Hanukah starts on Sunday night, December 18. Hanukah is usually celebrated during the “Christmas season.” This coincidence makes the Jewish holiday very significant in the US, probably more so than in Israel. Here, the holiday is mostly noted by the ubiquitous appearance of oily donuts, jelly ones and more fanciful ones alike, plus lots of lights. There is a school holiday at that time and there is gift-giving (the most common gift is probably “gelt,” a monetary gift). This year Christmas actually occurs during Hanukah. That’s the end of the similarities, because our Jewish holiday’s history is a sequel of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 4th century BCE, long before the Christian era.
There are several aspects to this significant holiday which aren’t apparent to the casual lighter of the eight-branched menorah. There’s at least three components of the holiday: the military clash between traditional Jews against the Greek conquerors and assimilated, Hellenized Jews during the Seleucid Empire period; the miracle ascribed to a 1-day cruse of oil lasting for 8 days when the Temple was rededicated; plus the late 19th and 20th century Zionist slant on the holiday, celebrating the Maccabi-led uprising against the powerful Greeks, an inspiration for modern Jews’ military prowess.
The Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE) was the vast political entity established by Seleucus I Nicator. He was one of the four generals of Alexander the Great who claimed a part of his empire after the young Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. Seleucus I finished what Alexander had set out to do by creating a multi-national empire, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus Valley, which merged eastern and western cultures harmoniously. The other three empires – headed by three other generals – encompassed Greece, Thrace-Anatolia, and Ptolemaic Egypt.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BCE), a direct descendant of Seleucus I, disregarded his ancestor’s respect for the religious customs of the people of the empire. He ordered that the Jews’ Holy Temple should be dedicated to him and decreed that sacrifices made in the Temple would be in his honor.
At this time, conflict was peaking in Seleucid-ruled Judea between traditional Jews who sought to maintain their religious and cultural heritage and Hellenized Jews who had adopted Seleucid mannerisms and customs.
The unacceptable edict of Antiochus IV provoked a severe response. “This action [desecrating the Temple] prompted the Maccabean Revolt (c.168 -160 BCE), led by Judas Maccabaeus, to restore Judaism and rededicate the temple, an event commemorated in the present day by the festival of Hanukah. Antiochus IV was unable to restore order after causing the chaos, dying in 163 BCE and leaving the problems of the rise of the Hasmonean Dynasty in Judea and the ever-shrinking empire to his successors.” (https://www.worldhistory.org/Seleucid_Empire/)
The relations between the Jews and Alexander the Great had been fruitful. But the dominance of the Hellenistic culture eroded the essence of Judaism. The assimilated Jews (Hellenists) embraced Greek culture at the expense of Judaism. As many as a third or more succumbed to Hellenism. Many of those, reversed their circumcision, ate pork, bowed to idols and even became self-hating enough to side with the enemies of Israel. “Hellenism threatened to annihilate the Jewish world through assimilation in ways tyrants tried but could not do by force.” This recurring tide of succumbing to a host culture continues until today. I believe it is one of the main reasons that we Jews remain a tiny people, about .2% of humanity.
Antiochus IV’s Greek army collected onerous taxes. They forced the Jews to quarter Greek soldiers in their homes. Eventually the Greeks determined to crush the Jewish religion in full. They took a statue of Zeus and mounted it in the courtyard of the Temple. They banned the observance of the Sabbath on the pain of death. There was even a period of time which lasted a number of decades when the Greek officer in town had the right to “live” with a woman on her wedding night before her husband-to-be.
Circumcision was banned for father and son, punishable by death. Then the Greeks demanded the building of altars to the Greek idols be established and sacrifices be offered on a regular basis in every Jewish town. Finally, the Jewish educational system, an essential of the society, was entirely disrupted.
About the year 166 BCE, a group finally stood up to the Greeks: Matisyahu (Mattathias) and his family, known as the Hasmoneans. They were of noble descent from the priestly class (Kohanim), which included those who had served as High Priests. They lived in a small town called Modi’in, about 12 miles northwest from Jerusalem and near modern-day Modi’in.
“One day, a Greek contingent marched in, set up an altar, gathered all the Jews and forced them to sacrifice a pig to Zeus. They then asked for a Jewish volunteer to perform the sacrifice. One stepped forward. As he approached the altar Matisyahu stabbed him to death. Chaos broke out. The Greek army attempted to subdue the crowd, but the Jews were armed and slaughtered the entire Greek patrol. There was no turning back…”
Matisyahu and his five sons were pious, committed Jews and great leaders. They hid in nearby caves (you can tour them today) and organized an army to fight a guerrilla war against the mighty Greek army. Their force of about 3,000 men eventually doubled, but never reached more than 12,000.
This small force, led by the redoubtable Judah, known to the world as Judah the Maccabee (Hammer), faced a Greek-Syrians army of nearly 50,000 soldiers. But the Maccabees’ hit and run tactics eventually forced the Greeks to divide into various smaller groups, killing many thousands and forcing the survivors to flee north to Syria. It took many years, but eventually the Greeks were vanquished by the one surviving brother, Simon.
The last famous battle was for the fortress of Antonius, which guarded the Temple. When Antonius fell, the Jews returned to their Temple, shattering the statue of Zeus. They cleaned the Temple as much they could while exiling or executing any priests who had assisted the Greeks.
Only one small flask of uncontaminated oil with the seal of the High Priest was found, only enough to burn for one day. Miraculously it burned for eight days, which is why Hanukah lasts eight nights. The festival was established just a year later by the Rabbis.
Surprisingly, the Talmud says little about these historic events. References to the Hanukah story are gleaned from the Books of Maccabees First and Second. The Talmud does say to “advertise the miracle.” The Hanukah menorahs are publicly displayed in peoples’ windows, so that passerbys will remember that a miracle took place. (https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-miracle-of-chanukah/)
It’s vital to keep the wonder in Hanukah. That’s why ancient rabbis gave more emphasis to the miracle of the lights than the military victory. However, the modern secular Zionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in search of heroes with physical prowess exemplified by their deeds. The Hanukah revolt became the model for the ‘new Jew,’ an earthy protagonist whose stirring deeds would be memorialized on the battlefield as well as recorded in books.
Today we celebrate both aspects of this festival of lights, miracles and independence. Just remember that Hanukah isn’t about commercialism, but about the miracle of enduring Jewish life. Happy Hanukah to all my Jewish readers!