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A Question for the 6th Night of Hanukkah: Were the Maccabees Heroes or Zealots?

The Questions posed are part of Rabbi Gartenberg's Hanukkah Seder. For a copy, write to him at

Dipping for the 6th Question: Dip roasted. garlic bread in a special mixed oil of with cinnamon, cumin, Fresh green chile.

Effect   An initial sweet and savory taste followed by the chile's delayed burn.

Text for Discussion 

"In those days [of religious persecution by King Antiochus], a priest named Mattathias moved from Jerusalem with his five sons and settled in Modiin.  When he saw the blasphemous things that were going on in Judea and Jerusalem, he said with a heavy sigh, "Why was I born to witness the ruin of my people and the ruin of the Holy City and to sit by while it is being given up to its enemies, and its Temple to aliens?" Mattathias and his sons tore their clothes in mourning.

Later, the king's officers who were forcing the people to give up their religion, came to the town of Modiin, to make them offer an idolatrous sacrifice. When many Jews, among them Mattathias and his sons, gathered together, the king's messengers said to Mattathias:

"You are a leading man, great and distinguished in this town, surrounded with sons and brothers; now be the first to come forward and carry out the king's command as all the peoples, all the men of Judea, and those who are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be counted among the Friends of the King and will receive silver, gold and many royal commissions."

Then Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: "Even if all the peoples in the king's dominions listen to him and forsake each of them the religion of their ancestors, I and my children and my siblings will live in accordance with the covenant of our ancestors. God forbid that we should abandon the Torah and the mitzvot. We will not listen to the message of the king, nor depart from our religion to the right hand or to the left."

When Mattathias finished speaking, a Jew went up before everyone's eyes to offer the pagan sacrifice on the altar in Modiin as the king commanded. Mattathias saw him and was filled with righteous anger. Shaking with emotion and unable to contain his anger, Mattathias ran up and slaughtered him upon the altar.

At the same time Mattathias killed the king's officer who was trying to compel them to sacrifice, and tore down the altar.  Then Mattathias cried out in a loud voice in the town, "Let everybody who is zealous for the Torah and stands by the Covenant  (Brit) follow me."

And he and his sons fled to the mountains and left all they possessed in the town."

Excerpted from the Book of Maccabees

Commentary to Catalyze Discussion

The question we pose is difficult, because from childhood we have been taught about the heroics of the Maccabees. Their revolt against the extreme laws of Antiochus led to a military victory and to the establishment of the short lived second common wealth of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The place and legacy of the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, is very complicated and yields no easy answer.  What is the role of violent resistance during periods of persecution?  Did the zeal of the Maccabees create new problems for the Jews?  Why did the rabbis not highlight the martial skill and heroism of the Maccabees in the ancient rabbinic sources?