In Maccabees 2:12:39-45 (Sefaria Hebrew source. NRSV - if anyone is aware of a better, more Jewishy English translation, please edit it in) it says:

"On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin."

"ויקח מהם תרומה לה' אלפים דרכמונים כסף, וישלח אותם ירושלימה להקריב מהם קרבן אשם לה', ולכפר על נפשות המתים.
ותחשב לו לצדקה, כי לולא האמין כי יעיר אלוהים את רוחו על כל ישני עפר, כי עתה תפילתו תועבה לכפר בעד המתים.
ובזאת הזכירם כי נוצר ה' את חסדו לכל המתים באמונתו ולמייחלים לחסדו, ויצו להקריב אשם בעדם לנקותם מפשעם."

The gist of the story is that when Yehuda the Maccabee and his men found some of their dead soldiers, they discovered that they wore idolatrous amulets under their clothes. Yehuda then collected money to buy atonement sacrifices for the dead men.

I don't think I've ever heard of posthumous atonement sacrifices1. Is this a thing? And if not, what is Maccabees II's deal?

Small update: I have checked both Avraham Kahana and Daniel Schwartz's commentaries on this story in their respective editions of the book and neither made note of the apparent halachic problem. Schwartz seemed to think that the story may have been representative of the Hellenistic views of the author of the book, but he wrote that more about the narrator's explanation of why Yehuda collected money for the sacrifice and less about the idea to make a sacrifice.

1 Brings to mind those jokes (and, sadly, true stories as well) about Christians baptizing Jewish graves...

  • 1
    For a chatas if it's owner dies you let it die.
    – Heshy
    Sep 24, 2021 at 12:40
  • 1
    Maybe these were olos similar to giving yizkor or yahrtzeit donations.
    – Heshy
    Sep 24, 2021 at 12:41
  • @Heshy It's translated as "atonement sacrifices", though.
    – Harel13
    Sep 24, 2021 at 12:43
  • 1
    @N.T. Your conclusion that these people were mezidim seems strange to me. We're talking about soldiers in the Maccabean army, the same army that had freed Yerushalayim and purified the Temple. I would say that not for nothing, Schwartz sourced the problem not to the commandment of "לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים על פני" but to "פסילי אלוהיהם תשרפון באש" (Devarim 7:25). Straight-out idolatry was obvious to everyone in this army that it was a sin, but using a little statue as a good-luck charm? Maybe not obvious to everyone.
    – Harel13
    Sep 26, 2021 at 6:37
  • 1
    @N.T. I got that point, but I don't see why they couldn't have been shogeg. But okay, say that's the deal. It demands even more explaining for the story.
    – Harel13
    Sep 26, 2021 at 11:11

2 Answers 2


Jonathan Goldstein, in his commentary to II Maccabees, considers Yehuda's collection of silver as a literal misreading of the mitzva of the ḥatat offered for the collective sins of a community (Lev. 4:13-21):

וְאִם כׇּל־עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל וְעָשׂוּ אַחַת מִכׇּל־מִצְוֺת יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵעָשֶׂינָה וְאָשֵׁמוּ׃ וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ עָלֶיהָ וְהִקְרִיבוּ הַקָּהָל פַּר בֶּן־בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת וְהֵבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד׃וְסָמְכוּ זִקְנֵי הָעֵדָה אֶת־יְדֵיהֶם עַל־רֹאשׁ הַפָּר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וְשָׁחַט אֶת־הַפָּר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה׃ וְהֵבִיא הַכֹּהֵן הַמָּשִׁיחַ מִדַּם הַפָּר אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד׃ וְטָבַל הַכֹּהֵן אֶצְבָּעוֹ מִן־הַדָּם וְהִזָּה שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֵת פְּנֵי הַפָּרֹכֶת׃ וּמִן־הַדָּם יִתֵּן  עַל־קַרְנֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת כׇּל־הַדָּם יִשְׁפֹּךְ אֶל־יְסוֹד מִזְבַּח הָעֹלָה אֲשֶׁר־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד׃ וְאֵת כׇּל־חֶלְבּוֹ יָרִים מִמֶּנּוּ וְהִקְטִיר הַמִּזְבֵּחָה׃ וְעָשָׂה לַפָּר כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְפַר הַחַטָּאת כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה־לּוֹ וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶם׃ וְהוֹצִיא אֶת־הַפָּר אֶל־מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְשָׂרַף אֹתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף אֵת הַפָּר הָרִאשׁוֹן חַטַּאת הַקָּהָל הוּא׃

