Today starting at sundown marks the beginning of the first day of the eight days of Hanukkah (Chanukah)–December 12-20, 2017. Hanukkah is one of the more recognizable celebrations of Jewish tradition and is not religious in nature. Rather, Hanukkah celebrates a nation’s heroes and the miracle they experienced. It recognizes the efforts of a group of freedom fighters known as the Maccabees. Here is a brief history of Hanukkah from Chabad.org:
Some 2100 years ago the Land of Israel came under the rule of the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus, who issued a series of decrees designed to force his Hellenistic ideology and rituals upon the Jewish people. He outlawed the study of Torah [the first five books of the Old Testament] and the observance of its commands, and defiled the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with Greek idols.
A small, vastly outnumbered band of Jews waged battle against the mighty Greek armies, and drove them out of the land. When they reclaimed the Holy Temple, on the 25th of Kislev, they wished to light the Temple’s menorah (candelabrum), only to discover that the Greeks had contaminated virtually all of the oil. All that remained was one cruse of pure oil, enough to last one night–and it would take eight days to procure new, pure oil.
Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted eight days and nights, and the holiday of Chanukah [Hanukkah] was established.
To commemorate and publicize these miracles, we light the Chanukah menorah (also known as “chanukiah”) on each of the eight nights of Chanukah. This year, we start lighting the menorah on Tuesday night after nightfall, December 12, 2017 (quote source here).
So who, exactly, is this small, vastly outnumbered band of Jews who waged a battle against the mighty Greek armies and drove them out of the land? They are the freedom fighters known as the Maccabees. The following information on the Maccabees is provided from an article titled, “The Maccabees: The Jewish Freedom Fighters,” on Chabad.org:
The Maccabees were a band of Jewish freedom fighters who freed Judea from the Syrian-Greek occupiers during the Second Temple period. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G-d.” Led by Judah the Maccabee and his four brothers, they trounced the Greek interlopers and restored the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to the service of G-d. Their victory is celebrated during the holiday of Chanukah.
More than 2,000 years ago there was a period of time when the Land of Israel was part of the Syrian-Greek Empire, ruled by the dynasty of the Seleucids. In 174 BCE (3586), Antiochus IV ruled the region. He was called Epiphanes, meaning “the gods’ beloved,” but people called him Epimanes (“madman”), a title more suited to the character of this harsh and cruel king.
Wanting to unify his kingdom through common religion and culture, Antiochus tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing the practice of all Jewish law. He also meddled in the affairs of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, installing idol-worshipping High Priests who paid him handsome tributes.
At that time, Antiochus was also engaged in a successful war against Egypt. But messengers from Rome arrived and commanded him to stop the war, and he had to yield. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a rumor spread that a serious accident had befallen Antiochus. Thinking that he was dead, the people rebelled against Menelaus, the corrupt High Priest, who then fled together with his friends.
Antiochus returned from Egypt enraged by Roman interference with his ambitions. When he heard what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to fall upon the Jews. Thousands of Jews were killed. Antiochus then enacted a series of harsh decrees: Jewish worship was forbidden, and the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. Many brave Jews refused, preferring death.
One day, the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modiin where Mattityahu, a respected and elderly priest, lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant that our G-d made with our ancestors!”
Thereupon, a Hellenized Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar.
Mattityahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened, and would certainly send troops to punish him and his followers. And so, Mattityahu and his sons and friends fled to the hills of Judea.
Judah the Maccabee Strikes Back
All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions, and from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus.
Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue to fight in defense of G-d’s Torah. He asked them to follow the counsel of their brother Shimon the Wise, and their leader in warfare was to be their brother Judah the Strong, or Judah the Maccabee.
The Maccabees won battle after battle, including one in which they fended off an army of more than 40,000 men.
Then the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian vandals. Judah and his followers built a new altar, which he dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in the year 139 BCE (3622).
