The Maccabees’ heroism brought an end to the religious decrees enacted against Jews in the Land of Israel and to the victory that we celebrate on Chanukah. In this resource, we will discuss the question of what is heroism and who is a hero.

Resource Ages: 9-11


And the son [of Matityahu] Judah, who was called Maccabee, took command in his place.

And all his brothers, and all those that followed his father, helped him;

And they gladly fought for Israel […]

Like a hero he wore his armor, and girded himself with the tools of war.

And he waged battles and defended the camp with his sword.

And he was like a lion in his deeds, like a lion’s cub roaring for prey.

And he searched out and pursued the wicked, 

And burned those who troubled his people. And the wicked surrendered in fear of him.

Book of Maccabees I, translated by Uriel Rapoport, chapter 3, verses 1-6

 English Translation.

Please note: Due to copyright reasons, we cannot translate the song into different languages. We suggest that teachers translate it for students.

מי ימלל / מנשה רבינא

מִי יְמַלֵּל גְּבוּרוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל,

אוֹתָן מִי יִמְנֶה?

הֵן בְּכָל דּוֹר יָקוּם הַגִּבּוֹר

גּוֹאֵל הָעָם.


בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

מַכַּבִּי מוֹשִׁיעַ וּפוֹדֶה,

וּבְיָמֵינוּ כָּל עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל

יִתְאַחֵד, יָקוּם וְיִגָּאֵל.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What are the different ways to be a hero and how do I become one?
  • What can we learn from different generations?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is the heroism reflected in the various narratives of Chanukah? 

Background for Teacher

In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes IV rose to power in the Hellenistic Kingdom and worked towards strengthening the process of hellenization in the Land of Israel. He ransacked the Temple and took amongst his spoils the golden menorah that stood there. He ordered the...

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In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes IV rose to power in the Hellenistic Kingdom and worked towards strengthening the process of hellenization in the Land of Israel. He ransacked the Temple and took amongst his spoils the golden menorah that stood there. He ordered the Jews to revere him as a god. When he realized that the Jews were refusing to obey this order, he declared his opposition to the Jewish religion and in 167 BCE enforced harsh religious laws called “the decrees of Antiochus”, which included prohibitions on observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays, Torah study and ritual circumcision. Whoever insisted on keeping Jewish commandments was summarily executed.

The Book of Maccabees, which describes the events of that period, tells the story of Matityahu the Priest, a member of the Hasmonean dynasty from the village of Modi’in, who refused to submit to the king’s decrees. He was joined by his five sons, among them Judah Maccabee, as well as other residents of his village. This began the Hasmonean revolt. Many joined the revolt, yet compared to Antiochus’ army, they were few in number. Their means of warfare were also much less sophisticated than those of the opposing army.

Despite this, the Hasmoneans had many successes in their war against the Greeks, including the warfare tactics they undertook and their familiarity with the territory. Following the defeat of Antiochus’ army in a decisive battle, the religious decrees were abolished. The Hasmoneans reclaimed the Temple. On the 25th of Kislev, they cleansed the Temple from pagan altars, lit the menorah in it and celebrated its dedication (in Hebrew – chanukah, thus the name of the holiday). The Maccabees declared that these days would become a holiday celebrated each year over the span of eight days – the holiday of Chanukah. Additionally, in 142 BCE, the Hasmoneans successfully established an independent Jewish state. 

The Book of Maccabees, written during that same period, describes Judah, his brothers and their fellow warriors as heroes, possessing warlike resourcefulness, strategic ability and courage despite their fewer numbers and relatively meager weaponry as compared to the king’s army. It also describes their faith that God would come to their aid.

In contrast to the Book of Maccabees, Chazal (our Sages), who lived several decades and even hundreds of years following the revolt, attributed the revolt’s success solely to Divine help. In the prayer they formulated to honor the event, “Al Hanisim” (“On Miracles”), they mentioned God’s heroism and miracles:  “You delivered the strong [the Greeks] to the hands of the weak (the Maccabees)” and refrained from attributing warfare capabilities to the Maccabees themselves. 

With the rise of the Zionist movement, the Maccabees’ heroism became the main focus of the Chanukah holiday. The Zionists viewed themselves as continuing the path of the Maccabees and drew inspiration from them. They hoped that just as the Maccabees had succeeded with heroism, courage and resourcefulness, to break free from foreign rule and establish an independent Jewish kingdom, so too, with heroism and determination, they would succeed in breaking free from foreign rule and establishing an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

This perception is reflected in Menashe Rabina’s Zionist song, “Mi Yemalel (Who Can Retell)”, which focuses on the Maccabean victory in light of Zionist aspirations for victory. The song is based on a verse from Psalms (106, 2): “Whoever tells about God’s mighty deeds will tell of all of God’s glory”.  The first words of the song are identical to the first words of the Biblical verse (Mi Yemalel). The song incorporates additional allusions which overturn Chazal’s view relating to the source of the heroism. For example, the words “savior of the people” – from Chazal’s point of view, the “savior” is the messiah, a messenger of God and not an ordinary person. In the song, it is people who will act to save themselves.  And the words “in those days as in ours” – in the “Al Hanisim” prayer, these words refer to the actions of God who performed miracles and wonders for the Jewish people. In the Zionist song these same words refer to the people’s heroism .

