During the additional prayer we recite during Chanukah, Al Hanissim, we thank Hashem and say, “You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah,” but that is not what most people think of when we think of Chanukah. Latkes, Sufganiyot, the Chanukiah, it’s all to celebrate the miracle of the oil, that we mention at the end of Al Hanissim by recalling that Jewish people entered and cleansed the Temple, purified it, and lit the menorah. The prayer ends with the fact that the Rabbis of the time instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise הקב״ה. So why is it that our sages stressed the importance of the military victory, while we today celebrate the miracle of the oil more? This is because the story of Chanukah isn’t so black and white. Chazal placed such an emphasis on the war, and less so on the miracle of the oil because, in every generation, we experience the same battle that the Maccabees fought almost two thousand two hundred years ago. Allow me to explain, but first, we need to take a look at Jewish history and learn the story of the Maccabean revolt.
Originally, in the times of Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire was one united empire. Over time, the empire expanded enormously, and when Alexander the Great was killed, the empire split into three. The Seleucid Greek Empire was based in Syria, and the Ptolemaic Empire had its base in Alexandria, Egypt. For almost two hundred years after the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires sandwiched Judea, neither empire conquering the home of the Jewish people. According to most historians, in approximately 200 B.C.E, the Seleucids got very sick of the Ptolemies occupying the coastline of the Mediterranean and decided to take over. The Seleucid Empire came in with their army and conquered Egypt through to the south of what we know today as modern day Israel. By 197 B.C.E, the war between the Ptolemies and Seleucids. The Seleucids were now in charge. On the way back to their capital in Syria, the Seleucid Empire looted the Temple for the first time, in order to pay their soldiers.
More rural Jews were still all for the Ptolemies that had let them live in peace for the approximately two hundred years they controlled Judea. Wealthier, urban Jews started to get taken in by what the Seleucids are selling about Hellenism. As we just learned, even before Antiochus IV, the Jewish population was already very divided. The Jews who were Hellenized, effectively living as “normal” Greeks, were often those who lived in cities, not those who were peasants living in the countryside. By now, Hellenism is found in almost every walk of life in Judea. The influence of Greek materialistic culture is heavily felt. Urban Jews had to use the Greek language in order to be understood. For many of them, losing their Judaism was a price they were willing to pay for the new, cosmopolitan way of life.
Essentially the whole Maccabean revolt began from a civil dispute between members of two rival families, Jason and Menelaus. Jason’s older brother, Onias III, was the Kohen Gadol. Although Onias had pledged his allegiance to the Ptolemaic Empire during the war, he quickly went to the new king to pledge his allegiance, but, Antiochus wasn’t having any of it. He ordered Onias to be removed from such a high position of power. So Jason bought the right of Kohen Gadol from Antiochus IV, to keep Temple worship going. In return for buying the rights of the Kohen Gadol, Jerusalem was to be turned into a Hellenistic polis to be named “Antioch”, in honour of the king himself. Antiochus III’s order that the Jews were permitted to live by the rules of the Torah was repealed, and all Jews were to live by the dictates of the Polis.
In 171 B.C.E., Menelaus succeeded in buying the office from Antiochus IV. After an armed battle, Jason was forced to flee Jerusalem. Now the Kohen Gadol, Menelaus Tobiads misappropriated funds from the Temple to repay his debt to Antiochus IV. When Jason and Onias find out, they publicly accuse him of robbing the Temple. As revenge, Onias III was murdered by Menelaus’s people. A few months later, Jason came back to depose Menelaus and his army forced Menelaus to seek refuge. Antiochus IV viewed this as a personal attack against his rule. It was then, Antiochus marched into Jerusalem, massacred the inhabitants and conquered the Temple. The Maccabean Revolt, what we know as the story of Chanukah, lasted for seven years between 167 and 160 B.C.E. The war was a battle between g-d fearing, Torah observant Jews, and those hellenized by the Greek Empire. The war between the Maccabees and the Seleucids, was, in reality, an all-out war against assimilation. The fighting began as a result of Antiochus’s decrees forbidding the Jews to observe Shabbat, keep kosher, worship in the Temple, don Tallit and Tefillin, and do Bris Milah. The revolt began in Modiin, by a Kohen named Matisyahu.
