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The Commemoration of War in Early Jewish Festivals

Jewish festivals in the Hellenistic period took on a new commemorative dimension by remembering important military victories and giving war a new prominence in the cultural memory.


Jewish festivals enshrine memories of the past in ways that fit the changing dynamics and needs of Jewish communities. While most of the festivals noted in the Hebrew Bible originated as agricultural celebrations, many were invested with historical associations by the biblical authors. The festival of Passover, for example, most likely originated as a spring festival but eventually came to serve as the historical commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. During the Hellenistic period (ca. 323–31 BCE), an additional commemorative dimension was assigned to certain Jewish festivals that remembered important military victories in Judea. This gave war a new prominence in Jewish ritual practice.

Why did Jewish Hellenistic festivals commemorate war?

Most of the Jewish Hellenistic festivals that commemorate war recall the Maccabean rebellion against the Seleucid dynasty in the mid-second century BCE. One important event is remembered to this day on Hanukkah. According to 1Macc 4, Judas Maccabeus and his guerilla army defeated the Seleucid general Lysias on the battlefield before marching on Jerusalem to restore the temple and fortify Mount Zion. The community then instigated an eight-day festival on the 25th of Chislev to celebrate this achievement (see also 2Macc 10:1-8). According to 1Macc 7:43-49 and 2Macc 15:20-36, Judas’s later triumph over the Seleucid general Nicanor at Jerusalem (161 BCE) is also said to have been commemorated with an annual festival held on the 13th of Adar. Another celebration was reportedly established by Simon, the brother of Judas, to mark the recapture of the acra (a garrison in a fortified area in Jerusalem) on the 23rd of Iyyar, 141 BCE (1Macc 13:49-52). Several other anniversaries of military victories are listed in an Aramaic document from the first century CE known as Megillat Taʿanit (the “Scroll of Fasting”) as important dates on which it is forbidden to fast.

Such commemorative celebrations arguably served multiple purposes: They invested the violence of the Maccabean wars with heightened meaning. This violence was remembered as being not only human driven; it was also divinely sanctioned. The commemorative festivals also linked the Maccabean rebellion and its leadership to the authority of the Jerusalem temple. After a long period in which Judea lacked a local monarchy, the fledging Hasmonean dynasty, which emerged after the Maccabean rebellion and claimed direct descent from Judas and his brothers, could establish its legitimacy through the ongoing ritual celebration of the violent events by which the Seleucids were removed from Judea.

The memory of war also possibly served as an assertion of Jewish cultural agency in a Hellenistic world. As Greek and cuneiform inscriptions and historiographical writings suggest, it was common during the Hellenistic period to use festivals to legitimize kings. For instance, the Athenian council established a festival in 304/303 BCE to commemorate the victories of the Macedonian king Demetrius I Poliorcetes in the Peloponnese, while the citizens of Babylon organized a procession in 169/168 BCE to celebrate Antiochus IV’s victories in Egypt. Like other Hellenistic festivals that commemorated royal victories, the Maccabean festivals championed the most impressive victories of the new royal dynasty over foreign enemies. In turn, a positive memory of the Maccabean rebellion was established in Jewish collective memory that could justify the Hasmoneans’ right to rule over Judea and to wield military force to defend their dynastic interests.

Unfortunately, we know little about how widely the Jewish festivals commemorating the Maccabean wars were celebrated in the Hellenistic period. However, 2 Maccabees includes two letters, appended to the beginning of the book, in which the authorities in Jerusalem encourage the Jews living in Egypt to observe the festival of Hanukkah (2Macc 1:1-2:18). These letters suggest that attempts were made to encourage Jews to coordinate their festal year so that all joined in commemorating the victories of the Maccabean revolt.

  • Rhyder-Julia

    Julia Rhyder is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. She is the author of Centralizing the Cult: The Holiness Legislation in Leviticus 17–26 (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), and coeditor of Text and Ritual in the Pentateuch: A Systematic and Comparative Approach (Eisenbrauns, 2021) and Re-evaluating the Concept of Authorship in Hebrew Bible Studies (Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming).