Hanukkah is the story of balls-out asskicker avenging the desecration of the holiest temple of his religion by forming a rag-tag band of ultra-dedicated warriors, charging head-on into towering Macedonian armored war elephants armed only with spears and sharp rocks, and ultimately carving a bloody swath of destruction through a powerful, continent-spanning empire by masterfully executing one of the first successful guerilla war campaigns in human history.
The man who accomplished this tremendous feat would forever be remembered by one badass nickname – Judah Maccabee, the Hammer of Judaism. And while folks nowadays remember his daring stand against Selucid douchebaggery by drinking sweet wine, eating fake gold and wolfing down delicious sour cream-soaked latkas, his true story is a lot less about playing with dreidels and a lot more about shanking Greek phalanx warriors in the back of the skull with an iron lance and then cleaving an independent country out of their bloody carcasses.
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The story starts with Alexander the Great, the 30 year-old dude who conquered most of the known world in a week and a half and then died from partying so hard that his head exploded. Since Alexander didn't have any heirs, his empire broke apart into a couple big stupid empires ruled by various Ptolemies and other dudes who claimed some obscure tangential relationship to the young conqueror somehow. The realm of present day Israel/Palestine/Whatever was part of the Selucid Empire, a kingdom that stretched from Asia Minor through the Middle East and included most of Persia. The Selucids were ruled by a bunch of guys named Antiochus who generally let the Jews in Judea do their own thing, but all that changed in 170 BC when Antiochus IV Epiphany took over and decided he was tired of all these Jews hanging around not worshipping Zeus, and got all pissed off when he tried to speak Greek to them and they were all like "What the fuck we don't speak Greek and even if we did you're Macedonian anyways so where is this shit coming from".
So Antiochus had an Epiphany. He'd just assimilate the Jews into Hellenistic culture, and massacre the ones who refused to get with the program. He marched his phalanxes into Jerusalem, destroyed the city walls, sacked the town, and sent troops to strip every single chunk of gold and silver from the Temple of Solomon – by far the holiest place in the Jewish religion – replacing the Torah and the altar with a big statue of Zeus, a bunch of dead pigs (basically the most unholy animal in the Jewish faith), and a shrine to himself that all Jews were supposed to pray to when they walked into the building (Antiochus's nickname, Epiphanes, doesn't have anything to do with this bright idea... it's a megalomaniacal nickname he gave himself that means "God Made Manifest". The Jews just called him Epimanes, meaning "The Madman").
With the holiest place in Judaism now little more than a barren a mini-cult dedicated to the worship of his own ballsack, Antiochus then went to work on basically making it illegal to even think about being Jewish. He banned the Hebrew language, doubled the taxes on everyone in Judea, tortured and killed Jews by the hundreds, and made things like praying to Yahweh, circumcising your kids, and not eating bacon punishable by death. Then, to emphasize his point, Antiochus sent his minions out into the wilderness of Judea and had them force well-respected Jewish spiritual leaders to sacrifice pigs to Zeus as a show of their submission.
The first place he sent his men was the town of Modin, where a powerful rabbi named Mattathias was brought before an altar to Zeus and ordered to sacrifice a swine. Matthathias refused. They offered him power, money, and the blessing of the Emperor. He refused again. They threatened his life. Again he told them to fuck off.
Then, out of nowhere, some other jackass was like, "I don't get what the big deal here is" and ate a little bit of the pork, so, naturally, Mattathias pulled a sword out and hacked that guy to death with it. The assembled Jewish townspeople got so pumped up that they killed Antiochus's messengers by beating them to death with rocks, then fled into the mountains before reinforcements could arrive.
This guy totally deserved it, dudes.
Mattathias pretty much keeled over and died immediately following this episode, leaving it to his son Judah to take over, rally a motley crew of unarmed-yet-righteously-pissed Jews into combat against a Westnernized continent-spanning Hellenic empire, recapture the holiest place in his religion from the iron grip of hated pagan non-believers and liberate his people from tyranny. It's like Red Dawn with Yarmulkes.
Judah Maccabee was ready for the challenge.
First, the Hammer of Judaism set up the infrastructure required to run a massive guerilla campaign against vastly superior forces. In caves and towns across the land he set up safe houses, training camps, weapons caches, and an intelligence network to funnel information to his commanders. He trained his fast-moving light troops to fight heavily armored infantry, how to use their speed to their advantage, and inspired them with pump-up speeches about how the fate of their entire faith hinged on their ability to stab dudes in the neck with a sharpened wooden spike.
