The Tabernacle Times
November 2017 ......................... Cheshvan - Kislev 5778 ......................... Volume 12 Issue 11

The History of Hanukkah

Angela Kunkel
Angela Kunkel
  Hanukkah (Dedication) is the eight day festival that begins on the 25th day of Kislev and commemorates the victory of Judah Maccabee and his followers over the army of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. In the fourth century B.C.E, Greek forces under Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, including the Near East and Israel. When Alexander died in 320, leaving no sons to succeed him, a bitter 20-year power struggle between his two leading generals resulted in  On this joyous festival, a full Hallel (prayer from Psalms 113-118) is recited on each of the eight days, Tachanun (Prayers of supplication) is not said, and fasting is prohibited; in traditional communities, it is even forbidden to eulogize
the dead.

Ironically, the ritual that is now most closely associated with Hanukkah—the kindling of lights— is not mentioned in any of the historical works describing the rededication of the Temple. Only later in the Talmud is there the first mention of the legend that when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they discovered that the Syrian-Greeks had defiled all the jugs of oil for lighting the menorah (Shab.21b). After much searching, they found a single small cruse of oil still bearing the
Ptolemy ruling Egypt and Seleucus controlling Syria. The Land of Israel, the crossroads of the ancient world, came under Seleucid domination.

The historical basis of Hanukkah is found in the two books of the Maccabees. These books are part of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a group of fourteen books of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) that Judaism did not include in the Bible but were accepted by the Catholic Church. In 168 B.C.E, king Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to Hellenize all of the peoples under his rule. He outlawed the practice of such Jewish rituals as Sabbath observance and circumcision and converted the Temple into a pagan shrine by instituting the worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. Many Jews enthusiastically accepted the Greek customs, while others resisted Hellenism and died as martyrs.

When a Jew in the village of Modi’in prepared to perform the idolatrous act of pig sacrifice, Mattathias, a respected elderly Kohen, became so furious that he slew him. With his five sons, Mattathias retreated to the mountains and fought a guerrilla war against the Syrian-Greeks and their Jewish allies. After Mattathias’s death, the leadership of the band passed to his third son, Judah, who waged a brave and brilliant campaign that eventually led to the defeat of the Seleucids.

Judah was given the name “Maccabee”, which may have been derived from the Hebrew word “makov” (hammer) and thus have been a testament to his imposing strength. Another explanation is that Maccabee is an acrostic for the first letters of the Hebrew words Mi Kamocha ba’elim Adonai (“Who is like You, O L~rd, among the mighty”: Exodus 15:11), which is recited daily before the morning and evening Amidah as part of the Song of the Sea.

Judah and his comrades finally liberated Jerusalem and began to purify the Temple. The defiled altar was demolished and a new one built, and new holy vessels were prepared. On the 25th of Kislev, the third anniversary of the harsh decrees that sparked the uprising, the Temple was joyfully rededicated and its sacrificial service renewed. According to the Mishnah, this task took eight days, and thus the festival of Hanukkah is observed for that long. Another explanation is that the eight days of dedication ceremonies were modeled after the consecration of the Temple of Solomon during Sukkot (2 Maccabee 12), a holiday that the Maccabees could not observe while they were still fighting as fugitives in the mountains of Judea (2 Maccabee 10:6-8). The Haftarah reading (Zechariah 2:14-4:7) for the Sabbath of Hanukkah contains the verse, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the L~rd of Hosts” —a prophesy of the spiritual victory of G~d in every generation.

            (Continued at top of next column)
  unbroken seal of the Kohen Gadol. However, this cruse contained only enough oil to keep the menorah burning for a single day. Miraculously, the menorah flame continued to burn for eight days until new pure oil could be prepared. To commemorate this event, the Rabbis decreed that the holiday would be observed annually by kindling the lights for eight days, and Hanukkah became known as the Festival of Lights.

Happy Hanukkah

The Talmud focuses completely on the miracle of the oil, omitting all references to the incredible military victory of Judah the Maccabee and the Hasmoneans, the family name of the Maccabees and their descendants. This may reflect the fact that it was composed after the disastrous revolts against Rome in 70 C.E, when the Second Temple was destroyed, and in 135, when the Bar Kokhba rebellion failed. By censoring the inspiring story of how a small number of Jews successfully overcame a powerful enemy, the Rabbis hoped to discourage any thoughts of another doomed attempt at overthrowing Roman rule. Furthermore, the Rabbis condemned the re-establishment of the monarchy by the Hasmoneans after their victory over the Syrian-Greeks. According to Jewish tradition, only members of the House of David (descendants of the tribe of Judah) could legitimately lay claim to the throne of Israel, and the Hasmoneans did not possess that lineage.

Nevertheless, the tale of the Maccabees never totally disappeared from Hanukkah. On each day of the festival, Al ha-Nissim (For the Miracles) is recited in the Amidah and during the Grace after Meals. This summary of the story of Hanukkah emphasizes the military victory, mentions lighting the Temple Menorah only incidentally, and makes no reference to the miracle of oil. In Israel, Hanukkah has become a symbol of national liberation and the triumphant Jewish spirit. This view is reflected in a torchlight marathon from Modi’in, where the rebellion broke out and the Hasmoneans are buried, to Jerusalem.
Stay tuned next month for more about Hanukkah customs, kindling the Hanukkah lights, the Maoz Tzur, and the dreidel.

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