Since the golden Menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to create light for only one day. By a miracle of G-d, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil was available. That miracle proved that G-d had again taken His people under His protection. In memory of this, our sages appointed these eight days as a holiday of annual thanksgiving and lighting candles.
The Maccabees Rule Judea
The Maccabees and their descendants took the throne of Judea for themselves. This was a problem because they were priests, descendants of Aaron. Their job was to serve in the Holy Temple and guide the people in spiritual matters. It was the place of the descendants of King David, from the tribe of Judah, who were supposed to sit on the royal throne. Indeed, it did not take long until the monarchy of Judea was dragged down into a series of unending power grabs and bloody intrigue, with king after king trying to imitate the very same Greeks their ancestors had ousted from the land.
Yet, for all their shortcomings, the Maccabees leave us with an empowering message that resonates in all times and all places: Never cower in the face of tyranny. Do your part, trust in G-d, and success is sure to come. (Quote source here.)
In an article published today on “The Independent,” titled “Hanukkah 2017: What is the meaning behind this Jewish festival and why is it sometimes called Chanukah?” by Dina Rickman, head of social and trending content at “The Independent,” she states:
They say every major Jewish holiday can be summed up by the following quote: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
In the case of Hanukkah, the story is that of the Maccabees, a guerrilla army of Jewish rebels based in Israel who revolted against the Seleucid Greek King Antiochus who had–as the saying goes–tried to kill us.
The exact historical truth of the religious version of events is disputed, but we do know that King Antiochus and the Maccabees existed. What is less established is whether the miracle described in the Hanukkah story really happened.
Jewish people are taught that the oppressed Maccabees somehow defeated Antiochus’ mighty troops and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem. To celebrate, they attempted a ritual lighting of a seven-pronged Menorah candle–but they only had enough oil to last one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted a full eight days, giving Jews enough time to procure new oil. This is why Hanukkah is known as the festival of lights.
Around 2,000 years on, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah by lighting their Menorah every night for eight days–with the crucial difference being that modern Menorahs–also known as Hanukkiahs–have eight prongs with a large prong, known as a shamash, in the middle. The shamash is used to light one extra candle each night for the eight days. Observing in public is a key part of celebrating the festival. Jewish people are encouraged to place the Menorah in the front window of their home, and some organisations have organised public Menorah lightings.
Now for the most important part, the food. The story of Hanukkah is about oil, so it’s traditional to eat fried goods such as potato latke pancakes or doughnuts.
Because the festival normally falls in December (although there are no guarantees with the Jewish lunisolar calendar), Hanukkah is often known as Jewish Christmas. While gift giving doesn’t have any religious significance on Hanukkah, a tradition has developed to give presents during the festival – normally one for every night–possibly because of where it falls in the calendar.
In 2017 the celebration begins on December 12 and ends on December 20.
Here are five facts you may not know about the festival:
1. Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible
Unlike other major Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
2. Hanukkah means eating doughnuts
To commemorate the miracle of the burning lamp, Jews customarily eat foods fried in oil and this means doughnuts.
3. Chocolate coins
Chocolate coins or gelt (Yiddish for money) wrapped in gold and silver are exchanged at Hanukkah.
4. Spinning the Dreidel
Gelt is also used in a game played with a spinning top called a dreidel at Hanukkah.
Players sit in a circle and put a chocolate coin in the middle. Each person takes a turn at spinning the cube-shaped dreidel, which has a Hebrew letter on each side.
5. Exchanging gifts
Traditionally Jews only exchanged gifts on Purim, a Jewish holiday commemorating the time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination by a young woman called Esther.
However, when Christmas became more prominent in the late 19th century and the Christian holiday’s consumerism grew, the Jewish custom shifted in imitation of Christmas.
