Mattathias Opposing a Heathen Sacrifice by Zeev Raban

Zeev Raban

Mattathias Opposing a Heathen Sacrifice, 1941, Gouache over pencil on paper, 250 x 310 mm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection, 2013.997 OR 2013.996, Permission courtesy of the family of Zeev Raban; Photo: © 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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‘Thus He Burnt with Zeal for the Law’

Commentary by

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)

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