Who was Judah Maccabee?
What was his world like during the time he led a war to take the temple back?
How did that war become a holiday celebrated by lighting candles, playing dreidel, singing songs, eating latkas, and giving presents?
When I decided to write a play about Hannukah, I started thinking about the fact that I never really knew the answers to any of those questions as a child. I knew that Judah Maccabee was a hero, and that his name was mentioned in a few songs. And I knew he had something to do with getting the temple back. But beyond that, I didn’t know or really wonder much else.
So who was he?
Judah Maccabee lived in a time when most Jews believed that Judaism could not be practiced outside the ancient temple. Yet the temple had been taken away, so those Jews found themselves unable to observe Jewish rituals in the way they felt those rituals should be observed.
This was before there were rabbis, or the Talmud. The seeds of the rabbinic movement perhaps started in those days without the temple, but it would take 200 years for that change to truly happen. In Judah Maccabee’s time, 165 BCE, there were only priests, and priests needed the temple.
As far as Judah Maccabee was concerned, the survival of the Jewish religion was at stake. In essence, Judah Maccabee was a soldier, a man driven to lead a rebellion against his Hellenistic rulers because he believed that otherwise, his religion would be destroyed.
What is remarkable is that, against all odds, he won. He regained the temple.
Then, 200 years later, the temple was destroyed.
So why the celebration?
According to the Book of Maccabees, an eight-day celebration was held after the altar was rededicated. This may have been a belated celebration of Sukkot. There is no mention of lighting candles, or even the miracle of the oil lasting. But in some ways, perhaps, the Maccabean celebration of their victory could be considered the first celebration of Hannukah.
It wasn’t until 250 years later, after the destruction of the Temple, that we can find a passing mention of the holiday (just known then as “The Festival of Lights.”) And it was 600 years before instructions about how to celebrate Hanukkah appear in the Gemara (part of the Talmud).
So perhaps Hanukkah is a reminder of what the Temple once meant to Judaism, rather than a simple celebration of a victory. After all, the menorah deliberately resembles the Eternal Light, a seven-pronged golden candlestick that once stood in the sanctuary. And the story of the oil lasting is certainly another reminder of days when the Temple was the center of Judaism.
But the dreidels, the latkes, the songs, the presents: they all belong to a different, more modern tradition. A tradition that would be almost incomprehensible to Judah Maccabee if he saw it.
Would it even feel like the same religion, I wondered?
That was the question that inspired me to write this play. The answer I came up with involves a common theme, a theme that I feel connects Judah Maccabee’s battles with more modern Jewish struggles.
In the end, there is no way to truly know who Judah Maccabee was, or what he would think of our world and Judaism today. When grasping at the tiny bits of information that still exist about a man who lived over two thousand years ago, all one can truly do is imagine. I based my tale on facts, but I also based it my own imaginings. Judah Maccabee the character may or may not be anything like the real Judah Maccabee who lived over two thousand years ago. But this is how I imagine him.