30 Kislev 5775
6th Candle of Hanukah
Channukah: the mother of all price-tags
by Daniel Pinner
It was just a minor skirmish, hardly worth a mention. In a small village in one of the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire’s more remote provinces, an obscure local priest refused to obey the local representative of the Empire.
A Seleucid military unit had set up a pagan altar in the village of Modi’in, in the foot-hills of Judea, 27 km (17 miles) north-west of Jerusalem (today just several hundred metres north-east of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, 15 minutes by train from Ben Gurion Airport), and the unit’s commander, Apelles, ordered Matityahu (Mattathias), the priest of the village, to sacrifice a pig upon it.
Apelles’ command and Matityahu’s response have been recorded for posterity. The king’s officers tried to entice Matityahu with flattery and promises of high reward. “You are a ruler”, began the representative of the Seleucid Empire, “highly respected and a great man in this city, and you are strengthened with sons and brothers. So therefore come, you be the first to obey the command of the king – as all the nations have done– and with you all the men of Judea, and those who remain in Jerusalem. Then you and your family shall be numbered among the king’s friends, and you and your sons shall be honoured with silver, with gold, and with all manner of gifts” (1 Maccabees 2:17).
Matityahu’s response was a paragon of Jewish pride: “Even if all the nations who are in the abode of the king’s dominion obey him and each one abandons the religion of his fathers, still I and my sons and my brothers will yet walk in the Covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid that we ever forsake the Torah and mitzvot! We will not obey the king’s words, to stray from our worship to the right or to the left” (1 Maccabees 2:18).
Hearing Matityahu’s refusal, another Jew (whose name has been forever lost to history) stepped forward to sacrifice the pig on the pagan altar.
The Jewish renegade no doubt expected to earn the gratitude of the Seleucid Empire for his treason. How he must have looked forward to the rewards and the recognition that this mightiest of empires would bestow upon him!
Instead Matityahu put an unexpectedly high price-tag on his treason by snatching a sword from a Greek soldier and killing the Jewish traitor. Matityahu then turned his sword on Apelles, killing him too. Spontaneously, Matityahu and his sons then attacked the entire Greek garrison, killing all the soldiers and, before other units of the Seleucid army could take reprisals, fled into the surrounding Judean hills.
Thus began the revolt of the Maccabees against Greek oppression – a war that would continue for decades, the first war that organised Jewish forces had fought in almost half a millennium, and the first war ever in recorded history to be fought over the issue of religious principles. And history records that the Maccabees’ first victim was not a Greek soldier, but a Jewish Hellenist who had betrayed his nation and his G-d.
The year was 167 B.C.E., and the Seleucid Empire, ruled by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was unchallenged and unchallengeable in its might. Modi’in was probably too small even to appear on maps of Judea, let alone on maps of the Seleucid Empire. Most likely few people outside of that obscure village had ever heard of Matityahu.
Yet Modi’in and Matityahu were about to burst forth onto the pages of history, there to inscribe an episode of greater power and magnitude than anyone could have envisaged at the time.
Matityahu would die less than a year after that confrontation, but he had already ignited the revolt. Led by his son Yehudah (Judah) the Maccabee, Matityahu’s five sons inspired the fight for independence. The Seleucid army was the mightiest army in the world at the time; Hellenist ideology dominated the world from Greece unto Persia; not even Rome yet dared to challenge the supremacy of the Seleucid Empire. But the Jews, fighting for their national independence on their ancestral soil, took up primitive arms against this highly-trained professional army and, against all the odds, were eventually to defeat them.
In 164 B.C.E., three years after that initial skirmish, Maccabean forces liberated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, drove out the Syrian-Greek idolatry and the accoutrements with which they had defiled the Holy Temple, and on the twenty-fifth of Kislev re-dedicated the Holy Temple to the worship of the One true G-d. The fighting in the rest of the country would continue for decades, but they had accomplished their pivotal objective.
And for the first time in almost three centuries, there was Jewish independence in Israel (albeit only in a small area to start with).
The Seleucid Empire could so easily have kept the country peaceful: all they had to do was allow the Jews their religious freedom. After all, when Alexander the Great had conquered Israel from the Persian Empire 166 years earlier, he had done precisely that – kept the country peaceful simply by guaranteeing Jewish religious freedom.
But once the Seleucids pushed the Jews too far, war became inevitable. For generations, first under Persian rule and then Greek rule, the Jews felt that political independence could wait, and foreign occupation, as long as it did not interfere with their religious freedom, did not provoke them to armed insurrection.
But desecrating the Holy Temple, forcing Jews to violate their most sacred principles, attempting to force them to sacrifice pigs upon pagan altars – the nation simply would not stand for this.
And once the fighting had started, there was no going back until victory or death. Two years after liberating and re-dedicating the Holy Temple, Yehudah the Maccabee led an attack on the last remaining Seleucid fortress in Jerusalem. The Seleucids won the battle, and months of confused and inconclusive fighting followed.
Then in 162 B.C.E., when the situation seemed to have deteriorated to a stalemate, Lysias – the Seleucid general and governor of Syria – offered the Jews a peace accord, under which their freedom of religion would be restored. This caused much internal debate among the Jews: they would thereby achieve all that they been fighting for. However Yehudah rejected this offer, and resolved to continue fighting until he would restore full Jewish sovereignty and independence in Israel. Once the genie of armed insurrection had been let out of the bottle, it was impossible to get it back inside.
In historical terms, the Maccabean Revolt was the beginning of the end of the Seleucid Empire. Its power began waning – not only in Judea, but also in other provinces. The Maccabean victories over the Seleucids shattered their veneer of invincibility, and inspired other conquered nations to take up arms and fight for their freedom too.
Over the next few decades the Maccabees’ successors Shimon the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and after him his son Yochanan Hyrcanus I drove the Seleucids out of the central region around Jerusalem, then thrust westwards up to the Mediterranean coast, eastwards to the River Jordan (thus connecting with the trans-Jordanian area), southwards as far as the edge of the Negev Desert, northwards to the Galilean hill country, and then even farther eastwards into Idumæa in trans-Jordan (the south-west area of the present-day kingdom of Jordan).
While this was happening, the Seleucids also began to face nationalist insurrections in Parthia (modern-day Iran), Armenia, Cappadocia (modern-day Anatolia), and Pontus (southern coast of Black Sea, in modern north-east Turkey).
Arguably, all these nations had been inspired by the Maccabees to take up arms against the Seleucids. Indisputably, the Maccabees’ strategic brilliance and sheer ferociousness forced the Seleucids to divert personnel away from those areas in order to contend with the Jewish forces.
By 100 B.C.E., 67 years after Matityahu had lit the match and thrown it into the tinder-box of Jewish nationalist fervour, the once-formidable Seleucid Empire had shrunk to Antioch and a few Syrian cities; and a few decades later it finally collapsed.
The Seleucid dynasty, founded 211 years earlier by Seleucus Nicator (“the Victor”), had at last met its match and been defeated by the Maccabees, who had successfully imposed an impossibly heavy price-tag on its anti-Jewish tyranny.