Hanukkah. Such a fun, family-oriented holiday. We gather to light the menorah, we play dreidel, we eat latkes, and we sing holiday songs. But if we analyze the events surrounding the holiday — especially the continuation of the story after the big miracle took place — we will find a penetrating lesson which has never been more relevant.
On Hanukkah, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple after it was defiled by the Greeks. We focus on the miracle of one day’s worth of pure oil that lasted for eight days until new, pure oil could be produced. We also celebrate the miracle of a small band of Jewish soldiers defeating the Greek army, enabling the recapture and re-dedication of the Temple. This took place in the year 165 BCE.
What led to that moment? The Jews who returned from the 70-year Babylonian exile rebuilt the Temple in 353 BCE, while remaining under the rule of the Persian Empire. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire brought him to the land of Israel which he conquered with ease. Following Alexander’s death in 313 BCE, the empire was divided among his four generals, and Israel was given to Seleucus I.
Significant tension developed among the Jews. The influence of the Greek culture was quite strong and a group called the Hellenists sought to assimilate into Greek society. This led to the development of new Jewish groups called the Sadducees and the Boesthusians who rejected traditional religious practice and ideology.
The throne of the Seleucid dynasty eventually fell to Antiochus IV who sought to impose Greek culture on the entire empire. The high priest’s brother, Yeshua, who Hellenized and changed his name to Jason, offered the new king a large bribe to appoint him to the position of high priest. The king agreed, and Jason began to eliminate traditional Jewish worship from the Temple. Jason sent his friend Menelaus to continue to bribe Antiochus, but Menelaus double crossed Jason, offering his own bribe to be named high priest which Antiochus granted. The people of Israel were shocked, as Menelaus was not even from the priestly family! Menelaus sold the Temple’s golden vessels in order to pay for the bribe, and all of his steps led to tensions among the Jews and great internal bloodshed.
In 169 BCE, Antiochus conquered Egypt. Rumors spread that the king was killed during his battle against Egypt, and Jason, the deposed high priest, saw the king’s death as an opportunity to take back his position. Attacking Jerusalem with 1,000 soldiers, Jason forced Menelaus and his men to retreat to the citadel, a fortress near the Temple, and massacred the city’s inhabitants. Antiochus — still very much alive — heard about Jason’s action, and stormed into Jerusalem killing 40,000 people while Jason fled. Enraged, Antiochus entered the Temple and removed all remaining holy vessels including the gold altar and the Menorah. He then reinstated Menelaus as the high priest, and compelled his to sacrifice swine upon its altar.
He then ordered all citizens to give up their religious practices and customs, and demanded that everyone live according to Greek culture. The specific orders included prohibiting Sabbath observance, observance of dietary laws, and circumcision. He sent specific instructions that the sacrificial service in the Temple cease, that altars and temples should be set up throughout the land for pagan worship, and that the Temple itself be converted into a pagan temple. This led to Mattityahu instructing his five sons, led by Judah, to gather forces and battle against the Greeks, ultimately leading to the re-dedication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil.
But despite Judah the Maccabee’s military victory, Greek forces along with Jewish sympathizers to the Greek cause remained in a fortress near the Temple, periodically fighting with the Jewish population in an attempt to disrupt the Temple service. In 162 BCE, Judah besieged this fortress, while the people inside managed to send a message to Antiochus V — son of the Greek king who initially defiled the Temple — and convinced him that Judah’s move was a revolt against the Greek throne. Antiochus arrived in Israel with 100,000 soldiers, and the ensuing battle was fierce, claiming the life of one of Judah’s four brothers, Elazar. But the Jewish soldiers held their own. A peace treaty was eventually brokered between Antiochus V and the Jews, which included allowing the Jews freedom to worship as they chose. Megillat Taanit declares the 28th of Shvat, the date upon which this occurred, as a festival.
In 161 BCE, Demetrius I, a nephew of Antiochus IV, executed Antiochus V, established himself as ruler of the Greek empire, and rejected the validity of the treaty which Antiochus had made with the Jews. Alcimus, a Jew from a priestly family who aspired to serve as the high priest and who sympathized with the Greeks, met with the new king and convinced him to attack Judah and his forces.