If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt— when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting. The elders of the community shall lay their hands upon the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD. The anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the Tent of Meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle of it seven times before the LORD, in front of the curtain. Some of the blood he shall put on the horns of the altar which is before the LORD in the Tent of Meeting, and all the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering, which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. He shall remove all its fat from it and turn it into smoke on the altar. He shall do with this bull just as is done with the [priest’s] bull of sin offering; he shall do the same with it. Thus the priest shall make expiation for them, and they shall be forgiven. He shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering of the congregation.

Of course, Yehuda's actions are different from the halakhic procedure of the ḥatat. According to the Oral Torah, "the whole community of Israel" refers to the seventy members of the Sanhedrin, if they make a mistake in a law that the whole community follows. Nevertheless, it appears this was the biblical source through which Yehuda sought to rectify the Jews' idolatry, once it was discovered. Goldstein claims that, in contrast to the then contemporary Chashmonaim--Yehuda's descendants--who were against the idea of resurrection, the writer interpreted the act of collecting money as proof that Yehuda did indeed believe in the resurrection of the dead:

Judas and his surviving force may have believed their case to be the one en­visaged at Lev 4:13, taken literally. The rabbinic interpretation of that verse is different (see Rashi's commentary ad loc). The Sifra to Lev 4:13 (p. 19a Weiss) considers and rejects the interpretation that "whole congregation" is to be taken literally. Judas and his men, however, lived long before the rabbis. Lev 4:13 is almost echoed in vss. 40-41: the community had unknowingly been tainted with the sin of idolatry through the secret misconduct of the sol­diers, but the sin had now been exposed. If Judas and his men took Lev 4:13 to apply to their case, they found that Lev 4:14-21 required the community to bring a bull as a sin offering. Later, rabbinic law provided for a special collec­tion from the community to pay for the bull (To. Sheqalim 2:6; TB Menahot 52a; see Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fshutah, Part IV [Mo'ed], pp. 682 - 83), similar to Judas' procedure. Two thousand silver drachmas was far too much for a bull. According to rabbinic law, the extra money would be treated as a dona­tion to the temple, and the law may have been the same in Judas' time. It is noteworthy that Jason himself, surely following his source, speaks in vs. 43 only of a singu­lar sin offering. Had the sin requiring the sacrifice been the individual sin of the possessors of idolatrous objects, there would have been an offering for each sinner.

Nevertheless, Jason believes that the sin offering was brought to secure ex­piation for the dead! His view disagrees with rabbinic law. There, the principle holds that sacrifices do not secure expiation for the dead. The experience of death itself is their expiation. See TB Zebahim 9b and "Eyn kapparah Pmetim" Talmudic Encyclopedia, I (5707=1946-47), 293b-294b. Again, nei­ther Jason nor Judas and his men had to agree with rabbinic law, but we have found many indications that Jason misinterpreted his source. The words he took over from the source do not fit his opinion; indeed, the words hint that Judas and his men acted in literal fulfillment of Lev 4:13-21.

Jason was driven to this kind of interpretation because he firmly believed in resurrection and had to justify his own approval of Judas, a member of a fam­ily notorious for rejecting the doctrine. If Jason had had direct evidence of Judas' acceptance of the doctrine, he surely would have quoted it. Judas did win the loyalty of many pious believers in resur­rection, perhaps by avoiding any public expression of disbelief.

