In the footsteps of the Maccabees

December 2006

When we examine the Jewish holidays we find that many of them celebrate events that did not occur in the land of Israel. For example Purim originated from a Persian story, Pesach commemorates our exodus from Egypt, and Sukkot is about the time spent in the Sinai Desert.

Thus Chanukah is an exception, being a very Israeli holiday, one of the few celebrations commemorating events that occurred in Israel some two thousand one hundred years ago.
Therefore Chanukah being an exception I would like to suggest an exceptional way of celebrating this holiday However, the kind of celebration I have in mind can only take place in Israel, but if you use your imagination, you can take a walk with me through
the actual sites of the events, as our brave ancestors, the Maccabees did centuries ago.


Much controversy remains regarding the exact location of the small village of Modi’in, but most scholars agree it is close to the Arab village of Midia. The most accessible site to visit is just off route 443 on the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The sign says “The Maccabees’ Graves” ( Kivrot Ha Makabim), and refers to a series of carved graves in the hard limestone, on top of a little hill.

An extraordinary story brought about the tradition of this being the Maccabees’ grave site. On the eve of Chanukah in the year 1907 a group of 18 students from the Gymnasia Herzlia, a high school in Jaffa, went on a field trip in search of ancient Modi’in, and when they approached the area they met an Arab shepherd and asked him where they could find the Maccabees’ graves. The shepherd said that he knew of a site named “Kubur El Yahud”, which means “the graves of the Jews” and led the group of students to the exact spot. They arrived just before dark, lit the first Chanukah candle, danced and sang half the night and then made there way to Ben Shemen.

So began a tradition, connecting this site to the Maccabees. I call it a tradition because later excavations and research have denied this as being the actual site for many reasons. But as occurs many times in history, tradition becomes stronger than the actual truth, and the signpost on the roadside is evidence that this place is known by the majority of Israelis as the Maccabees’ Graves.

Nevertheless, once tradition is formed it is hard to revert to the actual facts. This location was accepted by all future generations and known as the Maccabees’ graves. At Chanukah 1943, the Maccabi Youth Organization held their first torch relay from Modiin to Jerusalem, and this site was chosen for the relay starting point. This tradition has continued until today, and every year on the eve of Chanukah hundreds of Maccabi youngsters gather at the site for the traditional lighting of the torch.

Emmaus – Canada Park
Another site recommended for a Chanukah visit is in the heart of the magnificent Canada Park, near Latrun. In the center of the park, near the water source and the little lake, are the remains of the ancient Hellenistic town of Emmaus. This is the site of one of the Maccabees’ most brilliant battles, when a few brave Jewish fighters defeated the mighty Greco-Syrian army. We read in Maccabi book ‘A’, that eight battles were held between the Maccabees ant the Hellenistic armies. The third battle is the most famous because of Yehuda’s brilliant tactics of deceiving and outwitting the enemy.
The Greco-Syrain army camped outside of Emmaus, with 40 thousand troops and 5000 cavalry. Yehuda’s army was in the hills with only some 4,000 troops. Yehuda sent rumors that he would camp out all night, and make a move in the morning. The Greek general hurried to capture the Maccabees at night, but was surprised to find their camp already empty. Looking behind they saw their own camp on fire: they panicked and fled to Gezer.

The victory was completed only 5 years later, with the purification of the temple and the establishment of the Hasmoninan Jewish dynasty

While visiting this site, it is recommended to stroll on the lush green hills. At this time of the year the lower Judean hills are covered with carpets of wild flowers, daffodils and crocuses.

The last site to visit in order to complete our Chanukah excursion, is the “Hasmonian Village” This site can accommodate families and schools for a day of fun activities and interactive workshops, all planned to teach and preserve the ancient ways of our ancestors. You can press olives to produce oil for your menorah, produce your own ancient coin in an old mint, create your own mosaic art, and prepare food and drink using the local herbs and plants

Once home it is time to reflect on our good fortune whilst we light the menorah, and enjoy the soft light and delicious Chanukah food. Here we are two thousand one hundred years after these events and we can still walk the sites, smell the smells, and taste the exact tastes our ancestors did at the exact spot where it all happened.

We can truly say: BaYamim Ha Hem , Ba Zman Haze – Amen