Let me take you to that moment. The ruling Seleucids had gathered the people in the centre of the village and ordered the people of Modiin to worship their g-ds. At that moment, everyone was silent. This being a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, most of the people gathered were steadfast in their faith, and would never have considered the thought of worshiping idols in public. Then, one man stepped to the front. Maybe he was visiting from Jerusalem, or a different Polis, but one thing’s for sure. He was completely assimilated, deeply involved in Hellenistic culture. This person was so far removed from his heritage, his people, and his religion that he did not see idol worship as a big deal! Matisyahu HaChashmonai, realizing just how far the nation had fallen and to preserve the honour of g-d stood up and killed the man before he could worship the Greek g-ds. When a Seleucid tried to attack Matisyahu, in retaliation he attacked the government official. As a result, Matisyahu fled to the wilderness with his five sons and called out to the Jewish people who believed in g-d to come join him with the rallying cry “מי לה׳ אלי”. And so, the Maccabees were formed. It is said that the word Maccabee is an acronym for the phrase “מי כמוך באלים ה׳”. After seven years, the Maccabees successfully defeated the Seleucids, restored the Temple, and that is when the miracle of the oil occurred.
Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday not mentioned in the 24 books of the Tanach. It also does not have a tractate in the Talmud that discusses its observances. Instead, it gets a by-the-way mention in Masechet Shabbos. In the context of discussing Shabbat candles, the Chanukah candles and by extension, the holiday itself get their time in the Talmudic spotlight. Do you want to know why? Because Chanukah is not about the military victory or the Menorah. The message of Chanukah is timeless. Throughout the generations, there have been many times that oppressive nations sought to destroy the Jewish people, and we were miraculously saved from their designs. Upon two of these occasions, our sages saw fit to establish an annual holiday commemorating the miraculous salvation, providing us with an opportunity to remember Hashem’s kindness to us, and thank him for saving us. These holidays are Purim and Chanukah.
The Shulchan Aruch, in describing how Chanukah is observed, notes that although it is permissible, and has even become customary, to have a festive meal in honour of Chanukah, this custom is not part of the observance of Chanukah, as originally ordained by the Rabbis. Instead, Chanukah is observed in a more spiritual way, with expressions of thanks and praise of Hashem. This is in contrast to the holiday of Purim when a meal and the exchange of gifts of food are intrinsic to the rabbinically instituted observances of the day. Quoted by the Mishnah Berurah, the Levush explains this incongruity as follows: Purim commemorates the time that Haman, minister to King Achashverosh, enacted a decree calling for the extermination of the entire Jewish people. Had the Jews agreed to renounce their religious practices, and adopt the customs of the nation amongst which they resided, the murderous Haman would not have been satisfied, and would still have called for the annihilation of the Jews. Thus, when Hashem miraculously caused Haman’s fall from power, and the subsequent salvation of the Jews, it was a salvation of their physical beings; their spiritual existence was never in danger. The most appropriate way to express our thanks to Hashem for saving our physical beings is by demonstrating our freedom to enjoy the physical gifts he has provided us with. Indeed, as we see by Purim, even a meal, a normally mundane activity, can take on a new meaning when done with the proper intentions and thoughts.
The oppressive acts of Antiochus and the Seleucids were of a different nature. Had the Jews agreed to abandon their own customs and beliefs, and become integrated into the Greek lifestyle, they would have been left alone. Their oppressors sought only to destroy them spiritually. And so, when Hashem granted Matisyahu and the Hasmoneans victory over the Syrian-Greeks, he was preserving the spirituality of the Jewish nation. Our appreciation for this gift, the opportunity to serve Hashem and recognize him as our G-d, is best acknowledged through spiritual expressions of Hashem’s praise. All of our holiday-related activities on Chanukah should carry this significance with it. Almost two thousand two hundred years ago, the Maccabees literally went to battle to preserve the Jewish people, and stop the spread of assimilation. A 2013 survey conducted in the United States by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project found the intermarriage rate to be 58% among all Jews in the United States. Today, as assimilation becomes a bigger and more pressing issue, we must take the opportunities we are granted to praise Hashem and reaffirm our commitment to Him, and the heritage of our ancestors. While our observance on Chanukah is mainly of a spiritual nature, we should let this holiday and all observances connected with it, whether physical or spiritual, be a point of inspiration to carry us through until we reach the next holiday which celebrates our physical salvation, Purim.
(All dates are approximate and based on current historical data)