The king sent one of his top officials to lead his troops against Judah accompanied by Alcimus, who sent messages of peace to Judah and the Jewish population. The Jews could not imagine that a fellow Jew and priest would betray them, but when the Jewish leaders came to greet them, they were immediately executed. Judah’s forces were caught completely by surprise which enabled the Greeks to arrest and execute additional Jewish leaders and to retake control of Jerusalem.
Judah called his forces together to battle the Greeks. Demetrius I sent Nikanor, one of his top generals, to lead the battle but the undermanned Jewish army managed to kill Nikanor and defeat the Greek army. This event is noted in Megillat Taanit as having taken place on the 13th of Adar, and the day was designated as a festival.
A few months later, Demetrius sent another army to fight against Judah and his forces. Judah was killed and the Jewish forces were defeated. Alcimus was appointed to lead the country, and he took revenge against those who were loyal to Judah. Judah’s three surviving brothers – Yonatah, Yochanan, and Shimon — fled to the Judean desert to regroup, though during this period Yochanan was killed in a minor skirmish. Alcimus died a year later, but despite a relative calm pervading the land for the next two years, the Greek sympathizers convinced Demetrius to rid the land of the “religious zealots” symbolized by the two surviving Maccabee sons. The Jewish forces put up a strong fight from their fortified area near Bethlehem, and when Yonatan sent the Greek leaders an offer of peace, they accepted the deal. Yonatan then brought his forces closer to Jerusalem and reorganized himself from there.
At this time, a man named Alexander Balas appeared on the scene claiming to be the son of Antiochus IV and the rightful heir to the throne. He received the support of the leaders of Egypt and other regional powers who opposed Demetrius. Seeking to sure up his shaky throne, Demetrius reached out to Yonatan and allowed him to raise an army and rule the land. Balas heard about this, and in an effort to gain Yonatan’s support, he offered Yonatan the position of high priest. Yonatan chose to support Alexander and the holiday of Sukkot in 152 BCE, Yonatan wore the clothing of the high priest and performed the Temple service.
The battle for control over the empire continued. Demetrius II, son of the executed king, led a rebellion against Balas and defeated him. Demetrius II quickly lost his popularity, and Triphon, one of Balas’ supporters who desired to restore the Seleucid dynasty to its earlier glory which included taking control of Israel, led the way for Balas’ son, Antiochus VI, to depose Demetrius. Triphon marched his Greek army into Israel and was met by Yonatan and his army of 40,000 men in Bet Shan. Fearing defeat, Triphon convinced Yonatan that he had peaceful intentions. Yonatan agreed to meet with him, but at the meeting Triphon arrested Yonatan and eventually killed him.
The one remaining Maccabee brother, Shimon, fought a long war against Triphon and the Greek forces, and in 142 BCE he defeated them. The Greek sympathizers in the fortress near the Temple had no forces in the region to help them, and out of desperation and fear of hunger they reached out to Shimon for assistance. Shimon granted them immunity, and the Jewish forces entered the fortress on the 23rd of Iyar, a date designated as a festival in Megilat Taanit. On the 18th of Elul in 140 BCE, a full 25 years after the Hanukkah miracle took place, Shimon was named “prince of Israel” by a unified nation – that is, until the Jews split into many different groups over how to deal with the Roman Empire. And that split led to the destruction of the Second Temple and exile from the land.
Geo-political turmoil in the Middle East, tensions surrounding religion and state, extremists versus moderates, ego battles, and classic antisemitism. Sound familiar? In the “al hanisim” prayer recited on Hanukkah we say “in those days in this time.” Many may say that we are still waiting for our Hanukkah miracle. I believe we have already experienced it with the establishment, survival, and flourishing of the State of Israel. Now the question remains: Will we make the same mistakes which our ancestors made after the original Hanukkah miracle and essentially negate its significance with infighting and polarization for decades, or will we grab hold of the remarkable opportunity provided by the magnificent times in which we live, and despite differences in ideology and belief, unify around our shared, common goals.
The choice is ours.
(Sources: Book of the Maccabees, Josephus, Megillat Taanit)