(died 161/160 BC) Leader of a Jewish rebellion against the Syrians. The son of an aged priest who took to the mountains in rebellion when Antiochus IV Ephiphanes tried to impose the Greek religion on the Jews, Judas became leader of the rebels on his father's death and won a series of victories over the Syrians in 166–164 BC. In 166 he purified the Temple of Jerusalem, an event celebrated at Hanukkah. On Antiochus's death in 164, the Seleucids offered the Jews freedom of worship, but Judas continued the war, hoping to gain political freedom. He was killed soon thereafter, but his brothers carried on the struggle. The history of the dynasty is told in the two books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha.
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Judas Maccabeus (or Judah Maccabee, also spelled Machabeus, or Maccabaeus, Hebrew: יהודה המכבי, Yehudah HaMakabi, Judah the Hammer) was the third son of the Jewish priest Mattathias. He led the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167 BCE-160 BCE) and is acclaimed as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history alongside Joshua, Gideon and David.
In the early days of the rebellion, Judah received a surname Maccabee. Several explanations have been put forward for this surname. One suggestion is that the name derives from the Aramaic maqqaba ("makebet" in modern Hebrew), "hammer" or "sledgehammer" (cf. the cognomen of Charles Martel, the 8th century Frankish leader), in recognition of his ferocity in battle. It is also possible that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba'elim YHVH, "Who is like unto thee among the mighty, O LORD!" (Exodus 15:11).
Mindful of the superiority of Seleucid forces during the first two years of the revolt, Judah's strategy was to avoid any involvement with their regular army, and to resort to guerrilla warfare, in order to give them a feeling of insecurity. The strategy enabled Judah to win a string of victories. At the battle of Nahal el-Haramiah (wadi haramia), he defeated a small Syrian force under the command of Apollonius, governor of Samaria, who was killed. Judah took possession of Apollonius's sword and used it until his death as a symbol of vengeance. After Nahal el-Haramiah, recruits flocked to the Jewish cause.
The defeat at Emmaus convinced Lysias that he must prepare for a serious and prolonged war. He accordingly assembled a new and larger army and marched with it on Judea from the south via Idumea. After several years of conflict Judas drove out his foes from Jerusalem, except for the garrison in the citadel of Acra. He purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalem and on the 25th of Kislev (December 14, 164 BCE) restored the service in the Temple. The reconsecration of the Temple is a permanent Jewish holiday, Hanukkah. The liberation of Jerusalem was the first step on the road to ultimate independence.
Lysias, however, needed a respite as well to deal with Philip, the regent appointed by Antiochus before his death. He therefore agreed to a peace (162) in which the Jews received complete freedom of worship. Lysias defeated Philip, only to be overthrown by Demetrius, the true heir to the Syrian throne. Demetrius appointed Alcimus (Jakim), a Hellenist, as high priest, a choice the Hasidim (Pietists) might have accepted since he was of priestly descent.
Upon hearing the news that the Jewish communities in Gilead, Transjordan, and Galilee were under attack by neighboring Greek cities, Judah immediately went to their aid. Judah sent his brother, Simeon, to Galilee at the head of 3,000 men; Simeon proceeded to successfully fulfill his task, achieving numerous victories and transplanted a substantial portion of the Jewish settlements, including women and children, to Judea. He personally led the campaign in Transjordan, taking with him his brother Jonathan. After fierce fighting, he defeated the Arab tribes and rescued the Jews concentrated in fortified towns in Gilead. The Jewish population of the areas taken by the Maccabees was evacuated to Judea. At the conclusion of the fighting in Transjordan, Judah turned against the Edomites in the south, captured and destroyed Hebron and Maresha. He then marched on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, destroyed the altars and statues of the pagan gods in Ashdod, and returned to Judea with much spoils.
Judah then laid siege to the Syrian garrison in the Hakra, the Seleucid isolated fortress of Jerusalem. The besieged, who included not only Syrians but also Hellenistic Jews, appealed for help to Lysias, who effectively became the regent of the young king Antiochus V Eupator after the death of Antiochus Epiphanes at the end of 164 BCE during the Parthian campaign. Lysias together with Eupator set out for a new campaign in Judea. Lysias skirted Judea as he had done in his first campaign, entering it from the south, and besieged Beth-Zur. Judah raised the siege of the Hakra and went to meet Lysias. In the Battle of Beth-zechariah, south of Bethlehem, Seleucids achieved their first major victory over the Maccabees, and Judah was forced to withdraw to Jerusalem. Beth-Zur was compelled to surrender and Lysias reached Jerusalem, laying siege to the city. The defenders found themselves in a precarious situation because their provisions were exhausted, it being a sabbatical year during which the fields were left uncultivated. However, just as capitulation seemed imminent, Lysias and Eupator had to withdraw when Antiochus Epiphanes's commander-in-chief Philip, whom the late ruler appointed regent before his death, rebelled against Lysias and was about to enter Antioch and seize power. Lysias decided to propose a peaceful settlement, which was concluded at the end of 163 BCE. The terms of peace were based on the restoration of religious freedom, the permission for the Jews to live in accordance with their own laws, and the official return of the Temple to the Jews.
Meanwhile, Demetrius I Soter, son of Seleucus IV Philopator and nephew of the late Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fled from Rome in defiance of the Roman Senate, arrived in Syria, captured and killed Lysias and Antiochus Eupator, and usurped the throne. It was thus Demetrius to whom the delegation led by Alcimus, complained of the persecution of the Hellenist party in Judea. Demetrius granted Alcimus's request to be appointed High Priest under the protection of the king's army and sent to Judea an army led by Bacchides. The weaker Jewish army couldn't oppose the enemy and withdrew from Jerusalem, so Judah returned to wage Guerrilla warfare. Soon after, it was necessary for the Seleucid Army to return to Antioch because of the turbulent political situation. Judah's forces returned to Jerusalem and the Selucids dispatched another army, again led by Nicanor. In a battle near Adasa, on the 13th Adar 161 BCE, the Syrian army was destroyed and Nicanor was killed. The annual "Day of Nicanor" was instituted to commemorate this victory.
The death of Judas Maccabee (d. 160 BCE) stirred the Jews to renewed resistance. After several additional years of war under the leadership of two of Mattathias' other sons (Jonathan and Simon), the Jews finally achieved independence and the liberty to worship freely.
During World War II the Swiss-German writer Karl Boxler published his novel Judas Makkabaeus; ein Kleinvolk kaempft um Glaube und Heimat (1943), the subtitle of which suggests that Swiss democrats then drew a parallel between their own national hero, William Tell, and the leader of the Maccabean revolt against foreign tyranny.
Tom Lehrer refers to Judas Maccabeus in his song "Hanukah in Santa Monica".
Mirah refers to Judah Maccabe in her song "Jerusalem".
Judas Maccabeus strongly disapproved of athletic games and competitions, which were a clear influence of Greek culture, were introduced into Jerusalem by his staunch enemies the Hellenising Jews, and were abolished upon his getting control of the city.
Nevertheless, by the irony of history one of the main sports federations of contemporary Israel is named for him Maccabi, and most Israeli cities have athletics, football and basketball clubs of that name (some of them internationally famous). Also named for him are the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish athletic event similar to the modern Olympics - in turn modeled on the Classical Greek ones, of which Maccabeus also evidently disapproved as part of a foreign and hostile culture.