Judah Maccabee and his followers were not the first Jewish faction to take up arms against Antiochus Epiphanes and his anti-Jewish edicts. According to the Book of Maccabees, a previous contingent of militant Jewish families escaped from Jerusalem and went into hiding in the wilderness. The Greek forces tracked them down and encamped opposite them, prepared to attack them on the Sabbath day. Those devout Jews announced that they preferred to place their faith in divine protection rather than desecrate the Sabbath by hurling rocks or fortifying their hiding places on the sacred day of rest—“for they said: Let us all die with clear consciences; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.” Their noble faith resulted in the slaughter of a thousand pious and trusting Jews.
In fact, the original conquest of Jerusalem by Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy Lagos had been facilitated by the Jews’ refusal to fight on their holy day. In 320 B.C.E. Ptolemy I “Soter” approached the city under the pretext that he only wished to offer sacrifices in the Temple; but he then seized it without resistance from the Sabbath-observance natives. The Greek historian Agatharchides of Cnidus cited this episode, concluding from it, “that experience taught the whole world—except for that nation—the lesson not to resort to dreams and traditional fancies about the law.”
According to the Second Book of Maccabees the same tactic was again employed in 168 B.C.E. by Antiochus’ general Apollonius who entered Jerusalem under the guise of a delegation negotiating peace; but when the Sabbath arrived his force of 22,000 mercenaries perpetrated a sneak attack on the unwary and unarmed populace who thought they were watching a military parade. Apollonius, however, set to massacring all the adult males and enslaving the women and children.
Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons were among the survivors of that treacherous operation, and their decision to wage war on the Sabbath was a response to it. They realized that the spiritual zeal that is normally expressed in the scrupulous observance of Sabbath restrictions would ultimately be their undoing if there were no Jews left to carry out God’s law. For this reason they issued an unprecedented declaration: “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places.” This idea was later articulated by Simeon ben Menasya in the Talmud who expounded the verse “And the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath to observe the Sabbath” as teaching: “you should desecrate one Sabbath so as to allow the observance of many Sabbaths.”
The historian Josephus Flavius, writing after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, pointed out that “this law is still followed among us until today—that where circumstances require it we are permitted to wage war even on Sabbath days.”
Note the careful wording of the account in Maccabees. It related only to situations where the enemy initiated hostilities against the Jews. It did not however permit the Jewish forces to launch offensive attacks against their adversaries on the Sabbath or to continue suppressing enemy resistance after victory had been achieved.
We see an example of this restriction being put into practice in the account of Judah Maccabee’s triumph over the Seleucid general Nicanor. The Jewish forces pursued the defeated enemy a great distance, but turned back before completing the job because of the approaching Sabbath. Prior to the onset of the holy day (which they celebrated in this instance as an occasion for special thanksgiving) they limited their military activities to collecting the spoils and armaments.
A later rabbinic tradition described a situation when Jewish fighters, though allowed to engage in defensive battle on the Sabbath, refrained from carrying their weapons back to their houses. Instead they stored their weapons in a house near the entrance to the town. On one occasion they were caught by surprise and incurred huge losses as people trampled each other in the panic to reach the weapons. This episode prompted further revisions in the laws, which now allowed Jewish soldiers to keep their armaments within convenient reach in their homes.
It took a while for Nicanor himself and other Greek commanders to realize that the Jews were now operating under a new set of rules, so they continued to schedule their attacks on Saturdays under the mistaken expectation that they would not be confronted with serious resistance. The Second Book of Maccabees relates how Judah fired up the people before the Sabbath battle with an inspiring speech in which he enumerated Israelite victories from the biblical past. He also described a dream he had in which the prophet Jeremiah handed him a gold sword as a gift from God with which to strike down their adversaries.
The boldness of the new decision about waging war on Saturday becomes clearer when we compare it with sources that describe the level of Sabbath observance earlier in the Second Commonwealth era. Typical of those attitudes was the one voiced in the Book of Jubilees, a work that was greatly revered by the community that preserved the Dead Sea scrolls. It was declared there that “whoever makes war on the Sabbaths—the man who does any of these things on the Sabbath shall die.” We can appreciate how, for devout Jews who took such matters seriously, it might be preferable to be martyred at the hands of a heathen enemy than to violate a solemn religious prohibition.
In 63 B.C.E. the Roman general Pompey took advantage of the internecine civil war between the Hasmonean rivals Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, using it as the occasion to capture Jerusalem. However, his construction of siege towers outside the walls was hindered by the constant harassment by the Jews inside the city. Eventually, Pompey realized that the most effective strategy would be to concentrate his construction activities on Saturdays because the Jews did not allow themselves to violate the Sabbath for strategic purposes that did not involve direct combat. In this way the Romans were eventually able to erect their towers and siege engines without interference, allowing Pompey to enter Jerusalem and thereby perpetrate a massacre of the city’s inhabitants with minimal losses to his own forces. This brought an end to a century of Jewish independence under the Hasmonean dynasty.
The evolution of the laws of Sabbath warfare is reflected in some rabbinic traditions. Most notably, Shammai the Elder, active in the generation before the destruction of the second Temple, expounded the passage in the Torah that contained instructions for carrying out sieges in the conquest of the promised land: “thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued”
There is some disagreement regarding the precise interpretation and attribution of this passage, but most scholars hold that Shammai was expanding the rules of engagement to allow the full completion of military objectives once begun until the enemy has been completely subdued—even where the necessary activities extend into the Sabbath.
To our modern eyes it is almost impossible to grasp how anyone could question the need for self-defence against hostile attackers on any day of the week. Yet I suppose that history has known many communities of pacifists who were doomed to perish on account of their steadfast adherence to lofty principles and their naïve faith in divine protection. That the leadership of the Maccabean uprising found the courage to reject that self-defeating policy may rightly be counted as a true Hanukkah miracle.