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Name given to Judah and his brothers of the Hasmonean priestly family from the town of Modin near Jerusalem. The Maccabees led the struggle from 167-160 B.C.E. against Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, freeing Judea from Syrian oppression. The family consisted of the father, Mattathias, and his five sons, Johanan, Simon, Judah, Eliezer, and Jonathan. Judah was dubbed Maccabee, or “The Hammer,” alluding to the way in which he pounded his enemies.

The Seleucid rulers of Syria sought to establish their empire over the lands that had originally been conquered by Alexander the Great. They wrested control of Judea from Egypt, then tried to force the Greek culture and religion on the Jews. In 167 B.C.E., when Antiochus prohibited the practice of Judaism and the Temple was desecrated, the peaceful farmers of Judea transformed into warriors. Led by Mattathias and his sons, they rebelled against the Syrians. Few in number, untrained, and poorly armed, they fought for a year as guerillas in the hills and mountain passes of Judea. When Mattathias died in 166 B.C.E., Judah took over leadership. The little army of farmers repeatedly defeated the trained legions sent against them, captured arms and supplies, and grew in numbers. In several successful battles, the Maccabees achieved great victories against overwhelming odds. In 165 B.C.E., they entered Jerusalem. The Temple was cleared and worship restored, giving rise to the festival of Hanukkah.

To secure their victory, the Maccabees undertook expeditions against the hostile neighbors who had aided the Syrians. In one of the ensuing battles, Eliezer was killed, crushed by a war elephant he had stabbed. Another brother, Johanan, fell in a battle with an Arabian tribe. In 160 B.C.E., when the Syrians returned to conquer Judea, Judah Maccabee, leading 800 men, faced a huge Syrian force and died in battle. Jonathan succeeded Judah, carried on the struggle with the Syrians, and strengthened Judea and widened its boundaries. In 143 B.C.E., he was treacherously killed by a Syrian general who had posed as his friend. Simon, the last of the five Maccabee brothers, was elected as ruler and high priest. Beloved by the people, Simon governed them and served as their high priest, leaving the military activities to his sons when he became old.

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