In another take on Hanukkah, a December 12, 2012 guest commentary published in Forbes titled, “Hanukkah’s ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ Message Is Universal In Its Appeal,” by Eric Rosenberg, journalist and former national correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, former senior vice president at Ogilvy Washington, and currently principal at EMR Content + Communications Inc., as well as adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, Rosenberg provides an interesting perspective on Hanukkah:
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which is celebrated this week, is compelling for Jews and non-Jews alike because of its clarion call to religious liberty. Anyone remotely versed in American political thought will recognize the spirit of the Hanukkah story, with its “don’t tread on me” quest to worship as one chooses without fear of retribution, in the language of the U.S. Constitution.
Jews and gentiles alike have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. No single demographic has the market cornered on religious persecution. But to Jews, who for nearly two millennia lacked that freedom, they feel a special connection between the Hanukkah story and America’s guarantees of religious freedom.
For Jews, a straight line can be drawn from the Hanukkah experience of the second century BC to the eloquent expressions of religious freedom of the Founding Fathers, many of whom as learned Christian gentlemen of their era were versed in Hebrew and the Jewish canon.
It is an undeniable truth, James Madison wrote, that “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
No citizen, wrote John Adams, “shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshiping God in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.”
George Washington, as the newly installed first U.S. president, wrote the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, assuring congregants that the new nation would be unlike Europe with its widespread religious intolerance and state religion.
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid,” he wrote.
That’s not to say the founders had the Hanukkah story in mind when they created the United States. Of course they didn’t. Rather, like the Passover story, the Hanukkah story has a universality that any good revolutionary would find instructive.
In the second century BC the ancient Jews were overrun by the Assyrians, a Greek proxy in the ancient Middle East. As part of the Assyrian conquest, the Temple in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Jewish worship, was turned into a Greek temple where Jews were further humiliated and forced to eat pig meat and worship Greek idols.
A group of Jews called the Maccabees led an underdog revolt, defeated the Assyrians, and cleared out the Temple of the offensive materials. When the time came to rededicate the Temple for Jewish worship, only one day’s worth of ritual lamp oil was available. The oil, however, burned bright for eight days, enough time to have additional ritual oil made. Thus the second miracle of Hanukkah, the first being that the ancient Jews defeated the numerically and military superior Assyrians, who had the backing of powerful allies.
The Hanukkah story is all the more a paean to religious liberty for the details left off the sanitized version taught to children for generations. For example, the Maccabees were not religious liberals. Modern scholarship has likened them to an ancient Taliban-like band of zealots who had no time for religious tolerance themselves unless it hewed to their own brand of old-time religion.
What’s more, the Maccabees, being pragmatic in search of allies to blunt Greek influence in their country and ensure their power base, sent out diplomatic feelers to an up-and-coming power, the emerging leviathan of the Roman state.
The Maccabee delegation dispatched to Rome met with the top leaders in an attempt to secure their support. “It was natural to solicit the sympathy and support of the great new power in the west,” the scholar Cecil Roth wrote in his “History of the Jews in Italy.”
But it was a fateful decision for the Maccabees with dreadful consequences for religious freedom. As ironies go, it was huge. The people who fought for religious freedom were inviting into their midst the very opposite.
Over time, as the Maccabee reign descended into civil war, Roman legions marched on Jerusalem in support of their clients and they never left. In the year 70 AD, after years of revolt from the locals, the Romans destroyed the Temple the Greeks had temporarily occupied, decimated the population, enslaved what was left, and thoroughly obliterated the Jewish world’s epicenter, thus robbing the Jews of the guarantee of religious freedom–until the founding of the United States.
The lesson of Hanukkah and what came after is a poignant one. And it is probably best summed up in a quote sometimes attributed to another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” (Quote source here.)
With that in mind, as we celebrate Hanukkah, let us remember the key message of the Maccabees as freedom fighters as stated at the end of the second article of this post, which is to . . .
Never cower in the face of tyranny . . .
Do your part and trust in God . . .
And success is sure to come . . . .
YouTube Video: “Candlelight – Hanukkah” by The Maccabeats: