What does the Maccabee mean?…ask the rabbi

November 19, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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With the Junior Carnival approaching, it is a good time to learn who a Maccabee was. Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. A friend told me that Jews can choose their own mixture of religious observances. Is this correct?

A. In theory no, because every Jew should observe all the mitzvot.

But in practice, we all do tend to have our own emphases.

Some people are more philosophical, some concentrate on the moral laws, some stress the details of the practical mitzvot, some make a great deal of the Jewish Friday night and the festivals (or some of them).

The real question is where we go from there… not whether we are good at this or that aspect of Jewish belief and practice, but whether our Judaism can become dynamic and what we can add to what we do at present.


Q. A friend told me that Judaism doesn’t allow a child who is a doctor to operate on or give an injection to his or her parents. Is this true?

A. The Torah lays down that it is a capital offence if a child strikes his or her parent (Ex. 21:15). According to the Talmud, this applies if the child causes a wound (Sanh. 84b).

The rabbis discuss what happens if the child’s action is for the parent’s benefit, e.g. letting blood, which used to be a recognised medical procedure.

In theory, this is allowed, though there is a preference for it to be done by someone else. The Shulchan Aruch does not permit a child even to remove a splinter from the parent’s hand (YD 241:1), but it is allowed if no-one else is available to do it.

A number of rabbinic responsa are lenient especially if the parent asks the child to treat him/her.

There is a psychological aspect to the problem in that the child may be scared to operate on a parent, but if the doctor is an expert at the particular procedure and is the best one available he/she is unlikely to carry out the task inefficiently.


Q. What does “Maccabee” really mean?

A. The name does not come from the Talmud or Midrash. It derives from the Apocrypha, where it describes Judah, one of the Hasmonean brothers (II Maccabees 2:4).

Jewish tradition saw it as the initials of the battle-cry, “Mi Chamocha Ba-elim HaShem”, “Who is like You among the mighty, O Lord?” (Ex. 15:11).

Other views link the name with a root that means “to extinguish” since the Maccabees extinguished the Greek persecution, or with “makkav”, “a hammer”; Judah, like Charles Martel, was the hammer of his enemies.

The scholar and poet Aaron Kaminka (1866-1950) thinks the name is a corruption of “Machbanai”, a leading commando in the army of King David (I Chron. 12:13).

David had twelve commandos from the tribe of Gad, who “separated themselves to David to the stronghold in the wilderness, mighty men of valour, men trained for war, that could handle shield and spear; whose faces were like the faces of lions, and they were as swift as the roes upon the mountains” (I Chron. 12:8).

David has always been a role model for Jews, and it may be that Judah’s father, Mattathias, saw in his son the embodiment of an ancient Davidic hero.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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