The Hanukah Story
For eight nights each year, for over 2000 years, the Jewish people have lit
lamps to commemorate the traditional miracle of a single vial of olive oil
that should have burnt for one night, but instead survived for over a week.
The festival of lights, Hanukah, relates the story of a rag-tag group of
Jewish rebels who overcame the occupation forces of the Seleucid Greek
empire, recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple, and relit the Temple
candelabra: the Menorah. Beyond the holiday story, is however, a
historical background based not only on the external struggle between Jews
and Seleucid Greeks, but also around the internal Jewish struggle over the
benefits and dangers of Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. Hanukah has
been called the first story of national liberation, but it is also an
outstanding example of civil war and fraternal conflict.
With the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his empire dissolved into
three major power blocs. The Land of Israel found itself buffeted between
the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and Mesopotamia. The fate
of the Land of Israel was decided at the Banias, one of the headwaters of
the Jordan River, in 200 BCE when Seleucid forces defeated the Ptolemies.
Initially, Seleucid rule in the Land of Israel tended to be liberal.
Antiochus III (223-187 BCE) allowed for the preservation of traditional
Jewish forms of government and worship. Taxes were reduced. Laws were
passed to protect the sanctity of the Temple against non-Jewish
interference. However, as the power of Rome began to rise, Seleucid power
waned. The treaty of Ampea (189 BCE) forced the Seleucids to surrender
large areas of territory in Asia Minor. They were further obligated to pay
indemnities to the Romans. Taxes were increased throughout the Empire, and
Seleucid rulers did not refrain from raids on local temples and shrines in
order to ease the financial strains facing their kingdom. Seleucus IV (187
BCE) robbed the Temple treasury in Jerusalem, not as part of a
specific anti-Jewish policy, but simply because the Temple treasury
represented an accessible deposit of wealth that could be exploited by the
strained coffers of the Seleucid regime.
With the appearance of Antiochus IV, Seleucid policy turned dramatically.
Antiochus embarked to regain the lost prestige of the Seleucid house. He
dreamed of reuniting Egypt, Asia Minor, and the East as in the days of
Alexander. Upon his ascension to the throne, Antiochus took the title -
Epiphanes: the god revealed. Not only a king of flesh and blood, Antiochus
Epiphanes featured himself as the human incarnation of Zeus. Throughout the
kingdom, and in the Land of Israel as well, he implemented a plan aimed at
accelerating the hellenization of local peoples. New cities were
established and old owns rebuilt based on Greek models of civics and
education as part of Antiochus' bid to broaden his own power base. While
among other communities, the acceptance of Hellenistic culture could easily
be integrated with the local pagan culture, Antiochus realized that
monotheistic Judaism with it's central pillars of divinely revealed law and
concept of Jewish chosenness posed a unique problem.
Among the Jews, as discussed earlier, different attitudes developed towards
Greek culture, and the possibility of integrating Judaism and Hellenism.
Power politics also played a central role as various priestly factions vied
for power in Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem was not simply a religious
shrine. It was the focal point for Jewish religious and national sentiment
both inside and beyond the borders of the Land of Israel. It's treasury
contained an immense deposit of wealth based on taxes and contributions of
Jews from around the world. It was also the ultimate symbol of legitimate
Jewish leadership. Control of the Temple meant control of the Jewish world.
In a bid to consolidate his power in the Jewish world, the priest Jason
(originally Joshua) bought the High priesthood from Antiochus, and deposed
his brother Onias II. Antiochus was not only interested in monetary
benefit. Jason, himself an avid Hellenist, would become Antiochus' tool in
expanding Hellenistic influence within Jerusalem itself.
Jason encouraged the spread of Hellenistic culture through the
establishment of a gymnasium in the area below the Temple Mount. At the
gymnasium, the study of Greek literature, philosophy, civics, and the
natural sciences was complemented by a classical fitness program.
Gymnastics and wrestling were not only central parts of the study program,
but were also forms of religious worship connected with the pagan cults of
Heracles and Hermes. Sports, as portrayed on red and black Greek vases,
were practiced in the nude. Hellenistic culture, with it's emphasis on an
ideal of physical, sensual perfection, saw the Jewish practice of
circumcision as a barbarous act of mutilation. The FIrst Book of Macabees
(1:14-15) relates how the Hellenized Jewish followers of Jason were so
influenced by Hellenistic attitudes towards Jews and Judaism that they
would undergo a special cosmetic surgery to hide their circumcisions in
order to be able to appear in gymnasium without attracting unwanted
attention. When Jason was replaced as High Priest by Menelaus, a wealthy
financier of the hellenized Tobiad house, the situation rapidly
In 168 BCE, the armies of Antiochus overran Jerusalem. Syrian Greek troops
were moving southward across Judaea towards Egypt. When fighting broke out
in Jerusalem between the followers of Menalaus and those of Jason,
Antiochus exploited the opportunity to attack Jerusalem. In the course of
the Seleucid rampage, the Temple was sacked. The city was near collapse.
