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Matityahu's Revolt

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Shimon Apisdorf

For the Maccabees, it was not physical life at stake, but the spiritual life of the Jew.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the lands of the Middle East were divided among different rulers. In the north, Syria was ruled by Antiochus Epiphanies who eventually took over as ruler of the Israel.

Antiochus added the title of Epiphanies to his name because it meant, "god made manifest." In other words, Antiochus didn't just think he was "God's gift to man," he thought he was god himself!

Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Judaism, with its Holy Temple, great Torah academies and large Jewish population, was the natural target for the fiercest enforcement of the anti-Jewish decrees. To drive their point home, the Greeks built a gymnasium, one of the central symbols of Greek culture, right next to the Temple. Eventually they would insist that a statue of Zeus be placed in the Temple itself.

For those reasons, Matitiyahu, the scholarly and righteous scion of the Hasmonian family, moved his family out of Jerusalem, 40 km. north to a small village called Modi'in. But the reign of terror followed them there, too.

Giving In?

The Jewish community was divided in response to the appeal for assimilation. Some saw assimilation as a positive and modernizing influence and they welcomed the release from Jewish parochialism. For them, Hellenist culture was the way of the future, the way to gain acceptance into the larger Greek society, and the way to prosperity.

A Jew with ambition during the time of the Greeks had no choice but to join the local gymnasium, buy a season pass to the theater, and maybe take up writing poetry as a hobby. (What some people won't do to fit in.)

Whether they abandoned Judaism altogether, or relegated it to a secondary role in their lives, they believed they belonged more to the theater and gymnasium than to the halls of Torah study and the synagogue. These Jews were the Hellenists.

In general, two camps polarized: the Jewish assimilationists (called Hellenists) on one side, and the devout observant community on the other. In the end, the Jewish war against Greece at the time of Chanukah would prove to be not only a war of Jew against Greek, but also a war between Jew and Jew – fought over the heart, soul and future of the Jewish people.

Maccabee Might

The matter came to a head in Modi'in. Greek soldiers came one day and demanded that the Jews sacrifice a pig to the pagan god. At first, no one stepped forward and the Jews stood in proud defiance of their pagan oppressors. But then a Jewish Hellenist volunteered to perform the mock offering.

Furious at this outrage, Matitiyahu, from the family of Hasmonian priests, killed the man on the spot, and then killed the Greek soldiers who were present. Matitiyahu and his five sons fled to the nearby caves and became the core of a guerilla fighting unit. They were prepared to fight and die to preserve the exclusive worship of Judaism – battling the Greeks not only militarily, but religiously as well.

Matitiyahu had five sons: Shimon, Yochanan, Yehudah (Judah), Elazar and Yonatan. Though Matitiyahu's valor provided the initial spark for the revolt against the Greeks, he died shortly after the rebellion began. The mantle of leadership passed to his son Judah, and under Judah's inspired leadership the Jews were able to successfully confront the Greeks and eventually recapture the Temple.

For the Maccabees, it was not Jewish physical life that was at stake, but the spiritual life of the Jew. The name "Maccabee" is an acronym for the Torah verse "Who is compared to You among the mighty, oh Lord" (Exodus 15:11).

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