Jewish History Blog

The War After Chanukah

Elephants – the tanks of the ancient world -- figured prominently in the wars of the Hasmoneans.

Many people are under the impression that after the miracle of Chanukah the war with the Greeks was over. Far from it.

The miracle of Chanukah actually occurred only in the third year of the war. After the Jews reconquered Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple and experienced the miracle of the little flask of oil that burned eight days the war dragged out another 5-7 years. Successive Greek emperors could not make peace with the fact that they had lost the Land of Israel. Some tried to reconquer it by force of arms and others by orchestrating internal strife and a coup among the Jews themselves.

At the time of the miracle, according to most historians, Matisyahu (the father of the Hasmoneans/Maccabees) and Johanan (the oldest brother) were dead. The year after the miracle Judah the Maccabee (the third brother) was dead. They were killed in battle. Three years after the miracle of Chanukah there was a major battle where the Greeks tried to reconquer the Land of Israel. At that time, Eleazar was killed when an elephant he attacked and wounded fell and crushed him.

Elephant Tanks

It is worthwhile to note that the elephant was the ancient world’s version of the tank. It had been introduced into ancient warfare by the Carthaginian General Hannibal. (His name is made up of the Hebrew words, Ani Baal, “I am the god Baal.”) The Carthaginians were really Canaanites and Phoenicians who moved from the Land of Israel and Lebanon to North Africa. Their capital city, Carthage, was near the present-day city of Tunis. They were the main perennial threat to the Romans, fighting them in two great wars known as the Punic Wars.

Hannibal won the First Punic War when he brought the Carthaginian army across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain, then into Southern France, then through the treacherous Swiss Alps and finally down into Italy. It was a very long end run and one of the great logistical feats in all military history.

The Roman army was stationed in the south of Italy expecting the Carthaginians to cross by sea. All of a sudden, Hannibal’s army appeared out of the north with 300 battle elephants. Rome was defenseless. Hannibal took Rome and imposed taxes, but he did not destroy the city. That proved to be a tactical error. Years later the Romans got their own elephants and won the Second Punic War.

That is how elephants were introduced into ancient warfare. They were used in war for centuries and even as recently as the British in India last century.

Five years after the miracle of Chanukah the only two surviving Maccabees were Jonathan and Simon. Jonathan was appointed High Priest, but he did not assume the mantle of leadership. Even though the Greeks were defeated militarily they did not give up and now tried to undermine the Jewish government through assassination plots and pitting Jew-vs.-Jew.

Jonathan was invited to a banquet by people he trusted and thought were his friends. There he was captured, turned over to the Greeks and held for ransom.

The ransom called for the Jews to give up certain cities they had conquered as well as allow the Greeks to enter Jerusalem and re-establish a foothold there. Those were unacceptable terms and the Jews refused. Jonathan was killed in a public execution despite the efforts of his brother Simon to save him.

That left Simon as the last survivor of the original family. He became the founder of what became known as the Hasmonean Dynasty….

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Posted in:
Sabbath/ Holidays
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • December 2, 2010

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