The Story of Hanukkah

To many Americans, Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, perhaps because the two holidays usually fall close to one another. However, thanks to the Jewish lunar calendar, Hanukkah 2010 begins at sundown on December 1, when most folks are still digesting their Thanksgiving turkey. In any case, the Story of Hanukkah is of special significance to the Jewish people. Yet, it should be studied by all who believe in freedom.


Hanukkah is the only major Jewish holiday not based on a Biblical event. The Books of the Maccabees, which chronicle the events that form the historical basis for Hanukkah, are Apocrypha and hence not included in either the Jewish or the Protestant Bible. Though written in Hebrew in the first century before the Christian era, the Books of the Maccabees only survive in Greek.

According to the Talmud, the Hebrews observed a festival during the early winter long before the Maccabees arrived. This precursor to Hanukkah was connected, like the Roman Saturnalia, to the increase in daylight following the winter solstice. Other, more typically Jewish motives connected with this holiday included the kindling of fire, an ancient ritual linked to the dedication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The events that led to the transformation of this ancient holiday into Hanukkah began with Alexander the Great’s death in the year 323 BCE. Through his conquests, Alexander introduced Greek civilization to the peoples of the former Persian Empire, including the Jews. After his death, Alexander’s generals divided his empire. Judea became a bone of contention until 198 BCE, when Antiochus III took the Jewish state and made it a part of the Seleucid empire.

The conquest of Judea by a Hellenistic empire led to an intellectual and spiritual struggle between Hebraic and Hellenic culture. Many Jews adopted Greek ways. Young Jews adopted Greek names, took part in nude sporting events in newly-established gymnasia, studied Greek philosophy, practiced Greek “friendship” and in some cases regained their foreskins through surgery. The Jewish high priest Jason, appointed to his post by Antiochus IV in 175 BCE, was an all-too typical example of this assimilated generation.

On the other hand, there were many Jews who remained faithful to their traditions and prayed for the day when they would be able to re-establish the Jewish Commonwealth. Appalled by the bad example of Jason and his contemporaries, traditional Jews banded together in groups known as the Hasidim or the pious ones – not to be confused with the modern Hasidim. In 168 the Hasidim took advantage of Antiochus’s absence to seize the Temple and cleanse it of pagan idols.

This didn’t go well with Antiochus IV. He returned to Jerusalem, restored Menelaus - Jason’s successor – as high priest and ordered his Jewish subjects to assimilate or else. The Temple was dedicated to Zeus in a ceremony complete with idols and the sacrifice of pigs. Antiochus forbade, under penalty of death, circumcision, Sabbath observance, Torah study and other Jewish customs. Jerusalem was sacked and its people sold into slavery.

Not all Jews submitted to this outrage. One of those who resisted was Mattathias the Hasmonean. When an agent of Antiochus came to the Hasmonean’s village of Modin to order the required sacrifices, Mattathias killed him. Assisted by his five strapping sons Mattathias waged guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his allies.

When Mattathias died, leadership of the Jewish War of Independence was assumed by his son Judah, called the Maccabee or the hammer. The Maccabee and his brethren spread their revolt throughout Judea, killing hellenizers, destroying idols and circumcising boys with or without their permission or that of their parents. In 166 bce, Judah the Hammer defeated a much larger Seleucid force at Emmaus and again at Mizpah. Jerusalem fell without resistance.

Then the Maccabees removed the idols from the Temple, cleaned and rededicated it, restoring the ancient rituals. According to legend, though the Temple only had enough sacramental oil left to light the ritual menorah for one day, the menorah managed to burn miraculously for eight days. Legend or fact, the real miracle of Hanukkah was the Jews’ amazing victory against insuperable odds.

Such is the story of Hanukkah, but history continued. Judah the Maccabee continued his resistance until his death in 163 BCE. His brothers Jonathan and Simon continued fighting until 142, when Demetrius II reluctantly recognized Jewish independence. Alas, the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled the Jewish commonwealth as both kings and high priests until the Roman conquest of 37 BCE, acted like most successful revolutionaries, adopting many of the unsavory traits of the regime that it fought to overthrow. Hasmonean armies conquered surrounding lands, forcing their inhabitants to convert to Judaism, while their rulers enjoyed personal lives that would have shocked Mattathias and his sons.

Fortunately, most Jews did not follow their leaders into corruption. As modified by the Pharisees and Talmudic rabbis the Jewish people survived the Roman conquest and the destruction of the Temple. As for Hanukkah, its message of Jewish strength and patriotism gained a new meaning with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. The reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish rule in 1967 was a repetition of Judah the Maccabees’ victory 21 centuries earlier.

Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and queer activist who lives in South Florida. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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