Last Monday afternoon, just twenty four hours before the start of Hanukkah, and on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, I turned right where the brown signs point to the “Maccabean Graves”. It was almost sundown, and light wind was blowing at the trees on the short unpaved road from the car to where the Maccabees – those rebellious Jewish devotees that defeated the forces of Greece around 100 BCE – almost certainly were not buried.
I wrote a short article about this short trip, for the opinion page of the International Herald Tribune, but space was limited, so there’s a lot more to tell about this short, sweet, afternoon travel. The neighboring Arabs called this place Kubbur Al-Yahud – the graves of the Jews – hence, the erroneous conception. All archeologists agree that no matter what the sign says, this place isn’t the one in which father Mattathias and his five warrior sons – Judah, Yochanan, Jonathan, Shimon, Elazar – are laid to rest. It is, though, the area where their most famous battles were fought. Where Mattathias, ordered by a government official to offer sacrifice to the Seleucid Greek Gods, had started a war against idolatry and against the occupying power of the day, stating his most famous words: “Whoever is zealous for the Law, and maintains the covenant, let him follow me”.
Touring the site, I follow a small group of ultra Orthodox men that’s hurriedly moving on about half a mile to the north, to where another grave – known as Sheikh Irabawi grave – is mistakenly celebrated as the burial place of Mattathias. Pious members of the Breslov Hassidic group had marked this grave with grafitti and placed a gravestone on top: Mattityahu Ben Yochanan, Cohen Gadol – high priest – then the Hebrew acronym Za’yin Yod A’lef: His right will protect us. One of the men I meet there carries two buckets filled with paint, and two brushes with which to beautify the roof. Why are you here, I ask him. “I’m on a mission”, he says. Sent by whom? “There are good people”, he says. Is this really the place where Mattityahu was buried? “Jews come here to pray, so who am I to eliminate all these prayers by questioning the authenticity of this place”, he responds, then climbs on the round roof armed with a bucket a brush.
All around Israel such sites are now marked and often visited by thousands of believers. It is the holy land of the holy grave, where people look for consolation, for good luck, for blessings, for spiritual stimuli, at the gravesites of rabbis and leaders and Tzadikim, the righteous ones. Before the day of Lag Ba’Omer, hundreds of thousands go to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon (or Simeon) Bar Yochai in the Galilee Mountains, a first century sage. Near the gravesite of Rabbi Akiva (Akiba), another first century sage, traditional prayers for rain are taking place. No one knows for sure where Akiva was buried. The site is not far from Tiberius, the Sea of Galilee, but some scholars believe Akiva was buried as far as the Carmel Mount, near the Mediterranean. Some graves are a mere curiosity or – to some – a nuisance, but others have a more problematic nature. Joseph’s Tomb – it’s very unlikely that biblical Joseph was actually buried in Joseph’s Tomb – had become a point of political contention. It is located deep inside the Palestinian city of Nablus, to which Jewish zealots had made a habit of sneaking at night, endangering their lives and others’ (Palestinians are obliged by their accords with Israel to allow visits to Joseph’s Tomb, but weren’t always doing it with much enthusiasm).
Through the treacherous history of this land, holy graves have been identified by travelers seeking adventure, religious leaders looking to strengthen a community, and politicians needing to bolster the sense of nationality. Rumors, legends, miscalculations — there are many reasons the sites have been misidentified. Archeologists might know the truth and fiercely debate the graves’ authenticity, but many worshipers seem not to care much. They readily favor tradition over the suspiciously secular “science”.
Finding the real graves of the Maccabees is tricky and might take years to achieve. Historical sources insist that it was a remarkable monument, not the average grave one finds in many places throughout the Modi’in area. Amit Re’em, chief regional archeologist for Israel’s Antiquities Authority, tells me that funds are needed in order for archeologists to dig the dozens of possible sites in this area – but especially the one site, not far from the Mattathias false grave, where Re’em and many others believe the real monumental grave is to be found. The hunt for the graves is an obsession of sorts for a small cadre of professionals, driven, among other things, by the great interest of not just Jews but also Christians. Re’em explains that Christians give some members of the Macabbee family credit for being the earliest Martyrs.
For Jews, though, there’s no shortage of martyrs’ graves, no shortage of sages and rabbis and Tzadikim. If the Maccabees’ graves are distinctive, if the Hanukkah story is also distinctive, it is not because of special religious significance but rather because of the national, tribal, meaning of a people oppressed and their fight for freedom. Yes, Diaspora Jews celebrate this holiday around the world as the holiday of lights, and religious Jews celebrate it as the holiday of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the holiday of a miracle. But most Jewish Israelis look up to the Maccabees for something of a different nature. Few military heroes are celebrated in a long Jewish tradition of (mostly) exile and oppression. Even fewer such heroes can be found with a concrete character and a history of actions of which one might hope to find real remnants. The Maccabees’ grave might not bring about rain, or help women conceive or heal the incurable. But it can be a place in which Jewish pride and independence and triumph are celebrated. If only for this, the Maccabees’ graves ought to be found: to serve as the upbeat alternative to this other famous site of Jewish gallantry – the most well known site of Jewish heroism but also of ultimate suicide – Masada.
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