  • +1 Interesting. But why would Yehuda have misinterpreted the law and understood it literally? "Judas and his men, however, lived long before the rabbis" - I don't think this a good explanation. After all, the zugot were already active in that time. I'm sure there were other sages as well. And as the son of the man who started the rebellion, I find it hard to believe that he was an ignorant am ha'aretz.
    – Harel13
    Sep 29, 2021 at 10:43
  • @Harel13 The event precedes the Sifra & a lot of other rabbinic sources. No one's calling Yehuda an am ha'aretz. The writer maybe didn't know that the "whole community" according to the Oral Torah, refers to the Sanhedrin erring. But the procedure here is not so different from Gemara's account of collecting money for a bull. The writer's interpretation of WHY they did this is what's radical. The Maccabees were against the idea of resurrection, so the writer overcompensates through logical gymnastics, claiming Yehuda's collection was a way for the dead to atone in order to ensure resurrection.
    – Aryeh
    Sep 29, 2021 at 11:34
  • a. The Revolt precedes the Sifra in writing, but it doesn't precede the halachic tradition. b. How do you know that the Maccabees were against the idea of resurrection? Or perhaps you're mixing up with those of the later Chashmonaim who turned Sadducee? c. I can understand that the writer might not have known proper halacha, but then that should be the answer: the writer messed up in his telling of the story/invented it. Yet that doesn't seem to be Goldstein's view.
    – Harel13
    Sep 29, 2021 at 11:44
  • @Harel13 On point b.: Yes, what I meant is the writer opposes his contemporary environment of Greek skeptics and Chashmonaim, who were against resurrection. The writer's beliefs are very different from the writer of First Maccabees, who does not believe in resurrection and offers a different history as a Chashmonai propagandist.
    – Aryeh
    Sep 29, 2021 at 12:26
  • @Harel13 On point c.: It's hard to know what happened. In First Maccabees (1:67), the fighters die for acting rashly, not because of idolatrous amulets, and Yehuda doesn't collect money after. Whether or not it happened, Goldstein says the writer is injecting his ideology: "We can be quite cer­tain that he [the writer] misunderstood his source. The sin with which Judas and his men were so concerned was not the individual sin of the dead but rather the corpo­rate guilt in which they had involved the still-living community. We still find this fact in vs. 42, unadulterated by Jason's theories."
    – Aryeh
    Sep 29, 2021 at 12:40

Prof. Chanoch Albeck in his book Mevo Lamishna (Introduction to the Mishna), ch. 2, pp. 21-22, finds support for this having been an old halacha in the gemara in Horayot 6a:

"Similarly, Rabbi Yosei said that it is stated with regard to those who returned to Zion from Babylonia in the days of Ezra: “The children of the captivity who came out of exile sacrificed burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, twelve goats as a sin-offering; all this was a burnt-offering unto the Lord” (Ezra 8:35). The question arises: Does it enter your mind to say: “All this was a burnt-offering”? Is it possible that a sin-offering is a burnt-offering? Rather, say: All this was like a burnt-offering. Just as a burnt-offering is not eaten, so too, this sin-offering is not eaten, as it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda says: It was as atonement for idol worship that they brought them; and Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: It was atonement for the idol worship that they practiced during the days of Zedekiah."

...The Gemara asks: But didn’t those who sinned by engaging in idol worship during the time of Zedekiah and the Babylonian exile already die? How can their descendants bring a sin-offering on their behalf? Rav Pappa said: When it is learned as a tradition that the fate of a sin-offering whose owners have died is to allow the animal to die without its being sacrificed, this matter applies specifically with regard to an individual who died but not with regard to a congregation, because there is no death with regard to a congregation; the entity of the congregation remains even when specific members die..." (and similarly Temurah 15b)

Therefore we see that a congregation indeed needs to bring a sin-offering to atone for a communal sin, as can be seen even in the time of Ezra.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .