Many people know about Judah Maccabbee, the man who led the battle against the Syrian Greeks to free Jerusalem and its Holy Temple from foreign control. But no one has ever heard of Shira Maryam, a young girl who helped him win the battle for Jewish religious freedom and independence.
Shira Maryam lived in Jerusalem. Her family was a wealthy one, related to Menelaus, a very wealthy man who in 171 BCE bribed the Greek king to appoint him to be the High Priest in Jerusalem. (2 Maccabbees 4:23-5)) Her parents, like many other wealthy Jewish people, preferred to speak Greek, rather than Hebrew.
Her parents also went to the Greek theater Saturday mornings instead of attending a synagogue on the Sabbath. Even worse, they bought a Greek statue for Shira, and gave it to her on her tenth birthday.
This statue was an idol of one of the Greek Gods. Shira was a faithful believer in the one God of Abraham, and very proud to be Jewish. She did not want an idol of a Greek God in her room, or even in her house. It would be like having a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. She protested to her parents. They pointed out how beautiful the statue was, and how well known the Greeks were for their sculpture.
Finally they said, “You have to get along with the majority, and not stand out as being too different. Since the Greeks are in control, it is important to do what they do.” Shira didn’t agree. She hid the statue in her closet. A few weeks later, she gave it to a non-Jewish friend.
When her baby brother was born, her parents decided they would not have a circumcision. They heard the King was going to forbid the barbaric Jewish custom of circumcision. They did not want to tell that to Shira so they said to her, “When he grows up, he will want to play sports in a Greek gymnasium. Everyone knows the athletes competing in the Greek gymnasium are naked. If he was circumcised all the Greeks would make fun of him because he is a Jew.”
Shira insisted that her baby brother have a circumcision. “It is terrible to abandon the oldest commandment, first given to Prophet Abraham, just because you’re worried that some Greeks might make fun of someone. If they are prejudiced, we should fight them, not give in to them.” Her parents finally agreed, and her baby brother was circumcised.
When Shira was eleven years old her parents gave her a very costly gift. In those days, all books were handwritten and very expensive, so Shira was very surprised when her parents gave her a copy of Homer, to help her with her school work.
But Shira was not impressed. She told them she would prefer to have a copy of the Torah to help her live a good Jewish life. Her parents finally gave in, and Shira received her own Torah, and a tutor came every day to teach her.
When Shira was twelve years old, Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabbee, started a revolution against the Greek rulers. Shira’s parents denounced Mattathias and his sons as fanatics. But Shira supported the rebels.
When Shira was fourteen years old she ran away from home to join Judah Maccabbee and the other Jews who were fighting the Syrian Greeks. However, Judah told her that only men could join in the battle. But she stood up to him too, and pointed out that Prophet Deborah (Judges 4:4-22) had led a Jewish army against the enemies of the Jewish people, and that Judith had actually cut off the head of an enemy general.
Judah Maccabbee admitted that this was true, and he was wrong in saying that women couldn’t fight. However, he said, “You are still too young. Go back home. If we’re still at war in another 4 or 5 years you can join us.”
“I can join you now ,” said Shira Maryam, “I will be a spy and send you information about what is happening in Jerusalem.” Judah Maccabbee agreed to that, and Shira returned to Jerusalem.
A year later, just before her fifteenth birthday, Judah Maccabbee and his army surrounded the walls of Jerusalem. However, they were not able to overcome the Greek soldiers who were defending the walls.
Shira asked her parents for a Shofar (a ram’s horn sounded on the New Year festival) for a birthday present. She planned to blow the Shofar when she saw a good opportunity for Judah Maccabbee and his army to attack. But since her parents always liked non-Jewish things more than Jewish things, they decided to give her a pet octopus.
Shira was very angry. Then she got an idea. She trained the octopus to carry a burning torch in each of its tentacles. When the octopus could do this, she sent a message to Judah Maccabbee. “Tomorrow night at midnight, launch an attack against the north wall of the city near the corner where I live. I will distract the guards. They will all be looking into the city, instead of out from the walls.”
The next night, just before midnight, Shira put her octopus into a barrel, and carried it to a very large pool near the city wall, which was used as a water reservoir. She slipped the octopus into the water. She then took 8 spears that she had taken from the home of her uncle Menelaus, the pro Greek High Priest, and wrapped oily rags around the points.
Giving the eight spears to the octopus, one for each tentacle, she lit them. Then she got into the water and began to swim with the octopus at her side. She called out, “The water is on fire, the water is on fire.”
All the guards on the city wall looked at the amazing sight. There were eight flames moving over the dark water in the reservoir. While they were all looking at the lights. Judah and his army attacked, and the wall was overcome.
My story of Shira Maryam did not actually happen way back then; but each time a young person of every religious tradition stands up proudly for his or her religion today, the miracle happens again and again. Additional stories are on my web site.
Traditionally, Jews increase the number of candles by one on each of the eight nights of Hanukah; for “one must ascend in matters of holiness.” Faith helps us grow stronger when we face challenges, and inspires others to also grow in faith. This is one of life’s’ great miracles.
Hope makes a big difference. Don’t curse the darkness; light a candle. A Jew must always strive to go higher and higher in matters of light- i.e. Torah, Mitzvot and deeds of loving-kindness.