The night of November 28 marked the beginning of what is perhaps one of the best-known Jewish holidays, Hanukkah, during which we light one candle each day for eight days on a menorah (an eight-branched candlestick) to commemorate a miracle that happened more than 2,000 years ago and whose message of freedom and hope is still relevant today.
For those unfamiliar with the history of this wonderful holiday, it is worth knowing that in the middle of the second century BCE, a vastly outnumbered, faithful to tradition, and spontaneously assembled Jewish army defeated the Syrian-Greek army that had been dominating the Holy Land.
Antiochus III, the leader of the Seleucid dynasty, who ruled from 222-186 BCE, successfully gained control of the land from the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy, who had previously ruled Israel. The Jews were initially relieved by the new leadership, but later, when the Romans defeated Antiochus III’s armies and forced him to pay heavy taxes, the ruler shifted the burden of paying taxes onto the people of his empire.
When Antiochus died, his son Seleucus IV took over, further increasing the pressure on the Jews begun by his father.
However, in addition to the external threats, an internal conflict also plagued Jewry. Jews who accepted and welcomed Hellenization were becoming more numerous, idolatry was making headway, and Greek culture seemed to be displacing the ancient Jewish tradition.
After a short time, Seleucus was killed and his brother Antiochus IV began to rule Syria. Antiochus was a tyrant with a violent temper, despising those of other faiths and adding the epithet Epiphanes, “God Manifest” or “the Glorious,” to his name.
Antiochus also introduced a number of decrees more brutal than previous ones and removed the high priest Yochanan, who led services in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, from his position, replacing him with Yochanan‘s brother, the highly Hellenized Joshua, who even changed his name to the Greek-sounding Jason.
However, he was not kept in office for long by the Syrian-Greek leadership, and Menelaus took over as high priest, promising to pay more taxes to the king. Menelaus was extremely zealous and had the former high priest Yochanan, who was constantly protesting, killed.
Menelaus’ career was ended when a false rumor began to circulate in Judea that Antiochus had been killed during a campaign against Egypt, forcing the corrupt Menelaus to flee.
But Antiochus had not died, he was alive and prospering. Hearing that the Jews, loyal to their tradition, were trying to exploit the news of his death and turn against the empire, he sent troops into Judea, and his soldiers slaughtered thousands of Jews in a bloody act of revenge. The king’s fury was not abated, and he introduced regulations aimed at the elimination of all Jewish traditions and the eradication of the Jewish religion. The public practice of all Jewish religious customs was punishable by death. Circumcision, public Torah study and kosher rules were abolished. Thousands of Jews died in defiance of the strict laws, including the famous Rabbi Eliezer from the Mishnah and Hannah and her seven sons, whose story of self-sacrifice has been told ever since.
When Antiochus’s soldiers arrived in the now thriving town of Modi’in, less than 30 kilometers from Jerusalem, and gathered the Jews in the main square and forced them to sacrifice a pig to the Greek pagan gods, no one was up to the task. When a Hellenized Jew did step forward to do the bidding, Matisyahu, himself from a priestly family, struck the traitor with his sword. Matisyahu‘s sons then also took up the sword and slaughtered the Syrian-Greek soldiers before they realized what was happening, starting a popular uprising that soon swept across the country.
Knowing that Antiochus would put a price on their heads as soon as he heard of what had happened, Matisyahu and his five sons, Judah, Elazar, Shimon, Jochanan and Jonathan, fled the city of Modi’in and took refuge in the Judean mountains. They were joined by a handful of dedicated Jews, forming a small guerrilla army.
However, Matisyahu met his fate while on the run, and before his death, he made his firstborn son Judah the leader of the group. The name of the family, which had been Hasmonean, was then changed to Maccabee, which is considered an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, O G‑d” (Mi Komocha Baelim Hashem) and is also said to come from the Hebrew word for “hammer” (makav).
As predicted, Antiochus was angered. As a general, he sent Apollonius against the rebellious Jews in Judea, but his army was easily defeated by the army of Maccabees. Of course, the Maccabees had by this time been joined by Jews from other cities, all of whom were fighting against the oppression. The other corps sent by Antiochus had also been defeated, with Judah Maccabee fighting heroically and with dedication against a Syrian-Greek army of some 40,000 soldiers. The final battle was fought at Mizpah, the same place where the prophet Samuel had offered sacrifice to God after the victorious battle against the Philistines.
The army of Maccabees advanced as far as Jerusalem, liberated the Holy Temple and cleansed it of the pagan idols placed there by the Syrian-Greeks and the pro-assimilationist Jews. All this happened in the year 139 BCE, on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar.
The Maccabees, who themselves came from a priestly family, immediately sought to restore the sacrificial order of the Temple as it had been ordained in the time of Moses. One of the sacred objects was the menorah, a candlestick made of pure gold, which had been stolen earlier by the Syrian-Greeks because of its extraordinary value. Therefore, the Maccabees, having no choice, made a much “cheaper” menorah. However, there was only one jar of the oil that still bore the seal of the high priest Yochanan, enough for only one day. It would have taken days to make new oil, but by a divine miracle, this one day’s worth of oil burned in the candelabra for eight days, symbolizing that God was fighting on the side of the Jewish people.
It was thus proclaimed by the rabbis of the time that candles should be lit in every Jewish home for eight nights, beginning on the evening of the 25th of Kislev, to celebrate and commemorate the miraculous battles, the brave stand against incredible odds, and the re-dedication of the Sanctuary and to proclaim the victory of tradition and faith over infidelity and impious ambition.
Hanukkah is therefore a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is around this time that the hours of sunshine begin to lengthen again, slowly dispersing the darkness to make way for the light that brings freedom and hope.