Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What does Maccabee mean? We will never know, but it sure is fun to guess.

It's almost Chanuka time, so I figured I'd post about the Maccabees. Or, more precisely, what the name may have meant. I stress that no one knows. All we have our theories, some more convincing, some less, but not proven. Have a look at the pitiful Wikipedia entry on the name (link).

I once posted Ohev Ger Luzzatto's theory, as explained by his father Shadal (link). I will give it in further detail below, but first I wanted to post this little article by שזח"ה (S .J. Halberstamm) in Halevanon (10 Adar 5628/ 4 March 1868).

First a note about Halevanon. This was the newspaper representing the interests and point of view of the Yerushalmi perushim and was considered very frum. Here is how Joseph Margoshes described it in his memoir:

Here is what Halberstamm writes:

As you can see, he writes that in an earlier issue a writer had explained that 'Maccabee' is an acronym for Mattathias Cohen ben Iohannan, and he wanted to take issue with this explanation (which was accepted by the Chasam Sofer, to the point where he wanted to use it to determine the proper way of writing a get; on this see Dan's excellent post on the Seforim Blog from three years ago (link).

Now, here is what Halberstamm is referring to:

That writer reasonably makes the point that the popular explanation that MKBY, an acronym of Mi Khamocha Be'elim Y"Y was written on their banners, is exceedingly weak, because "who saw the banner of Judah Maccabee's camp?" He gets in some snarky remarks about how he is not one of those Jews who are sloppy in their use of language, says that he is precise in his language, and then cites the language of Beyemi Matisyahu from the Chanukah prayer, and notes the previously mentioned acronym. He does not claim that this is how it is written in the prayer, only that we cannot avoid noticing that Matisyahu Cohen Ben Iohannan gives the acronym Maccabee. He relates this to the common Jewish practice of using acronyms to give one's name and father's name, and suggests that this is proof that it goes back to antiquity.

This is the article that Halberstamm was referring to. He notes that in Shadal's Lezioni di Storia Giudaica, this explanation was already given in the name of Franz Delitsch, so it's not original (yes, and I'm sure the Chasam Sofer got it from Franz Delitsch! Actually, it is not the Chasam Sofer's original idea either). Furthermore, Jost also brought this explanation and refuted it, just as Shadal had. Herzfeld in Geschichte des Volkes Israel (v. 1; it says v. 2 by mistake) also refutes the notion that it is an acronym for Mi Khamocha Beelim Hashem (or michamocha baelim Jahweh, as he writes it). I looked it up, and the reason Herzfeld cites is because the Syriac Peshitta spells it with a quf (מקבי). Frankly, that is weak - but so is the Mi Khamocha acronym. It is also entirely ripped off from Johann David Michaelis, who made this suggestion in 1778 in his Übersetzung des ersten Buchs der Maccabäer:

As you can see, Michaelis derives it from the wrote מקב, Aramaic for hammer, a popular suggestion which is still common today (Jastrow refers to Bekhorot 43a-b, where מקבן is used to mean a physical deformity resembling a hammerhead). You can also see that Michaelis rejects the Mi Kamocha acronym, since he prefers the Syriac spelling מקבי. To this I would say that, yes, it is a good illustration of how we do not even know for sure how the term is spelled in Hebrew letters (to say nothing about whether it comes from Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic) but we also cannot over-rely on spelling. As you will see, others reject it because of other diyukkim in the Greek spelling. Here would be a good time to point out that the term does not appear in the Talmud or early rabbinic sources. Thus, the only early sources we have are Greek. We are therefore not entitled to ignore them.

For those who would like to read a discussion of the acronym theory in English, see the following from 1775:

So Halberstamm chooses to give Ohev Ger's explanation cited in Shadal's Lezioni di Stori Giudaica in full, which is that the word maccabee was the Greek biaiomachas, meaning valiant warrior, with the letters /b/ and/m/ transposed, as happens frequently in language. Seemy original post where I delve into if and how this is a Greek word. Halberstamm is surprised that no later scholars mentioned this clever suggestion.

I am surprised that Halberstamm did not mention that the contention that Maccabee is a Greek word was already given as the primary reason by the 18th century Litvishe R. Yechiel Heilprin in Seder Hadoros. He rote (Seder Hadoros, Karlsruhe 1769, pg. 40) מכבאי בלשון יון גבור ואיש מלחמה וי"א שכך היה כתוב על דגלו ר"ת מי כמוך באלים יהוה, 'Maccabee' in Greek connotes a hero, or a warrior. Some say that it was written on their banner, an acronym of Mi Khamocha, etc."

How old is the Mi Kamocha explanation? Before we get to that, I thought it would be nice to show a comment from a 1709 siddur printed in Sulzbach. A daily reminder that Mi Khamocha forms the acronym 'Maccabee':

Several sources claim that Shlomo Molcho, during his involvement with David Reuveni, had a banner with MaKaBY on it. In Dan's Seforim Blog post he points out that the Tzeror Hamor (a Spanish 15th - early 16th c. source) mentions it. In light of this it would have been attractive to suggest that it is a Spanish idea from around that time period, but we will have to reject this, below. Dan also quotes Azariah Di Rossi, in his Me'or Enayim, also a 16th century source. The translation is from the great Joanna Weinberg:
According to Samotheus, "Maccabee" is a Greek word that is translated as paladino (fighter) in Italian. But I have been told by others that he received the designation Maccabee because it was inscribed on his banner and derived from the acrostic based on the words Mi Kamokha Ba-elim Hashem. But this interpretation is not consistent with the fact that On the Maccabees is the title Josephus gave to the work in which he describes the sufferings of Eleazar and Hannah and her seven sons, and this episode predated the rise of Hasmonean dynasty. But the first explanation would fit, since they, too, [i.e. Eleazar and Hannah who suffered martyrdom] were also fighters.'
Dan pointed out that the explanation is given by R. Elazar Rokeach of Worms in his siddur (link). I have absolutely no idea of the provenance of this commentary, but if it is really his then it dates to his period, namely 1176 – 1238. What he says is that ט"א על דגל יהודה במלחמות חשמונים שנצחו ליוונים כתי' מי כמוך באלים ה' שעזרת לנו לנצח הרשע זהו שיסד הפיוט מכבי יהודה מכב"י נוטריקון מי כמוך באלים ה. The piyut to which he refers which says 'מכבי יהודה' is the yotzer for Shabbos Chanuka Odekha ki anaphta bi va-tashav.

