1 Maccabees 2
Reclaiming the Maccabees
‘Thus He Burnt with Zeal for the Law’
Commentary by Simona Di Nepi
Zeev Raban (1890–1970), designer, painter, and sculptor of the Bezalel Art and Crafts School in Jerusalem, imbued all his works with his passion for Jewish history. This miniature-like watercolour, one in a series of twelve, is no exception.
In line with his work as book illustrator, Raban offers a literal representation of the events in 1 Maccabees 2:1–22. The Judean priest Mattathias, introduced in the opening verse, stands with his five sons before a statue of Zeus. Guarding it are the officers of King Antiochus IV, dispatched to ‘make them [the Jews] offer sacrifice’ on the altar (v.15). Mattathias’s refusal to obey appears in the Hebrew inscription painted below, which cites his loyalty to ‘the covenant of the fathers’ and ‘the law and ordinances’ (vv.19–22)
His proud resistance is echoed in the painting’s border, decorated with ancient Judean coins. Rather than the artist’s imaginary creations, these are reproductions of coins struck during the Jewish revolts against the Romans (66–70 and 132–135 CE). They bear symbols of the land of Israel—the palm tree, vine leaf, and pomegranates—and motifs of the Temple—the façade, an amphora, and a chalice (Meshorer 1983: 27–30, 36–41)
Other features demonstrate Raban’s adherence to the text. The long, white robes of the Hasmonaeans is the sackcloth worn in sign of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem (2:14). The houses clustered together in the distance stand for the hilltop village of Modein, where Mattathias withdrew from the holy city (v.1). The pig on the grass, absent in chapter 2, refers to the King’s order of the previous chapter to ‘sacrifice swine and ritually unfit animals’ (1:47).
In spite of his loyalty to the text, Raban does not illustrate 1 Maccabees 2 in its entirety. What is especially significant is his decision to show Mattathias’s peaceful resistance, while omitting what immediately follows: his outburst of violence, and killing of two men. (2:24–25). His zeal may be ‘burning’ but here the fire remains contained.
Meshorer, Yaacov. 1983. Coins Revealed, The Jewish Museum Collection Handbooks, Vol. I (New York: The Jewish Museum)
None Who Trust in Him Will Lack Strength
Commentary by Simona Di Nepi
The son of an orthodox Jewish-Lithuanian shoemaker, Jack Levine (1915–2010) became one of the leading figures of post-war Boston Expressionism. Although best known for his biting visual commentaries on social injustice, Levine also showed a profound interest in Judaic themes. He produced dozens of works—drawings, engravings, and paintings—depicting rabbis, biblical kings, and heroes. One of these was this small and striking etching: Judas Maccabeus.
Levine’s exceptionally direct depiction of Judas as a fearless soldier reflects 1 Maccabees’ praise of his military prowess, first conveyed in chapter 2. At chapter’s close, the dying Mattathias, Judas’s father, utters these last words: ‘Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the people’ (vv.66–67).
Immediately following the patriarch’s death, the author embarks on a poetic description of Judas as a hero ‘putting on his breastplate, girding on his weapons, waging war and protecting his camp by his word’ (3:3).
Through an extraordinarily economical rendition of his subject, and just a few, nervous lines, Levine captures precisely this image—a tenacious warrior, one hand holding his spear, the other a shield. Rather than the breastplate featured in the text, the artist depicts Judas’s naked, muscular torso, as though to emphasize his fearlessness and strength. The focus on Judas’s chest and face—staring out at the viewer with a stern gaze—conveys his steely determination in the face of death, a demonstration of his faith in God.
Breaking with Tradition
Commentary by Simona Di Nepi
This silver Hanukkah lamp, so striking in its highly polished backplate, applied filigree work, and coloured stones, is marked in Hebrew and English ‘Sterling; Yemini, Bezalel Jerusalem’. Yehye Yemini (1896–1983), a gifted Yemenite silversmith, was 12 years old when he joined the silver department of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem.
The relief on his lamp shows the purification of the Jerusalem Temple, with the high priest standing tall in the centre, and crouched figures busily tidying the overturned vessels. This event is also referred to in the Hebrew text directly below it: ‘And they purified the courtyard and all that was in it and they renewed all the holy vessels’ (1 Maccabees 4:48–49). The Festival of Hanukkah, in Hebrew ‘dedication’, celebrates this moment: the re-inauguration of the Temple that took place immediately following the defeat of the Seleucid army by Judas Maccabeus.
Chapter 2 foreshadows these events: in it, Mattathias abandons the holy city precisely because the Temple had been desecrated. It is his initial refusal to offer impure sacrifices, or to ‘steer right and left from God’s covenant’ (2:20–22), that comes to its eventual fruition in this lamp’s scene.
By citing Maccabees, artists of the Bezalel School challenged an old tradition: before the twentieth century, Hanukkah lamps typically featured ancient symbols (for example, the seven branched candelabra, the Tablets of the Law, and the lion of the tribe of Judah), but almost never showed narrative scenes and inscriptions from Maccabees. This omission is hardly surprising if one remembers that the books of Maccabees never entered the canon of the Hebrew Bible. But for the Bezalel School, their message of Jewish heroism inspired a sense of national pride and merited a place in the ‘visual canon’ of Hanukkah’s iconography.
Zeev Raban :
Mattathias Opposing a Heathen Sacrifice, 1941 , Gouache over pencil on paper
Jack Levine :
Judas Maccabeus, The Warrior, 1963–64 , Etching
Yihye [Yehia] Yemini :
Hanukkah lamp, 1920s , Silver
Spirituality and Action
Comparative commentary by Simona Di Nepi
The Maccabees are the protagonists of Hanukkah, celebrated every year on 25 Kislev, the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar. They are also the object of fascination for the three twentieth-century artists in this exhibition: Zeev Raban, Yehye Yemini, and Jack Levine, each conveying in their own way the Maccabees’ faith and conviction.
1 Maccabees recounts the events surrounding the Hasmonaean uprising against the anti-Jewish persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Seleucid King and ruler of Judea in the second century BCE. Determined to hellenize the land of Israel, Antiochus outlawed Jewish practice; he turned the Temple of Jerusalem into a place of pagan worship, and, under penalty of death, banned the Torah, circumcision, and the Sabbath (1:41–64).
It is against this backdrop that chapter 2 begins. Although it appears so near the start of Maccabees, this chapter brilliantly encapsulates the entire Hanukkah story: on the one hand, it promotes a strong message of spirituality and on the other it urges war and action. These two aspects are present in chapter 2 as two traits of Mattathias’s personality: the aged priest who lucidly verbalizes his faith in God’s covenant (vv.19–22) abruptly turns into the violent man who gives vent to anger, kills on the altar (v.24), strikes down sinners, and forcibly circumcises boys (vv.44–46).
The three works here seem to oscillate between this very duality. Zeev Raban freezes the scene in the ‘calm before the storm’ moment, that of Mattathias’s firm yet composed defence of his beliefs to King Antiochus’s officials (2:19–22). For Jack Levine, one of the angry social realists in mid-twentieth-century America, the time for conversation is over and his Judas (Mattathias’s son) is ready for battle (3:3–9). With Yehia Yemini’s shimmering silver relief, there is a return to spiritual purity with the cleansing of the desecrated Temple (4:42–51).
And yet these works all seem to express awe and admiration for the Hasmonaeans’ moral standing. For Raban and Yemini, this idealization is part of the wider programme of the Bezalel School of Art in early twentieth-century Jerusalem. As envisioned by its founder Boris Schatz, its teachers and students were to create a Hebrew style in the service of the Zionist vision. The Hasmonaeans, the founders of the last Jewish sovereign state in 2000 years, were the ultimate symbols of Jewish independence.
In this context, the two scenes by Raban and Yemini encouraged a proud Jewish cultural and political identity. Levine seems to have been prompted by more personal motives. His interest in Jewish biblical figures, as well as sages and rabbis, was triggered by the death of his father Samuel. It was shortly after this experience that Levine painted his most celebrated religious painting, King Salomon and Hiram, made to ‘score points with his father’, and celebrating the same Jewish tradition he had once rejected (Baskind 2007: 83).
If Levine stands apart from the two Jerusalem artists in the apolitical use of his Judas Maccabeus, it is Yemini’s piece that, as a ritual object, adds a further dimension. Rather than merely depicting the events, his Hanukkah lamp brings them back to life—the kindling of the eight flames serving as a re-enactment of the lighting of the gold Menorah in the Temple (4:50).
Beyond any differences between these works, what remains is that the Maccabees, officially rejected from the canon of the Hebrew Bible, were the chosen subjects of these three Jewish artists. In their work, they not only legitimized, but also celebrated the Hasmonaeans. Indeed, one might argue, they reinstated them as a worthy and glorious chapter of Jewish history and made a case for treating them as part of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Baskind, Samantha. 2007. ‘Midrash and the Jewish American Experience in Jack Levine's Planning Solomon's Temple’, Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art, 3: 73–90