Superficially, Hanukkah is a delightful holiday that coincides with and is influenced by the Christmas season. The second most popular Jewish holiday, it is marked by giving presents, especially to children, lighting of candles, music, joy, eating fried foods, particularly potato pancakes. Many young Jews today marry Christians and, consequently, many households observe both Christmas and Hanukkah.
However, Hanukkah is not a major holiday like Christmas. It is not based on biblical sources, and there are no limitations on work that other Jewish holidays have. It is also a very misunderstood holiday, one with a dark side.
This essay is based on a 1,400-year-old source called the Scroll of the Hasmoneans or the Scroll of Antiochus. It was originally written in Aramaic, which suggests an earlier date for its original composition.
One 10th-century rabbinical source dates its origin to the second century BCE, when events of Hanukkah occurred.
Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered most of what is now Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and western Pakistan during the period 336-326 BCE. His conquests were swift and his army penetrated 1,000 miles further east than the Romans ever conquered.
Alexander was tolerant of different religions, but after he died his empire fell apart and was divided among his generals.
A dynasty called the Seleucids took control of southern Turkey, Syria, and Judea (now called Israel). Unlike Alexander, they were intolerant of other religions. King Antiochus IV considered himself a god and wanted his subjects to worship him.
Hanukkah celebrates a Jewish revolt against the Seleucid dynasty, a successful struggle for religious freedom. Its origin was during the reign of Antiochus III in 174 BCE, but fighting began during the reign of Antiochus IV from 167-164 BCE.
The Greeks had forbidden the practice of the Jewish religion, particularly the observance of Sabbath, new moon festivals and circumcision. The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, located where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aska mosque are now, was robbed of its treasures, defiled by the introduction of swine for sacrifices, and dedicated to the Greek god Zeus. Interestingly, the same spot is a source of controversy today.
The Greeks began to introduce their culture, including clothing changes and naked exercises in the gymnasium they built near the Temple. Many Jews admired Greek culture, to the extent that some wanted to reverse their circumcisions. It is beyond my understanding how that could have happened.
The revolt started when Yohanan ben Mattathias, a Jewish high priest assassinated the Greek governor, Nicanor, with a knife. Yohanan and his five sons, called the Maccabees (the hammers), led the revolt against the Greeks.
They erected a column with the inscription. “Maccabee, Destroyer of Tyrants.”
A son, Judah Maccabee, was a major leader of the revolt.
The conflict from 167 to 164 BCE was extremely bloody. The Greeks burned alive 1,000 civilian Jewish men and women in a cave when they refused to surrender. The Jews were observing the Sabbath. The Greeks hanged a Jewish man, woman, and their newborn child because the parents had circumcised the baby. One Jewish mother threw her infant from the walls of Jerusalem and then committed suicide by jumping from the walls herself. She shouted that Jews would never renounce their faith. Others followed her example.
Eventually, the Seleucid armies were defeated. The victorious Jews burned and hanged captured Greek officials, including Bagris, a Greek general who had heavily damaged the Temple in an attack.
Judah Maccabee was killed in battle. The Greeks used mercenaries, pro-Greek Jews, and their ultimate weapon, armored elephants. Judah’s brother Elazar, was killed attacking elephants; his body was eventually found covered by elephant dung.
The Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt following the Greek defeat.
The large gold candelabra in the Temple had only enough holy oil to burn for one day, but when relit it burned for eight days. That is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights. The miracles of the lamp and the victory are commerated.
Hanukkah is a misunderstood holiday. It was both a battle for religious freedom and against cultural assimilation to a larger and to many a more attractive culture. It is ironic that Hanukkah is celebrated in America by assimilated Jews, 90 percent of whom do not observe all of the three religious practices whose proscription triggered the Maccabee revolt.
The independent Jewish state created by the Maccabees (Hashmonean Dynasty) lasted about 100 years before it was divided into client kingdoms, satellites of Imperial Rome
Ironically, Jews are still being murdered in Israel just for being Jews, and Syria is a land filled with violent extremists, ISIS, and a sociopathic dictator, Assad.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Rick Sirvint lives in Rindge.