Before long, his men were ready for war.
Judah the Hammer, so called for his fearlessness and power in combat, used his knowledge of the countryside and a bunch of forward-thinking military tactical ingenuity to fight a badass guerilla war against the entire Selucid Empire. Taking on Macedonian phalanxes, Syrian light cavalry, and even units of Hellenistic Jewish warriors (who he considered traitors), Maccabee went into battle after battle, winning victories despite being completely outnumbered and outgunned every step of the way. At the Battle of Beth Horon Pass in 166 he attacked an enemy rearguard as they traveled through a mountain pass, attacking in defile, routing a force that included a detachment of badass War Elephants, and driving the rest of the army from the field. After that he personally fought and killed Appoloinus, the Macedonian governor of Samaria, in the middle of a battle and used the dude's sword in battle for the rest of his career. At Emmaus he led a night attack on the enemy's camp, burning their tents as they slept and then killing men as they ran fleeing from the burning structures. At Beth Zur a year later, he took 6,000 men against Elephants, phalanxes, and other badass shit, and Judah's multi-pronged attack drove his enemies before him, routing the Selucid army and clearing a path all the way to Jerusalem.
With each victory, more and more warriors flocked to the Hammer, eager to avenge the desecration of the temple and reclaim Judea from the Macedonians. Warriors assembled and offered their swords to a hero, calling Judah the next iteration of Joshua or Samson, and, as his prestige grew, Judah Maccabee was even able to secure alliances with badass places like Rome and Sparta (although they never gave him more support than a long-distance thumbs-up and a "go get 'em tiger" pump-up speech). Still, each time he won, he gained new recruits and sent the enemy scattering, and after a year and a half of hard-fought victories, the Hebrew Hammer was ready to move on Jerusalem itself.
Gird yourselves and be valiant. Be ready early in the morning to fight with these
Gentiles who have assembled against us to destroy us and our sanctuary.
In a massive battle, Judah Maccabee and his army of iron-clad warriors carved through the phalanx of elephants, drove the enemy into the citadel at Jerusalem, stormed the city, and recaptured the temple. Judah and his jubilant warriors tore down the statues of Zeus and Antiochus, removed all the gross pig parts from the Temple, and rededicated it in a triumphant ceremony which is now famous because they only had one day of oil but their lamp burned for eight days in a miracle believed to be a symbol of the triumphant Jewish spirit. Antiochus, who had been off fighting against a rebellion in Syria when this whole Jerusalem thing went down, attempted to re-take the city from the Maccabees, but Judah once again drove him off with a flurry of eye-poking spear wounds to the faces of all his friends and pets.
Judah Maccabee, the Hammer of Judaism, had been an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in some random bumfuck town in the wilderness of Judea. He was now the leader of a triumphant guerilla army that had just defeated an Alexander the Great-style army single-handedly, without any foreign aid, avenged and ended the suffering of his people, and regained control of the most epically-holy site in his religion's history.
The fitting end to this story is that after becoming the Savior of his People, Judah Maccabee goes down in a fiery badass blaze of glory, dying in single combat with an elephant packed full of sharpshooting archers and guys with 20-foot-long spears. His force had been cut off by an enterprising Seleucid general, but when Judah Maccabee saw his 800 guys outnumbered and surrounded by 22,000 phalanx warriors and elephants, he naturally ordered his men to charge and destroy everything they could before being violently impaled to death. Judah rushed fearlessly into combat and died surrounded by piles of dead enemy warriors.
But his story doesn't end there.
After Judah's death, his brother Jonathan takes over as commander of the Maccabees, and he continues to expand Jewish-controlled territory for over a decade before he too is captured and executed and succeeded by a different Maccabee brother (Simon). Finally Antiochus, unable to crush the revolt despite decades of trying, decided that these Maccabees dudes were more numerous than the Baldwin brothers and more annoying than the Wayans brothers, and said fuck it – you guys have your own little kingdom here, see if I give a shit. The Hasmonean Dynasty would rule Judea as kings for the next hundred years.
He was like a lion in his deeds, like a lion's cub roaring for prey.
He searched out and pursued the lawless; he burned those who troubled his people.
Lawless men shrank back for fear of him; all the evildoers were confounded;
and deliverance prospered by his hand.
Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People. Schocken, 1994.
Sandler, Stanley. Ground Warfare. ABC-CLIO, 2002.
Scharfstein, Sol. Chronicle of Jewish History. KTAV, 1997.
Scharfstein, Sol. Understanding Jewish Holidays and Customs. KTAV, 1999.