Shedding light on Chanukah

Shedding light on Chanukah

'Maccabees? 'Hasmoneans'? Who? What?

The city of Modi’in, where the Chanukah story began, is (appropriately) well lit at night.

What are “Maccabees” and “Hasmoneans,” anyway?

Jewish historian Mitchell First of Teaneck explains, in a soon-to-be-published article (at, that no group by the name of “Maccabee” existed in ancient times. Each of Matityahu’s sons had a nickname and “Maccabee” was Judah’s according to I and II Maccabees.

Says First, “It has been suggested that the name [Maccabee] is related to the Hebrew and Aramaic words for ‘hammer.’ This may refer to Judah’s physical strength, or to the shape of his head or body. An alternate spelling of the word in Hebrew implies ‘the extinguisher.’ In the period after Judah, we know of many prominent Jews who had both a Hebrew/Aramaic name and a Greek name,” such as Yochanan (John) Hyrcanus, his son and successor Aristobulus, and his brother and successor Alexander Yannai.

First explains that the early church fathers in the second century C.E. began to refer to Judah and his brothers as Maccabees. “This erroneous label eventually stuck,” he says.

The terms “Chashmonai” and “Beit Chashmonai” appear many times in tannaitic and amoraic literature in connection with Mattityahu and his descendants, says First, but not in the books of Maccabees.

The modern and flourishing Israeli cities of Modi’in and Chashmona’im, by the way, each have large communities of English-speaking immigrants. They are built over the ground where ancient Modi’in once stood, and where Matityahu and his sons and their followers began the revolt against Assyrian oppression.

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