Q. What does “Maccabee” really mean?
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.