The Book of Maccabees I – an ancient book describing the story of the struggle between the Maccabees and the Greeks. The book was written at around the same time that the events described in it took place. It was originally written in Hebrew, yet it is known to us only in its translation to Greek. 

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Tell the students the story of Chanukah, up until the point where the Greeks enforce religious decrees against the Jewish religion (you can translate and tell the story from the journal of a Jewish girl during that period) and explain that following this, there was a Jewish revolt against the Greeks. Ask the students to think: What kind of people would participate in such a revolt a rebellion against such a great and strong power?
    Divide the students into pairs and have them write a help-wanted ad looking for heroes to participate in the revolt. They should think what traits should be mentioned in the ad, how they can check if the candidate is indeed a hero, and what picture they would use for the advertisement  – does a hero have a specific look?
  • Do a brainstorm around the word “hero”: What does it mean? What characterizes a hero? In Hebrew, the word “hero” comes from the word “to overcome”. What things does a hero need to overcome, in your opinion?
  • Listen to the song “Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell)”.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. The text from the Book of Maccabees describes Judah Maccabee as a hero. What in the description of Judah Maccabee indicates that he is a hero? What does a hero look like, according to the text? How does a hero behave?
  2. In the text, Judah Maccabee is portrayed as a lion. In your opinion, what traits does a lion have that led the author of the text to use this image? 
  3. According to the text, the “wicked” – the Greeks, surrendered to the heroism of Judah Maccabee. Is heroism necessarily connected to victory? Can you be a hero and lose? Explain. 
  4. How do you think the Maccabees felt during the war against the Greeks? What doubts might they have had? How did they deal with this? 
  5. What traits does a hero have? Are there traits that a hero specifically does not have? Can a hero be afraid? Explain. 
  6. What are some non-physical ways that one might act heroically? What other situations – that are not existential threats – are associated with heroism?
  7. What can we learn from the heroism of Judah Maccabee and the Maccabees regarding how we might act today in situations in which someone is behaving in a way that seems to us to be unjust? 
  8. In what ways are you heroes? In what contexts in your own lives do you behave heroically? 

Following the song “Mi Yemalel (Who Can Retell)”:

  1. In your opinion, why were the Maccabees an inspiration for the Zionist movement? 
  2.  “In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid” – who is this hero in different periods throughout Jewish history? Give examples of such heroes and describe what characterized their heroism and what significant features they had.
  • Create a comic that portrays the warriors from the Hasmonean dynasty as superheroes. Give each hero a superpower, emphasizing traits that are not necessarily related to physical prowess. Go back to what you wrote in the opening activity and use these characteristics to help you think of potential superpowers. If you didn’t do the opening activity, think together: What are some superpowers that would be helpful in a revolt against the Greeks?
    For example: If a hero needs to have a strong emotional connection to their people and country, their superpower could be an internal GPS that identifies Jews in distress. If the characteristic needed is loyalty to Judaism, the hero’s superpower could be the ability to make Jews who keep one of the forbidden commandments invisible, etc.
  • As a class, vote on 4-5 traits that a hero needs and match each trait with a color. Students should color a page (potentially with a drawing of a medal / trophy, etc.) using these colors, with the amount of color used serving as indication of the degree to which the student thinks it’s important that the hero has this feature. You can also use colored candles and drip wax on the bottom of a glass to create a medal that represents the hero’s traits. 
  • Bring two sayings from Chazal (our Sages) that provide an answer to the question: Who is a hero? Discuss the sayings and ask the students to explain why Chazal thought these acts demand heroism. Ask the students to think of their own sayings, and write them on a piece of cardboard. You can hang the students’ sayings in class.

Who is a hero? – Someone who conquers their instincts.”

Mishne, Masechot Avot, chapter 4, mishna 1

“What is a hero among all heroes? −  Someone who makes their enemy their loved one.”

Midrash Avot D’Rabbi Natan, chapter 23, piska 1


  • The song “Mi Yemalel (Who Can Retell)” is perfect for a canon choir. Listen to this version and sing it together in class.
    You can put this instrumental performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra  in the background. Notice how the music alternates between the first and second stanzas. How are the instrumentals adapted to the content?
  • Expand further by teaching the Miracle of Chanukah resource: Is there a contradiction between miracles and heroism? How can we celebrate both of these things together on Chanukah?