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Reinventing Hanukkah: The Battle Over the Maccabees in the Streets of Jerusalem

Ben Yehuda believed that the Rabbis downplayed the proto-Zionist military heroism of the Maccabees
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of Hebrew as a modern secular language, believed that the Talmudic Rabbis had intentionally downplayed the proto-Zionist military heroism of the Maccabees, while upgrading the exilic holiday of Purim.

Purim’s story was included in the Bible and a full tractate dedicated to its observance in the Mishna and Talmud. Many mitzvot and customs fill the day of Purim (reading, costumes, eating and drinking), while the Rabbinic Hanukkah has no tractate and few observances and no mention of Judah the Maccabee at all.

So, Ben Yehuda wrote school plays for Hanukkah, and in 1881 published in his Hebrew newspaper, issued in Jerusalem, an article calling metaphorically “to gather strength (military?), and proceed forward (eastward?) like Judah the Maccabee.” The anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox informed on Ben Yehuda to the Turkish authorities ruling Palestine and accused him of calling for armed revolt. Ben Yehuda was jailed until the Turks could be persuaded that he had no concrete plans for an uprising.

In the light of the harassment by the ultra-Orthodox, Eliezer Ben Yehuda sought to enlighten his Zionist colleagues about the dangers of the romanticization of the Maccabees. When the Secular Zionist artist Boris Schatz, founder of the Jerusalem Institute of Art, Bezalel, unveiled his famous statue of Mattathias the Zealot, Eliezer Ben Yehuda refused to make a speech in its honor at the Zionist Hanukkah party in 1908.

Ben Yehuda explained:

It is a mistake to think of the Hasmoneans as the middle way, the moderates combining foreign content with national form, bringing the beauty of the Greeks into the tents of Israel….The truth is the Hasmoneans never succeeded in finding a middle way of compromise between Hellenist and Hassidic Jews, because it was not really possible then nor is it possible in our day….

When Professor Schatz asked me to speak in honor of his new statue of Mattathias holding a sword, I refused, because I was afraid of the wrath of that image of Mattathias. I imagined that Mattathias’ eyes were looking at our Hanukkah party with zealous anger. If his statue were to come to rise from his grave and find himself in this Temple of Art, (the Bezalel Institute of Art in Jerusalem), surrounded by statues and pictures, then he would surely stab me with his sword with the same holy zealous emotion that he stabbed the Jew who agreed to sacrifice pig on the altar in his hometown of Modi’in two thousand years ago. He would smash all the statues, while screaming in a great voice: “Accursed Hellenists! Violators of the Covenant! Are you the inheritors of the Maccabees? Did we spill our blood so that you would come to our land, pollute it and put statues in the Temple?” – Hashkafah, 6 Tevet 1908

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