Over the next three and a half years, Antiochus implemented a program to
erase Jewish particularism. Inno other area under Seleucid control was a
local culture repressed, outlawed, and nearly brought to the brink of
extinction. Shabbat observance, circumcision, kashrut, and ritual sacrifice
were all outlawed. Jerusalem was turned into a Greek polis, and
the Temple of the God of Israel was rededicated in honor of Antiochus'
namesake and patron, Zeus. In towns and villages throughout the Land,
Antiochus sent troops to enforce the bans on Judaism. The troops were also
to ensure Jewish public participation in sacrifices, most significantly the
sacrifice and consumption of swine, to Zeus as a sign of Jewish allegiance
to Seleucid rule.
Clearly, not all Jews were Hellenizers. Groups of Jewish pietists, known as
the Hassidim (although not related to the modern day Hassidim who
originated in 18th century Easter Europe.) insisted on continued observance
of Jewish law and ritual. They believed that their adherence to the Law
would eventually result in Divine intervention that would remove the Syrian
Greek yoke from the necks of the Jewish people. It was during this period
of bitter hardship that the first examples of Jewish martyrdom are
recorded. Although Jewish tradition places the value of human life above
all else (pikuak nefesh), in times of oppression, a Jew is obligated to die
rather than transgress three basic tenets. First and foremost, one is
obligated to accept death rather than bow to pressure to take another's
life. Secondly, one may not on pain of death partake in any of the sexual
practices are defined by the Mosaic code as immoral (incest, bestiality, or
homosexuality) probably because of their use as forms of worship in pagan
cultures. Lastly, but not less crucial, a Jew may not allow himself to
willingly participate in idolatry. Still today, the stories are told of
mothers watching their sons die rather than betray their unwavering
commitment to their belief in the One God. Scholars have suggested that
story of Daniel, full of historical references to events from the Syrian
Greek period, the story of religious persecution, and willingness to die
rather than accept humiliation, was written to inspire and encourage the
Jewish loyalists of the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus.
Who were the Macabees? In the small town of Modi'in, south of Jerusalem, a
Syrian Greek patrol rode into town to enforce the law of land. An altar to
Zeus was erected in the town square. Sword blades at their necks, the Jews
of Modi'in were forced to partake in the worship of Zeus as their
recognition of Seleucid political rule. A local priest, Mattithias raised
his own sword. Attacking the Seleucid troops, and ripping down the altar of
Zeus, Mattithias also executed a Jews who had bowed before the pagan altar.
In 167 BCE, Mattithias and his five sons gathered a Jewish guerilla army in
open revolt to Seleucid rule. The name - Macabee - may be related to the
Hebrew - Makevet - a hammer - because of the lightning blows that Jewish
rebels rained down on Seleucid forces. Macabee is also an acronym of what
may have been the Jewish slogan for rebellion - Mi Cmocha B'Elim Adonai! -
a central line from the Jewish prayer service - Who is like thee O' God
among the gods!
Mattithias soon became the recognized leader of the Hassidim and the
revolt. For example, when rival Hassidic leaders argued against the
carrying of arms during the Shabbat, Mattithias was able to pass a ruling
that because Jewish individual and communal life were at stake even the
Shabbat must be bent. With the death of Mattithias, his son Judah became
the commander of Jewish insurgent forces. In the countryside surrounding
Jerusalem, at Beit Horon, at Beit Zur, and Emmaus, numerically inferior
Maccabean troops defeated the elephant mounted cavalry of the Syrian
Greeks. In one their later battles at Bet Zur against Antiochus V, Judah's
brother, Elazar, attacked the Seleucid commander's elephant. Elazar
estimated that with their commander dead, the Syrian Greek troops would be
thrown into disarray. He crawled beneath the massive beast, and thrust his
spear into the animals belly. As the animal roared with pain, it collapsed
in a heap, killing both its' rider, and crushing Elazar to death.
After three years of fighting, the Macabees recaptured the Temple Mount
from the Seleucids. They found the Temple vandalized, tainted by the pagan
idols and sacrifices to Zeus. Hanukah means dedication. The holiday marks
the rededication of the Temple by Jewish forces on the 25th of the month of
Kislev in 164 BCE. The legend of the vial of oil is found in a single
Talmudic Source (Shabbat 21b), and is neither mentioned in the books of the
MAcabees nor by the 1st Century Jewish historian, Josephus.
In Second Macabees (2:12), the eight day celebration of Hanuka is explained
as following the example of the eight day dedication ceremonies honoring
the original opening of Solomon's Temple in 956 BCE.
Even with the Temple returned to Jewish hands, the Syrian Greeks and their
Jewish collaborators still controlled large parts of Jerusalem, and most
strategically, the fortress called the Akra. It was only in 141 BCE, after
over 25 years of fighting, that the Maccabean Wars ended. The Akra was
razed, and Seleucid Greek forces were expelled from Jerusalem. Simon became
the first Jewish king to rule and independent Jewish empire since the end
of the 1st Temple Period. The 77 years of Maccabean or Hasmonean rule
signified the last independent Jewish government in the Land of Israel
until the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.