Jared Sapolsky

Chanukah: Rediscovering the Maccabee 

For Jewish children growing up in the Diaspora, it is easy to get caught up in the holiday season and forget what Chanukah is really about. The Festival of Lights is more than just a story about how a jar of oil lasted longer than it should have. Chanukah is about celebrating hope and how the Jewish resistance of the Maccabees encouraged our people to fight for freedom against all odds.

In 167 BCE when the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus banned the observance of key Jewish practices including Torah study and circumcision, the Jewish High Priest Mattathias, along with his five sons, rose in revolt. Refusing to honor a sacrifice to Zeus, they fled Modiin and for three years engaged in guerilla warfare to free their people from oppression. John, Simon, Judas (Judah), Eleazar, and Jonathan were given the title “Maccabee” and led the Jewish people to victory.

Although the lighting of the Chanukah menorah celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple, this does not mark the end of the story. Judas Maccabeus continued to lead the Jewish people against the forces of Antiochus. This was not the life that Mattathias had wanted for his sons, but it was the life that they accepted. As Howard Fast describes in his historical novel My Glorious Brothers, “The Maccabee is nothing. He comes out of the people, and what he does, he does because the people desire it. And when there is no need for him, he is no different from any other man.” The spirit of the Maccabee has helped guide generations of Jews to never give up hope and to fight for the freedom of our people. The following are just five of those Jews:


Barely two hundred years after the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were again forced to fight for their religious freedom in a series of wars against the Romans. Emperor Hadrian decided to build a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, over the ruins of Jerusalem, after making false promises to help rebuild the Holy Temple. This marked the end of illusion for the Jewish people and in 132 CE, Simon Bar Kochba led a revolt in which he commanded over 200,000 men. Like the Maccabees before him, he used guerilla warfare and the Judean terrain to attack the heavily armed Roman legions.

Despite ultimately dying in battle in his stronghold at Betar, Bar Kochba succeeded in unifying the Jewish people and rebelling against not just the Romans (who suffered heavy casualties), but against Jewish passivity. This would show future generations that the Maccabean Revolt was more than an aberration. Unfortunately, the immediate results were that remnants of Bar Kochba’s forces were annihilated and exiled from Judea. The Jewish people faced dispersion and were forced to create new lives in the Diaspora. For nearly two thousand years Jewish self-defense was merely a dream until the appearance of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.


Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a writer from Odessa, Ukraine who had been heavily influenced by the Risorgimento (an ideological/literary movement that sparked Italian national consciousness) during his time studying in Italy. Following the Kishinev pogrom, Jabotinsky did his best to establish Jewish self-defense throughout Russia. Sacrificing a lucrative career, he dedicated his time to protecting his people. With the awareness and foresight of the Maccabees, he predicted the oncoming wave of anti-Semitism and pushed for a Jewish military force within the British army to help free the Jews of Palestine from the grasp of the Ottoman Empire in the first World War. Despite being ridiculed by most of the Zionist establishment for daring to challenge neutrality, his efforts were rewarded while visiting the Garbbari camp in Egypt to where the Jews of Palestine had been deported. In 1915 the British agreed to allow volunteers from Gabbari to form a Jewish Legion, and the Zion Mule Corps became the first all Jewish fighting unit since Bar Kochba.

While Jabotinsky left the Zion Mule Corps in the hands of Colonel John Patterson (a non-Jewish British officer) and Joseph Trumpeldor, he travelled across Europe campaigning for a larger Jewish unit that would fight for the British within Palestine. Refusing to bow to pressure from the Jewish leadership and the Jewish press, Jabotinsky used the increasing renown of the Zion Mule Corps to open up more productive dialogue regarding Zionist aspirations. As the Zionist cause became an increasingly popular topic, he finally succeeded in 1917 when the British established three Jewish battalions. The Jewish Legion included over 5,000 volunteers, Jabotinsky himself among them.

Following the first World War, Jabotinsky continued to preach self-defense and was put in charge of a new organization, the Hagana. Accepting the position reluctantly, he insisted on training in the open rather than keeping the Hagana as an underground group. He felt that marching in the open instilled a greater sense of pride and confidence in the Jewish people while simultaneously sending a warning that the Jews were capable of defending themselves if necessary. During the Arab Riots of 1920, while Jews were being raped and murdered in the Old City, he was arrested for possession of a weapon. He represented himself and nineteen other Jews in court, responding to charges of “evil intent” by stating that there is a difference between this accusation and the determination not to allow Jews to be slaughtered without response. Jabotinsky’s example ignited the passions of the Jewish community in a way not seen since Judas Maccabeus. Suddenly, the concept of deterrence was no longer taboo.

Despite being banned from Palestine in 1930 by a British administration that was increasingly worried by thinking like Jabotinsky’s, he continued to fight for Zionism. As the leader of the Revisionist party, he pushed for increased immigration to Palestine at a time when Jews were facing increased anti-Semitism and violence. He founded the Zionist Betar youth group – both a reference to Bar Kochba’s stronghold and an acronym for the Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor – which prepared Jews around the world for aliyah. Despite his misgivings about fighting “underground”, he reluctantly founded the Irgun Zvai Leumi when it became apparent that the British colonial  administration was not capable of responding to the increasing attacks against Jews.

As the gates of Europe were closing and the Holocaust was looming, Jabotinsky conducted Herzlian efforts in meeting with world leaders to push for open immigration to Palestine. While there may be no one who did more when it comes to fighting for the dignity of Jewish people during this time, he was not alone and he would not have succeeded without the direct help of Joseph Trumpeldor.


Joseph Trumpeldor first displayed the Maccabean heart and passion that defined him during the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, when he lost his left arm to shrapnel but insisted on completing his service (for which he volunteered) saying “I still have another to give to the motherland.” Despite being a pacifist, he had a deep understanding that there were certain things worth fighting for. Trumpeldor became the first Jew to receive an officer’s commission in the Russian army and while in Japanese prison, he taught Zionism to his fellow inmates.

Following his release, Trumpeldor made aliyah in 1911 where he lived on Kibbutz Degania. In 1915 he had a fateful meeting with Jabotinsky in the Gabbari camp where they decided to push the idea of the Jewish Legion. Despite Jabotinsky’s decision not to accept the Zion Mule Corps because it would not deploy in Palestine, Trumpeldor disagreed saying that “any front leads to Zion”. Jabotinsky would go on to say that without Trumpeldor’s insistence on accepting the proposal, the Jewish Legion of 1917 would not have been possible. Trumpeldor would go on to be second in command behind Colonel Patterson and suffer an injury in the Battle of Gallipoli. His efforts before, during, and after the war helped change the perception of Jews and their ability to fight.

After the war, Trumpeldor was a leader of the HeHalutz movement, preparing Jews internationally for aliyah. In 1920, he intended to return to Russia to continue that work when he was persuaded to stop by the farming village of Tel Hai which was under attack by Bedouin marauders and needed assistance in organizing self-defense. Trumpeldor was fatally wounded during a misunderstanding with the Bedouin and his final words were “ein davar (no matter) it is good to die for our country”.

Trumpeldor’s memory would go on to galvanize the Jewish nation, and Jabotinsky would name his Zionist youth group Betar after him. Ein davar would be remembered as Trumpeldor’s final words but according to Jabotinsky, “There was a complete philosophy contained in this ein davar: do not exaggerate; do not see danger where none exists; do not regard a man who does his duty as a hero – for history is long, the Jewish people everlasting, and truth is scared, but everything else, trouble and care and pain and death, ein davar.” Like the Maccabees before him, the fight was only a means to an end. His legacy would inspire many more after him, including Mordechai Anielewicz and the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


At a time when world Jewry was paralyzed by fear and many waited for a miracle, Mordechai Anielewicz took action. A former Betarim and a member of the leftist Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair, Anielewicz became an underground activist in 1940. In 1941, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia, he began organizing Jewish self-defense in the ghettos while most people were still relying on prayers. After mass deportations in 1942 marked the end of illusion in the ghettos, Anielewicz joined others in combining Hashomer with other groups including Dror and Akiva to form the Jewish Fighting Organization, or the ZOB (in Polish).

On January 18, 1943, Anielewicz joined nine others in attacking a group of German guards and was the only survivor. For the next three months, he trained the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto for the inevitable battle that would become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Using the battle techniques of the Maccabees, he created plans in which members of the ZOB would use their familiarity with the Ghetto to gain an advantage over the Germans. Connecting homes through basements and attics, both the ZOB and the smaller Betari based Jewish Military Organization (ZZW) used constant movement and guerilla warfare to surprise the Germans and inflict heavy casualties.

In his last known letter, Anielewicz wrote “The most difficult struggle of all is the one within ourselves. Let us not get accustomed and adjusted to these conditions. The one who adjusts ceases to discriminate between good and evil. He becomes a slave in body and soul. Whatever may happen to you, remember always: Don’t adjust! Revolt against the reality!” Even though he knew the uprising was doomed to fail, Anielewicz did all he could to channel the Maccabee spirit into his people. The ZOB and ZZW knew what they were fighting for and made their lives mean something. Although Anielewicz died on Day 20 of the revolt, he inspired other uprisings in ghettos and concentration camps which now saw a crack in the German might. The 60 survivors from the ZOB escaped to the Wyszkow Forest where they continued to fight for others as partisans.


While Mordechai Anielewicz fought from within ghetto walls, the Bielski Brothers fought from the outside of theirs. In December of 1941, Tuvia Bielski and his brothers Alexander (Zus), Asael, and Aron escaped from their Jewish ghetto in Western Belorussia, which at the time was part of Nazi occupied Poland. Although the Bielski Partisans numbered only about forty people in 1942, they would go on to include over 1,200 men, women and children.

Realizing the futility of life in the ghetto, the Bielskis fled to the countryside and the forest where they set up camps reminiscent of those set up by the Maccabees when they had fled Modiin. Although they could have escaped the reach of the Nazis, they chose to stay and fight. Refusing to be passive victims, they organized missions and sent guides to rescue others who needed help. Despite their lives being in danger, they continued to return to the ghettos in need of assistance. The Bielskis stressed the rescue of Jews over fighting Nazis. In the words of Tuvia, “Don’t rush to fight and die…we need to save lives. It is more important to save Jews than to kill Germans.”

The Bielskis were involved in 150 armed operations during their years as partisans. In addition to saving Jews, they disabled German trains, blew up tracks, destroyed bridges, and did anything they could to hinder the Nazis. Tuvia maintained relations with surrounding Soviet partisans, receiving additional weapons from them in 1944. As one of the most successful groups of Jews working to save other Jews, the 1,200 members were made up of those they had rescued. Seventy percent of those were women, children, and elderly who had nowhere else to go. By stressing defense and sabotage over open confrontation, they succeeded in rescuing many who would have perished.

In an era where we see the Israel Defense Forces fighting on the land of the Jewish people to protect the Jewish people, it is easy to see what motivates them. Rarely have our people been able to fight on our own land with our families at our backs. From the moment of dispersion until the War of Independence, that distinction was not so clear, and it took the heroic actions of individuals to inspire our nation. This was the spirit of the Maccabee.

As we light the candles this week in celebration of Chanukah and display the menorah proudly in our windows, we must make sure to remember the true miracle – the appearance of the Maccabee in our time of need. A single jar of oil may have lasted for an improbable eight nights, but the eternal flame that is the hope and the spirit of the Jewish people is the true miracle. If the meaning of the holiday season has become lost and you find it hard to relate to latkes, sufganiyot, and gelt, then embrace the history of the Maccabee and remember the real reasons why we celebrate.

About the Author
As a Jewish New Yorker trying to do his part to support Israel from the Diaspora, Jared is an advisor/ member for the B'nai Brith Youth Organization, Legion Self-Defense Program, and Fuel For Truth Advocacy Boot Camp, as well as a Birthright Madrich.