trapped in a cave on Shabbat, they would neither hurl stones nor barricade the cave. The result was martyrdom, again and again. Indeed, some scholars date the Jewish attention to martyrdom and also in the afterlife to exactly this period in time. Two such stories come down to us in some detail. One is of the elderly priest Eleazar, a well liked Torah scholar. He endured death by torture rather than even faking the act of eating pig. The other was a tale of seven sons of an unnamed woman, the only story from the book of Maccabees to make it into the Talmud. All eight died at the hands of Antiochus rather than renounce their faith. Surely these stories were widely circulated at the time.

But fleeing was just a short term solution. Detachments of soldiers were sent to the villages to enforce the implacable will of the King, and so it was that a group came to Modi'in, 17 miles NW of Jerusalem. The villagers were gathered in the market square along with an altar and a pig. The King's officer bid Mattathias, the spiritual leader of the community, to take part in the sacrifice. He refused. At this tense moment, another Jew stepped forward, willing to do it. Mattathias seized a sword, and killed the Jew, killed the King's agent, and tore down the altar.

Mattathias was not a spiritually inclusive kind of guy.

In moments, the other troops were also killed. Mattathias addressed the townspeople. Everything had changed. He issued a direct plea: "Let everyone who is zealous for the Law, and who would maintain the covenant, follow me." And they headed to the hills.

In fact, the authorities could have readily wiped them out. There were probably no more than a few dozen men of military age, and they lacked weapons or training. But the prospects of a serious peasant rebellion may not have even been considered then --- rebellions against an empire would come from leaders, in league with leaders of a rival empire. It wouldn't come from people who don't want to eat pork. And these were not crack troops to begin with, and peaceable occupations tend to make armies grow soft. They could wait till hunger brought the villagers out of the mountains. And as for the Hellenist Jews, they were city folk, they weren't going into the hills. And so, the Maccabees were left alone for about a year.

Mattathias did three crucial things. First, he legitimized the notion of active revolt against the King, even to the point of a priest doing the killing. He cited the actions of the Biblical priest Pinchas in the slaying of Zimri in this regard. Second, he issued a crucial Halachic change: Defensive warfare would henceforth be permitted on the Sabbath. The clear needs of the Jewish people justified an exception being made, an issue which of course arose again in the Israeli War for Independence. This ruling was accepted even by many of the Pietists, despite the fact that he was not the High Priest. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg put it, "The lesson ... is obvious: Authority flows from the ruling, not the ruling from authority. It is a lesson that modern-day religious leadership must still learn." And third, before he died, early in the rebellion, he named his third son Judah as its new leader.

The Maccabees trained their volunteers in guerrilla tactics, but apparently then sent people back to their homes. This meant that they could build up a vital intelligence network in the field. When the Maccabees sent out forays, they avoided the walled cities, and the Seleucid stronghold in Jerusalem. Instead, they targeted the minority, the Hellenistic sympathizers in villages such as Mizpah, rooting them out and destroying their altars. When they located uncircumcised Jewish babies, they had them circumcised, presumably without parental consent. While they surely thought of themselves as a religious freedom fighters, it wasn't freedom in a modern sense. They wanted Jewish practices followed, not just as a permitted option.

These actions halted the drift toward Hellenism which had taken place for perhaps a century. People now had to choose sides. The Maccabees succeeded in large part because they put together, at least for a time, a coalition with both Pietists and some moderate Hellenists.

As time went on, Judah's control over the countryside strengthened, and the Jerusalem garrison became beleaguered. General Appollonius set forth due south from Samaria to reinforce Jerusalem, with perhaps 2000 men. Judah ambushed them, taking the sword and life, of Appollonius, in the first major clash. Next came General Seron who took the coastal route with a larger force, and he was ambushed at Beth Horon. Interestingly enough, both of these routes were used by Israelis in the 1967 battle for Jerusalem. On June 5, an Israeli mechanized infantry force fought a decisive battle at the same Beth Horon Pass, while a reserve armored brigade pressed east to capture, and then use, what was probably the same North-South road Appollonius planned to take to Jerusalem.

General Lysias was then given an immense force, 20,000 men, with instructions to exterminate the Jews, and bring in a fresh population to resettle the area. His commander Nicanor decided, instead of heading directly for Jerusalem and getting bushwhacked in some mountain pass, to take a coastal route, and set up camp near Emmaus, and set out to find the rebel army. He collected local reinforcements and invited slave dealers to assemble with their gold, silver and fetters for the aftermath of his victory. Judah camped to the east at Mizpeh. Each side opted for a night raid on the other's camp. But Judah had abandoned his camp completely, and instead scored a major rout at Emmaus.

Finally, Lysias himself took the field in 164 BCE, encamping in Beth Zur. He would then move to Jerusalem from the SW, a safer route, and use that city as his base. This drew Judah south with 10,000 men. First Maccabees records that Lysias was defeated with a loss of 5000 men, and returned to Antioch. Other sources record that negotiations then took place, with Lysias, Menelaus and even a Roman ambassador functioning as intermediaries. The upshot was that in early 164 BCE Antiochus, engaged in a major war against Parthia in the East and out of money, decided to cut his losses. He issued a Proclamation to the Sanhedran that, in effect, the persecutions were over, and Jews could practice Judaism.

At this point, there is a gap in our record. Toward the end of 164, after the harvest, Judah reassembled his men to sweep into Jerusalem. The walls, remember, had been torn down four years earlier, and there wasn't much resistance from the garrison at Acra.

The Temple was found to be utterly desolated. Under the supervision of "priests without blemish", the Temple was repurified, and a new altar built. Then, exactly three years after the start of pagan rites, on Kislev 25, to the music of harps and lutes and cymbals, the Temple was dedicated anew.


B ibliography:

"The Maccabees", Moshe Pearlman (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1973)

"The Maccabees", Elias Bickerman (Schocken Books, New York, 1947)

"Seasons of Our Joy", Arthur Wascow (Summit Books, New York, 1982)

"The Jewish Way", Irving Greenberg (Summit Books, New York, 1988)

"Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook", Lesli Koppelman-Ross


 Of these sources, the Pearlman book is the most complete and detailed, and has some good illustrations as well.

 The first four books are at the Mollie L. Berch Library at Tifereth Israel. The fifth book can be found at the Isaac Frank Library in Rockville, MD.



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