Chanukah by Rabbi David
Chanukah is celebrated on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The story of Chanukah which took place in the second century BCE, 2200 years ago, is about a Jewish rebellion against the Greek oppressors.
While it is a common belief that originally this rebellion was about the restoration of national independence, it was actually ignited due to religious oppression. At the time of the Maccabee revolt, Greek culture was sweeping through the entire Middle East and beyond, courtesy of Alexander the Great who had established Greek culture everywhere he conquered. The center of his Greek influence was Alexandria, the city he founded in Egypt which bears his name. The Greek influence on the Jews was profound and reached the most conservative circles. In fact, many of our sages in the Mishnah and Talmud, the Jewish masterpiece of legal debates, laws and amendments, had Greek names. Even the leader of the Jewish rebels is better known by his Greek name Mattithias.
Some of the Jewish population was more influenced by the Greek culture then others. This Jewish segment was called Hellenists. The Hellenists were completely immersed in Greek culture. While they were not interested in worshipping Greek idols, they found themselves partaking in Greek idol rituals as part of Greek cultural events in which they participated. This balance between their Jewish monotheistic religion and the Greek culture was fragile. As long as the Greek occupier was not restricting Jewish religious practices, peace was kept in the land. In the second century BCE a ruler by the name of Antiochus changed this delicate balance. He decided that for the safety of his empire and as a means of unification, the Greek religion should be the only one allowed.
In Judea, the reaction to this new policy was mixed. The hardcore Hellenists, of course, accepted it and were willing to forsake the Jewish religion. This segment of the population was fairly large. Although all Jewish religious activities were forbidden including circumcision, Torah study and celebration of Shabbat or any holiday, most of the people were hoping that this policy was only temporary. Most of the people therefore, had a passive attitude and were not willing to fight for their religious freedom.
The Maccabees were a family who lived in a small Judean town called Modiin. The patriarch of the family, Mattithias understood that the Jews were facing dire times. He realized that if nothing would be done, the Hellenists would quickly convert and become Greek. The rest of the population, in the absence of any Jewish life whatsoever would eventually do the same. He and his five sons went from village to village to try to gather an army of rebels, although initially they managed to gather very few people. The group ran to the mountains of the Judean desert and started a raiding campaign against Jewish villages. They forced many of the farmers to join them, threatening to destroy their homes. This tactic worked well. Within a few months the Maccabees had a small untrained army.
Judah, one of the sons who became the leader of the renegades, used a nightly hit- and run tactic against Greek army posts throughout Judea. The rebels gained more experience and their fighting skills improved. As they began to gain more respect from the Judeans, their “recruiting” tactic became unnecessary since many more joined them with the belief that independence from the Greek was actually possible.
Over the course of this three year war, Antiochus brought in huge armies. At times he threw into the war everything and everyone he had. His armies were well trained and well equipped. Judah, however, was a smart tactician . Right from the start he avoided face to face battles and kept raiding the Greek reinforcement units at night, setting their camps on fire. The Macabees quickly became very popular and were joined by a multitude of men.
The holiday of Chanukah is the celebration of Judah’s first face to face major victory which resulted in freeing the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. The cleaning and the spiritual cleansing of the Temple was a major task. This is because the Greeks had turned the holy Temple into a pagan temple. The Temple was filled with filth, Greek statues with pigs and other animals running loose .
In order to complete the cleansing process and rededicate the Temple, the seven branched golden Eternal Light had to be lit. The special purified oil used for that purpose was not available. However, a small oil container was found in the high priest’s chamber. This container had enough oil to last for one day. According to our sages a miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days until a new batch of oil was ready. This of course is the official reason for the eight days of Chanukah celebration.
After the rededication of the Temple, the Maccabees continued their struggle to free the entire country as the three year war spread from Judea to the Galilee. The number of men in the Judean army was no match to the multitude of Greek reinforcement troops that kept coming to face the Maccabees. The rebels had to split their far inferior army into several fronts. Four of the five brothers eventually died in battle. Brother Simon, the only one left, eventually formed the independent Maccabean kingdom which lasted for about seventy years until it was taken over by the Roman army in the year 66 BCE.
It is also interesting to note that while the Maccabees had a clear victory in Jerusalem After years of fighting with no end in sight, the Greek emperor needed his armies for other urgent “missions” elsewhere. He withdrew from the entire Judean territory and in fact, signed an agreement with the Maccabees. .
As we celebrate Chanukah this year and the determination of the Maccabees, may we rededicate ourselves to bringing the LIght of MIracles into our lives! All is possible...