In 166 BCE, the struggle finally boiled over. Igniting the smoldering spark
of Jewish resistance against the Seleucids was the elderly Mattisyahu, from
the priestly Hasmonean family. He, together with his five sons, would
permanently change the face of Jewish history.
Persecution had forced Mattisyahu to Modi’in, a small, inconspicuous hamlet
situated to the northwest of Jerusalem. There, he and his family hoped to be
spared the brunt of the hellenistic efforts that were previously
concentrated in Jerusalem. However, their hopes would soon be dashed.
Before long, Greek troops arrived at Modi’in. They instructed the Jews to
meet in the town square where the pagan ritual, which included the sacrifice
of a pig to Zeus, would take place. As the town elder and a priest,
Mattisyahu was called upon to perform the sacrifice. If the Greeks could win
him over, the rest of the town would certainly follow.
You are a ruler, and an honorable and great man in this city, and
firmly supported by your sons and brothers. Come first and fulfill the
king’s commandment, as the leading men in Judah, and those left in
Jerusalem. Do this and you and your household will counted amongst the
king’s friends. You and your children will be honored with silver and gold,
and many rewards. (I Maccabees, 2:17–18)
Mattisyahu glanced at the swine, the animal of abhorrence to the Jews. It
was then, amongst the fearful anticipation of the local villagers, and under
the watchful glare of the Greek soldiers, that he uttered his firm refusal.
G-d forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances! We will
not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the
right hand, or the left. (I Maccabees, 2:21–22)
Defying Mattisyahu’s heroic stance, a hellenized Jew came forward to
sacrifice the pig. At that moment, the elderly priest stabbed him and killed
the Greek commander as well. After tearing down the altar, he faced the
crowd. Echoing the words spoken by Moshe following the sin of the Golden
Calf some 1,500 years prior, he challenged them, “Mi L’Hashem, ai’li!” –
“All who are for G-d should follow me!” (I Maccabees 2:27) Local inhabitants
immediately pounced upon the Greek garrison, killing them. The war had
Mattisyahu would not live long enough to see the full consequences of his
actions. Within a year of launching the revolt, he died. Before his passing
in 165 BCE, Mattisyahu left instructions that his militarily gifted son
Yehudah become his successor.
Yehuda was the practical leader and military strategist behind the eventual
success of the Jewish revolt. He inspired thousands to take up arms in the
battle for the preservation of Judaism, and devised strategies for the
Jewish forces to outmaneuver and defeat the larger, more sophisticated Greek
This revolt and subsequent war were the earliest of their kind. For the
first time in human history, a struggle of this magnitude was waged over
ideological and religious differences, rather than territorial
considerations. In the ancient world, pagans did not die for the sake of
religion. Only the Jews were prepared to do so.
A Different Type of Hero
Yehuda Maccabee (an acronym for “mi kamocha b’ailim Hashem” – “Who is like
You among the powers, O G-d” – Exodus 15:11) is one of the great heroes in
Jewish history. He is typically viewed as a brave warrior and military
genius, who led his men to victory against seemingly insurmountable odds.
However, Yehuda’s true greatness stemmed from the fact that he never lost
sight of the real Source of his successes.
It is easy for many to be defeated by few, for in the sight of Heaven
there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the
size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from
Heaven. They come against us in great disrespect and lawlessness to destroy
us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us, but we fight for our
lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us. (I Maccabees,
Yehuda’s heroism was rooted in the purest of all sources, a zealous love of
his religion. He fought not for his own selfish end, nor from a passion for
victory on the battlefield. Rather, a spirit of self-sacrifice guided him.
He understood that G-d was calling to him. He could not decline his historic
The reign of Antiochus marks a turning point in Jewish and world history.
Unlike the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, whose
persecution of the Jewish people was aimed primarily at our political
strength, Antiochus took aim at the Jewish religion.
Had Antiochus been successful in his attempts at hellenizing the Jews of
Judah, all of Jewish and world history would have been permanently altered.
Only the brave resistance of the Hasmoneans and their followers, who risked
their lives for the sake of preserving their religion, would ensure the
future of the Jewish people.
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
It was not the courage of the Hasmoneans, nor the sword of the
Maccabees…for whom (Chanuka) was decreed. Lights are its symbols, not signs
of might and dominion. It was not Yehuda Maccabee who defeated Antiochus of
Syria; it was the Jewish light which gained the victory over the dazzling
luster of Hellenic splendor. The spirit which Mattisyahu had harbored in his
priestly breast and had nurtured in his children, was the rock upon which
the Hellenic evil was smashed. This sprit… maintained the law amongst the
people. (Collected Writings, Volume II, Feldheim, New York, p.
More than anything else, Yehuda and his followers were “saints of the most
high, without whom the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel” (Ramban,
commentary to Genesis 49:10). It was through such people that G-d would
ultimately deliver His people.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting
(ImpactfulCoaching.com), which provides support services to leaders and
executives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.