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The Identity and Meaning of ‘Chashmonai’

The term “Chashmonai” is widely used in the rabbinic literature about Chanukah. But nowhere in I Maccabees and II Maccabees is the term used, and these were works composed only a few decades after the revolt of Matityahu and his sons. (The revolt took place in 167-164 B.C.E.) So who or what exactly is “Chashmonai”?

Already in the late first century, it seems that the identity of “Chashmonai” was a mystery to Josephus. Josephus must have heard of the name since he descended from this family. Yet he contradicts himself regarding it. In his Jewish War (I, 36) he identifies Chashmonai as the father of Matityahu. But in his later work Antiquities (XII, 265) he identifies Chashmonai as the great-grandfather of Matityahu. Probably, his approach in Antiquities is the result of his learning from I Maccabees 2:1 that Matityahu was the son of a John who was the son of a Simon, and then deciding to integrate the name Chashmonai with this data by making him the father of Simon. It is very likely that Josephus had no actual knowledge of the identity of Chashmonai and was just speculating here. It is too coincidental that he places Chashmonai as the father of Simon, where there is room for him. If Josephus truly had a tradition from his family about the specific identity of Chashmonai, it would already have been included in his Jewish War. (Scholars have observed that it seems that Josephus did not have I Macc. in front of him when writing his Jewish War.)

The name “Chashmonai” appears many times in the Babylonian Talmud, but usually the references are vague. The references are either to “beit Chashmonai,” “malchut Chashmonai,” “malchut beit Chashmonai,” “malchei beit Chashmonai,” or “beit dino shel Chashmonai.”

At Megillah 11a there is a reference to an individual named Chashmonai, but neither his father nor his son(s) are named. The standard printed text here implies that Chashmonai is not Matityahu, mentioning “Shimon ha-Tzaddik ve-Chashmonai u-vanav u-Matityah kohen gadol… There are also midrashim on Chanukah that refer to a Chashmonai who was a separate person from Matityahu and who was instrumental in the revolt.

But the fact that I Maccabees does not mention any separate individual named Chashmonai involved in the revolt strongly suggests that there was no such individual. (The lack of mention of Chashmonai in II Maccabees is not significant.) Moreover, there are alternative readings at Megillah 11a. Also, the midrashim on Chanukah that refer to a Chashmonai who was a separate person from Matityahu are very late midrashim.

It seems from I Maccabees that there was no separate person named Chashmonai at the time of the revolt. And I have argued that the statement of Josephus that Chashmonai was the great-grandfather of Matityahu is only a conjecture. If so, who was Chashmonai?

There are two Tannaitic references to Chashmonai. Let us look at them. One of these is Mishnah Middot 1:6: “ganzo bnei Chashmonai et avnei ha-mizbeach she-shiktzum malchei Yavan.” (This is the text in the earliest Mishnah manuscript, the Kaufmann manuscript.) From here, it seems that Chashmonai may just be another name for Matityahu. This is also the implication of Chashmonai in many of the later rabbinic passages. (See, e.g., Bereishit Rabbah 99:2, and Tanchuma Va-Yechi 14.)

The other Tannaitic source for Chashmonai is Seder Olam, chap. 30. Here the language is: “malchut beit Chashmonai meah ve-shalosh, the dynasty of the House of Chashmonai, 103 [years].” Although one does not have to interpret Chashmonai here as a reference to Matityahu, this interpretation can at least fit this passage (even though many other interpretations would fit as well.)

I would like to take the position, based on the Mishnah in Middot, that Chashmonai was just another way of referring to Matityahu, i.e., an additional name that he had. 1 Maccabees states that each of his sons had additional names, so it is reasonable to suppose that Matityahu had one too. (People did not have last names in antiquity, so additional names were common. They helped distinguish someone from others with the same name.)

But here is the issue: I Maccabees, which stated that each of Matityahu’s sons had an additional name, and provided the name, did not make any such statement in the case of Matityahu himself.

So we need to find an explanation of why, if Matityahu had an additional name, I Maccabees would have avoided giving it to us.

An explanation for this has been suggested. But first let me discuss the meaning of the name. We do not know what it means, but the most widely held view is that it derives from a place that some ancestor of Matityahu hailed from a few generations earlier. (Matityahu and his immediate ancestors hailed from Modiin.) For example, Joshua 15:27 refers to a place called Cheshmon in the area of the tribe of Judah. Alternatively, a location
Chashmonah is mentioned at Numbers 33:29-30 as one of the places that the Israelites encamped in the desert.

Going back to our question, scholars now realize that I Maccabees was a polemical work: The main purpose of the work was the glorification of Matityahu in order to legitimize the rule of his descendants. There is evidence for this throughout the book. (See particularly 5:62.) Their rule needed legitimization because the family was not from the priestly watch of Yedayah, the most prominent watch. Traditionally, the high priest came from this watch. (Of course, the rule of Matityahu’s descendants would have needed additional legitimization even if Matityahu came from the watch of Yedayah. His descendants were priests and not from the tribe of Judah or the Davidic line.)

Perhaps, it has been suggested (see, e.g., J. Goldstein, I Maccabees, pp. 17-19), the author of I Maccabees left out the additional name for Matityahu because it would remind readers of the obscure origin of the dynasty. Reminding readers of this would be inconsistent with the purpose of the book. So we can now suggest that Chashmonai was the additional name of Matityahu and we have a reasonable explanation for why I Maccabees omitted it.


  1. I did not rely on Al Hanisim in the above discussion of Chashmonai. Like most of us, I used to think that this prayer was composed in the second century B.C.E. Now I think this is not the case and that the prayer had a later origin.
  2. The two earliest Mishnah manuscripts (Kaufmann and Parma) spell the name Chashmonai with two yods at the end (no aleph). This was probably the original spelling. This is also how the name is spelled in the Jerusalem Talmud. See Taanit 2:12 and Megillah 1:4. As is the case with many other names that end with aleph-yod (such as Shammai), the aleph-yod spelling is probably a later variation that reflected the spelling practice in Babylonia.

In the Kaufmann Mishnah manuscript, there is a patach under the nun and a chirik under the first yod. Also, the vav has a shuruk. This means that “Chashmunai” may have been the original pronunciation. (The Kaufmann manuscript dates to the 10th or 11th century, but the vocalization was inserted later. The Parma manuscript does not have vocalization in Middot.)

  1. There was no group at the time of Matityahu and his sons called “Chashmonaim.” Josephus, writing at the end of the first century C.E., is the first person to use the plural.

To end with some humor: When he was a young child in school, David Gertler heard his teacher talking about Matityahu and his five sons and then heard his teacher calling him “Chashmonai.” David then came up with the idea that “Chashmonai” must have been called this because he had five sons, and that Ch-M-Sh simply evolved into Ch-Sh-M!

This is an abridgement of my article at seforim.blogspot.com on Nov. 27, 2013, and included in my book “Esther Unmasked” (2015).

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a kohen. Based on his name “First,” he speculates that he was from the first mishmar, Yedayah. He can be reached at [email protected], but a change to [email protected] may be forthcoming!

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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