History of the Talmud VII:

The Maccabean Rebellion

The events surrounding the wars fought by the Jewish People known as the “Maccabean Rebellion,” with which most of us are familiar as the prelude to the Festival of Hanukkah, are more significant a factor in Jewish history than the declaration of the holiday itself. The events were critical to the development of Judaism in general as well as the specific problems relating to Jewish Law.

The First Book of Maccabees tells us that the Seleucid emperors who ruled over western Asia including the Land of Israel, attempted to enforce their policy of total Hellenization on all the nations in their empire. We learn from this account that there were Jews who were willing to agree to Hellenization, and to adopt Pagan religious practices. There were even members of the priestly families who agreed to introduce Pagan symbols and practices into the Temple in Jerusalem.

The events recorded in the First Book of Maccabees reveal many aspects of Jewish life in the Hellenistic Age. It opens our eyes to the fact that there were Jews who would go to extremes in order to be accepted by the Greeks. It also tells us of the syncretism, the joining together of Pagan and Jewish elements in the ritual of the Temple in Jerusalem.

How could the Kohanim, the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem, agree to compromise the strict rules of the Jewish faith by agreeing to introduce elements of Greek Paganism into the Temple? One could suppose that the motivations that drove the priests to introduce Pagan rituals and idols into the Temple were many. One factor that cannot be dismissed is the probability that they desperately wanted to retain their positions as Kohanim Gedolim, as High Priests. Once Israel was conquered by Antiochus, the Seleucid emperor, it became obvious that the priests who held the highest position were no longer able to follow the religious tradition of succession from High Priest father to son. Once the Pagan emperors made it clear that they would decide who would serve as High Priest in Jerusalem, one was forced to the conclusion that to retain one’s position, one had to be subservient to the emperor.

The Maccabean Revolt started as a struggle of the Jews who wanted to preserve the purity of Jewish religious faith and practice against those who were willing to Hellenize Judaism; that is to say, to adapt Jewish religious traditions and ceremonies to Greek religious practices. While this system of religious syncretism posed no problem to the Pagan national entities in the Seleucid Empire, it was vigorously opposed by the Jews who held fast to the faith of the Torah and its traditional interpretations as taught by the Men of the Great Assembly from the days of Ezra the Scribe until their own time. These rebels, who were led by the Hasmonean family under the military leadership of Judah Maccabee, were joined by the very pious Jews, known as the Hasidim in their struggle against the Hellenizers.

The war of the Hasmoneans against the Hellenizing priests in the Temple and their protector, who was the emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was a long, drawn-out conflict which inflicted great pain and suffering on the Jewish People in the land of Israel and many of the heroic leaders of the rebellion, including Judah Maccabee, were killed during the conflict. But the Jews held on and, eventually emerged victorious.

Since the Hasmonean family were Kohanim; priests of the family of Jojarib, when they succeeded in defeating the Hellenizing priests and driving them out of the Temple, they were eligible to assume the priesthood, which they did, Simon Hasmonean becoming the first of the High Priests of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

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