This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Heroes, Hammers and Hanukkah *

What would Hanukkah be without the heroism of Judah the Maccabee! His exploits in spearheading the military revolt against the Seleucid armies and their Jewish collaborators are meticulously detailed in the ancient books that bear that name: the Books of Maccabees, which have been preserved in Greek.

And yet, for all his importance for the subsequent destiny of Judaism, we do not really know the meaning of the name "Maccabee" that was attached to him. In fact, we are not even certain how to correctly spell it.

Unlike his father Mattathias, Judah is not mentioned by name in any ancient Hebrew sources like the Talmud of Midrash, nor even in the Hanukkah prayers. The earliest Hebrew documents that speak of him date from the Medieval period and were probably derived from Greek or Latin sources.

The "k" or hard "c" sounds of European languages can have two equivalents in Hebrew, the kaf or the kof . Therefore "Judas Maccabæus"'s original Hebrew epithet might have been spelled with either letter. The difference is of course a significant one in reconstructing the meaning of the name "Maccabee."

Modern Hebrew has generally preferred the version with a kaf, a tradition that can be traced as far back as the tenth-century Hebrew compendium of Second-Temple historical fact and legend known as the Yosippon.

This spelling furnishes support for an explanation that many of us were taught in school, that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Biblical verse Mi kamokha ba'elim Hashem, "Who is like unto thee among the mighty, O Lord!" As generations of schoolteachers have told the story, Judah carried these inspiring words upon his standard as he marched off to battle.

As attractive as this story is, it can hardly be justified on historical grounds. It is not mentioned in any early sources, and Hebrew acronyms of that sort were not to come into common use until later generations.

Furthermore, it appears that the "cc" in the Greek version of the name "Maccabæus" is far more likely to represent a Hebrew kof than a kaf, since the latter is normally represented by the letter chi. If that is correct, then we must set out in search of a different etymology.

The most widely circulated explanation for this spelling connects the name to the Hebrew word makkebet or makkaba, which appears in the Bible and Talmud in the sense of "hammer." This of course conjures up the idea of the mighty warrior "hammering" and crushing his foes. This dramatic explanation is not an unreasonable one, though it too is no more than a hypothesis.

Some modern scholars, less concerned with drama and heroism than they are with historical precision, have proposed some variations on the "hammer" motif.

One theory which has always appealed to me calls our attention to a passage in the Mishnah that lists various blemishes and deformities that would disqualify a priest from serving in the Temple. One of the disqualified types is designated a "makban," interpreted as one whose head is shaped like a mallet or hammer.

Thus, argues the proponent of this explanation, the great Judah Maccabee was not being named for his fierceness on the battlefield, but rather he was being singled out for the peculiar shape of his skull.

If this should strike us as an unbecoming manner of referring to a national hero, we should recall that in earlier days, before the widespread adoption of family names, individuals with identical given names had to be told apart somehow, and a distinctive physical characteristic, even if unflattering, often served that purpose effectively.

This practice was especially common in ancient royal dynasties, where the same name could repeat itself over many generations. Thus, one of Judah's contemporaries was known as Ptolemy the Fat-Bellied, and a successor to the infamous Antiochos of the Hanukkah saga was referred to as "the Hook-Nosed."

Many innocuous-sounding family names that are now in common and unobjectionable use originated in physical epithets of just that sort. And when you think of it, does the name "Judah the Hammerhead" really sound any worse than "Norman Schwartzkopf"?

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Nov. 29 1994.


  • Zeitlin, Solomon and Tedesche, Sidney Saul, The First book of Maccabees, New York 1950.