My husband John as Indiana Jones!
The entrance to the burial cave of Channah and her seven sons in Tsfat
Living in Israel has given us a unique opportunity to see the history I had only read about in the Scriptures, in history and story books. Educational, amazing, extremely fun, and sometimes filled with adventure, this is something we definitely do not take for granted!! It was with great excitement when I found out that part of the story of Chanukah took place ‘right in our own backyard.’ As soon as I heard this from my Partner in Torah, Malky, I knew my husband and I had to set off and see for ourselves.
Chanukah is the Holiday of the Rededication of the Temple, also known as the Festival of Lights. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrio-Greeks around 150 B.C. The small, ragtag Jewish army defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world against all odds. When the band of Maccabees reached Jerusalem, which had been overtaken by the Greeks (who outlawed Jewish life and prayer), they found the Holy (Second) Temple vandalized. Statues of Greek gods had been placed where the altar once stood; pigs were running through the Temple complex; the gold and silver ritual objects had been stolen as were the Torah scrolls and the beautiful curtain separating the Holy Sanctuary from the rest of the structure. After cleaning out the area, the Maccabees found only one cruze of oil to light the menorah (candelabra). It was only enough to last for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days until new pure, kosher olive oil could be brought in from the Galilee. The Temple was rededicated on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and we still celebrate this holiday for eight days.
I had grown up hearing the story of Chanukah. It was only when I was an older teenager that I learned this story is not to be found in the Jewish Scriptures: it is a Midrashic/Talmudic story, written down much later from oral tradition. Much later, in my forties, I discovered the books of First and Second Macabees were part of the Catholic Bible in the apocryphal accounts. What a pleasant surprise to read the stories of Judah Maccabees and his brothers! The action-packed battle scenes against the ruthless General Gorgias! The decrees against the Jews by the evil Antiochus Epiphanes! More battles! The cleansing of the Temple! More battles!!! And the heart-wrenching story of Channah and her seven sons found in 2 Macabees, Chapter 7.
Even though much of the action took place in Judea in Central Israel around the city of Modi’in, the story of the martyrdom of Channah happened in Tsfat/Safed, about 20 minutes from us. Channah, a widow had seven sons. They were Torah-observant Jews who were captured by the Syrio-Greeks and made into a public display of conquest in order to subjugate the rest of the Jewish population in the area. The first son was ordered to eat pork in violation of the commandment to refrain from unclean animals. When he refused, his tongue was cut out. Then his hands and feet. He would not recant his faith. His mother urged him to remain true to G-d throughout the ordeal, until he was finally brutally murdered. The next brother was ordered to bow down to idols. He was encouraged in the faith by his mother and brothers, and upon refusing the command, was flayed alive. This continued through the seventh brother who had seen all of his siblings horribly tortured and murdered. The king offered to give him pardon, make him rich and powerful, a Friend of the Royal Court if only he would recant his faith. When he refused, he too, was brutally drawn and quartered. Channah who remained stalwart through all of this was the last to be martyred. They are interred in the Tsfat Cemetery… and I had to go find their graves!
Sunday morning, we drove up to this city perched high atop a mountain. Finding the cemetery was the easy part. It’s huge, with thousands of years of history. Many, many famous rabbis, Torah scholars, and righteous people are buried here. The older, more important graves are marked in a mystical azure color, the color of the heavens. The oldest graves, from Biblical times, are at the top of the mountain and along the sides of the mountainside in deep caves channeled into the stone. There are graves on top of graves, so finding this one in particular seemed a daunting feat. Luckily, as we stopped to ask some seminary girls if they knew of the story or where the tombs were, they pointed behind us. We were standing right in front of their burial chamber!! “Never coincidences in Israel – only from G-d” is a saying here.
Fortunately for us, the entrance to the chamber was crudely marked, but to get there we had to scramble over the wall, up the mountain, over other graves, and stoop amazingly low to get inside. It was totally worth it! Once inside the low, but roomy kever, it was obviously a well-frequented burial site. The more observant Jews here make pilgrimages to the graves of “tsaddikkim” or saints. They light candles in their memory and pray in the merit of their glorious ancestors. To pray at the grave of a holy one gives that prayer an extra lift or boost, an intercession of sorts (this is where the Catholic practice of intercession of saints and lighting candles at graves of holy ones originates, I’m convinced). Prayer slips with requests are folded and left at these sites, much like at the stones of the Western Wall. We prayed here to have the fortitude to remain true and faithful to G-d despite what we see happening in the world around us today. It is a true testimony to the importance of religious liberty!!! Still – to have the story actually come to life like this!!!! It’s not just legend! These were real people!!!! And this discovery was also a huge faith-builder.
After that adventure, we made the thirty minute drive down the mountain to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, to a little town called Migdal (famous for the Gospel story of Mary the Magdalene). Driving along the Western shore of Lake Kinneret as we know it here, you are literally faced with one of the most breathtaking landscapes: Mount Arbel and the Horns of Hittin. There are centuries of history in these few acres of land. The heights proved a strategic site militarily for many armies, as well as a prime hideout as it was hard to reach. SalahDin defeated the Crusaders here in the last battle for the Holy Land. The Romans used it as a stronghold from which to route the Jews living in the Galilee. Arbel had a very bloody history. The Hashmonean Jews, a group established by Judah Maccabee’s brother, Shimon, moved with his armies into these mountain cliffs, from which they fought the Selucid invaders to Israel. Remnants from the battles – entire families – lived here for years, as recorded in Maccabees and the writings of Mattityahu ben Yosef (aka Josephus Flavius). So from here, the Chanukah story had its continuation, as did our ‘field trip.’
We drove around the side of the mountain into the Wadi called the Valley of the Doves. Wow!!!! We had driven by this road regularly for five years, but never made the turn. What a surprise! Now a National Park, intrepid hikers can hike the steep paths to the cave dwellings/hideouts on the Western face of Arbel and the fortress at the peak of the mountain across the valley. It was way too late, and we were not in shape to make the climb. I understand there is a back way to travel by car to the top of Arbel, which we hope to make another time. Still, to see where the Hashmoneans hid out and fought off the Syrio-Greeks….
Unfortunately, we are entering into another COVID curfew and lockdown – a lovely Chanukah present. We had hoped to visit Modi’in to see the battlefields and the graves of Mattityahu and his sons, Judah and the Maccabees. Usually there are many tours and family activities held there during the holiday. We will have to wait until next year for that adventure.
In the meantime, I shall leave you a tidbits: I had always heard that the word Maccabee was somehow related to the word “hammer.” That Judah and his brothers hammered the Greeks. Instead, Maccabee (not the family’s true surname) comes from the Hebrew Scripture, “Mi camokha b’aalim Ad-nai,” translated “Who is like unto G-d?” The Hebrew letters mem, coof, bet, aleph were emblazoned on their banners, in essence proclaiming the battle was the L-rd’s, the strength of the Israelites came from G-d. Hence the acronym and the nickname Maccabee.
Because of the miracle of the oil, it is customary to eat fried foods at this time. So you’ll find me eating crispy, fried, golden delicious levivot/latkes/ potato cakes and getting my sufganiot fix for the year (filled donuts which take this Israeli delicacy to an entirely new art form).