Judah Maccabee was a Jewish priest (kohen) and a son of the priest Mattathias. He led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167–160 BCE).
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (“Dedication”) commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship at the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, after Judah Maccabeus removed all of the statues depicting Greek gods and goddesses and purified it.
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” in recognition of his ferocity in battle. Others believe it is in reference to his weapon of choice.
It is also possible that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?”, his battle-cry to motivate troops. (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 engagement 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 Seleucid 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.
Shortly thereafter, Judah routed a larger Seleucid army under the command of Seron near Beth-Horon, largely thanks to a good choice of battlefield. Then in the Battle of Emmaus, Judah proceeded to defeat the Seleucid forces led by generals Nicanor and Gorgias. This force was dispatched by Lysias, whom Antiochus left as viceroy after departing on a campaign against the Parthians. By a forced night march, Judah succeeded in eluding Gorgias, who had intended to attack and destroy the Jewish forces in their camp with his cavalry. While Gorgias was searching for him in the mountains, Judah made a surprise attack upon the Seleucid camp and defeated the Seleucids at the Battle of Emmaus. The Seleucid commander had no alternative but to withdraw to the coast.
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 Judah 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 became a permanent Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, which continued even after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Hanukkah is still celebrated annually. The liberation of Jerusalem was the first step on the road to ultimate independence.
As warrior hero and national liberator, Judah Maccabee has inspired many writers, and several artists and composers. In the Divine Comedy, Dante sees his spirit in the Heaven of Mars with the other “heroes of the true faith”. In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, he is enacted along with the other Nine Worthies, but heckled for sharing a name with Judas Iscariot. Most significant works dedicated solely to him date from the 17th century onwards. William Houghton‘s Judas Maccabaeus, performed in about 1601 but now lost, is thought to have been the first drama on the theme; however, Judas Macabeo, an early comedia by crucial Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca is extant.