In his beautiful machzor from 1826 (link) Meir Ganz writes מכבי יהודה. ראיתי בסדור ישן שהיה כתוב על דגליו מי כמוך באלים יי ר"ת מכבי, 'Makhabai Yehuda. I saw in an antique siddur that it was written on their banner Mi Khamocha, etc., in the form of an acronym, Maccabee.'

Gee, thanks for telling us more about this סדור ישן. My guess is that it was nothing more than the same manuscript that the Rokeach's commentary is based on, or at least something from his circle even if some generations removed. Here is Ganz's machsor:

In short, it would seem that the idea that it is a notarikon for Mi Khamocha Be'elim Hashem comes from the Rokeah, or at least it is no later than him. This would fit well with this mystic's use of notarikon. It's interesting how eventually it would inspire what we might describe as a more . . . scholarly conjecture, that it stood for Matisyahu Kohen Ben Yochanan. But of course this is also entirely conjectural.

There have been many other suggestions. Some adopt Michaelis's position that it refers to a hammer (in one of the Levanon excerpts above it relates it to Martel, a surname given to Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne; see Rashi to Shabb. 122b - קורנס. מרטי"ל). Others suggest that Judah Machabee had this physical deformity! Still others, that he was a blacksmith. Delitzsch proposed the fun but utterly implausible idea that is is a contracted word from the rhetorical question "?מה כאבי." He compared the term to two biblical names, מכבני and מכנדבי, found in Chronicles and Ezra respectively. Since "מכ" cannot be explained, he says that it is a contraction of מה, similar to מי as used in other names, like Michael. He thus explains Machbannai to mean "Who is like my children?" and Machnadebai as "Who is like my benefactors?" Others laughed him out of the running, saying that it is a "monstrosity." One critic pointed out that in 1 Chron. 2:48 'Machbenah' is a city. "מי כאבי" might be more plausible, but that would yield 'Miccabee,' not 'Maccabee,' to which I say - not necessarily.


  1. The piyut to which he refers which says 'מכבי יהודה' is the yotzer for Shabbos Chanuka Odekha ki anaphta bi va-tashav.

    An important piyyut, which is going to be published in a critical edition, for the first time, as part of my forthcoming PhD dissertation (and then book) on the piyyutim of Hanukkah.

  2. How do you point מכבי (and why)?

  3. I'll probably point it something like מַכְבַּי, simply because that's what most MSS seem to have. But there are dozens, if not hundreds, of MSS to wade through, so I don't know yet.

    Will definitely discuss the question in a note or in the intro.

  4. I know less Greek than you lay claim to, but couldn't "Maccabee" simply be a running-together of Μάχη (Makhe) and βια (Bia), "battle" and "violence" rather than being a mis-arrangement of βιαιομαχας (Biaiomachas)? This avoids superfluous letters and any need to use anagrams.

  5. Yes, it could. The only thing is that it is spelled with a double kappa rather than a chi. But as I said, I don't know just how much stock we can put into inferences from the spelling.

  6. > The only thing is that it is spelled with a double kappa rather than a chi

    Μάχη is spelled with a double kappa??

  7. "Μάχη is spelled with a double kappa??"

    Obviously not. Maccabee, is spelled Μακκαβαῖοι.

  8. Oh, of course. Sorry about that.

    So doesn't βιαιομαχας have the same problem? that it's using a chi instead of kappa? btw, from the little I know about greek I do know that kappa and chi are sometimes interchangeable. For example the word οὐκ meaning "not" is spelled οὐχ when its before a "rough breathing" or an "h"

  9. Yes, it does have the same problem. All these things are very speculative. On the one hand you can't necessarily make such fine inferences from consonants, since they do switch in the same language, much less in other languages. After all, Maccabee is spelled with a quf in Syriac. On the other hand, no one really knows and I don't anticipate anything resembling proof from ever turning up.

  10. It's interesting to note that the related greek word μάχαιρα meaning knife or sword is according to rashi and others the meaning of the word מכרותיהם in כלי חמס מכרותיהם.

    מכרתיהם: לשון כלי זיין, הסייף בלשון יוני מכי"ר.

  11. Fotheringay-Phipps12:28 PM, December 02, 2011

    "Here would be a good time to point out that the term does not appear in the Talmud or early rabbinic sources. Thus, the only early sources we have are Greek."

    When does "Megillas Antiochus" date from?

  12. I don't think anyone knows for certain, but it's probably Geonic, since other than the book itself we find no mention of it before Rav Saadya. Either way, even if it's as old as the Mishnah (and why would it be?), that still makes it centuries younger than the Greek Maccabees books.

  13. kahanists, of course, know that Meir Cahane Ben Yechezkel, is the MaKaBY, who wrote his pirush on the torah, called MaKaBY

  14. I guess Mitchell wasnt First on this one.

  15. No, but come on, his post was way more researched and comprehensive.



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