The Story of Chanuka


Chanukah Menorah


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"Thus Shall Be Your Descendants"

by Yisrael Rutman

From 168 BCE, the Syrian Greeks and their assimilated Jewish allies waged a brutal campaign to impose their alien way of life on the Jewish people in the land of Israel. In addition to occupying and turning the Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan temple (commencing on the 25th of Kislev 168 BCE, swine was offered on the altar), they outlawed Shabbat observance, circumcision and sanctification of the new moon (on which the entire Jewish calendar and its festivals depend).

Those who dared defy the rulings were subject to frightful punishment. Women who circumcised their children were put to death, with their infants tied to their necks; their families as well as those who had performed the circumcision were killed. In this context that Hannah and her seven sons martyred themselves by refusing to partake of pig's meat in the presence of King Antiochus himself. Infuriated by their stubborn loyalty to the Torah, the king had all seven of Hannah's sons tortured to death. Hannah herself encouraged them in their brave defiance; in the end, overcome by grief, she took her own life.

Seduced by the powerful attractions of Greek culture, intimidated by overwhelming force, most of the Jewish population in Israel at the time gave in to the "glory that was Greece." (The "grandeur that was Rome" had its equally brutal turn some two centuries later.)

In the year 166 BCE, however, one man changed the course of history. Mattityahu the Hasmonean, son of Yochanan the High Priest, stood up against the might of empire. Outraged by the sight of yet another Jew offering a pagan sacrifice, Mattityahu took a sword and slew the Jewish renegade, along with Syrian emissaries of the king. He followed this act with the stirring proclamation: "Whoever is zealous for the Torah and is steadfast in the Covenant let him follow me!" Thus began the revolt which we commemorate to this day.

Mattityahu died in the following year; but his five sons, including Judah, the acknowledged leader, carried on in the cause. Against the tens of thousands of professionally trained and well-equipped soldiers of the Syrian Greek armies, the pitiful little band of rebels seemed to have no chance of success. But although they fought as an army fights, they put their trust in God. They understood that victory or defeat would ultimately be decided by Him. On the eve of battle they prepared themselves with fasting and prayer. In keeping with Torah law (Deuteronomy 20:1-9), Yehudah exempted those who had recently married, built houses or planted vineyards from serving in his army. The name Macabbee itself was taken from a verse in the Torah (Exodus 15:11), mi kamocha b'elim (Who is like You among the heavenly powers, O God!). This is the Macabbee whose valor we recall on Chanukah in the prayer that reads, in part:

…You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah…

The great courage of the Hasmoneans is recounted in the Scroll of the Hasmoneans and other chronicles and has been a source of inspiration to the Jewish people throughout the generations of an exile replete with cruel oppression. Yet, the Talmud in its discussion of Chanukah does not focus on their extraordinary, divinely assisted military victory. Instead, it points to the miracle of the vessel of oil that burned for eight days in the Temple as the essence of the festival of Chanukah---"the festival of lights."

Traditionally, the explanation for this seeming slight of the military dimension of the miracles of those days has been that it was a passing triumph. For one thing, the war did not end in 165. It was not until 142 BCE that the Greeks were finally driven out. The rule of the Hasmoneans eventually went into decline, giving way to internal rivalry and internecine strife, of which the Romans took full advantage. To be sure, it took two hundred years before the Hasmonean dynasty was to be completely destroyed, but destroyed it was, along with Jerusalem and the Temple.

The miracle of the oil, by contrast, has never been extinguished. Nothing can ever efface the purity of the event, of one day's supply of oil burning for eight days.

But in the symbolism of the oil is also contained the idea of a single remnant saving all of Israel. The Temple, with its altars and vessels and all of its oil had been defiled by the pagan occupier. After they had been driven out, only one small vessel of oil could be discovered that still bore the unbroken seal of purity of the High Priest. All of the sacred thoughts, of the inner spiritual life of Israel had been defiled by the alien culture. Only one small, precious chamber of purity remained. This is the light within us that continues to burn no matter how much has been lost and destroyed.

This theme of the righteous few defying the immoral majority exists at the very beginning of the story of the Jewish people, centuries before the Hasmoneans. Abraham was called HaIvri, which means that he stood on one side of the world - everyone else on the other. He stood up for the belief in one God; they all believed in idols. More than once, the powers-that-be tried to kill him and eradicate his iconoclastic system; but thanks to divine assistance, Abraham not only survived but triumphed in his establishment of the monotheistic idea and a special people to carry it forth in the world.

At one point, Abraham asks of God where are the children He had promised him? Abraham is taken outside of his tent, shown the stars in the sky and told by God, "Count the stars, if you can, for thus will be your descendants." Abraham has been asked to do what seems to be the impossible. Who can count the stars in the sky? Yet, because God asks it of him, he will do it. If so, he is told, thus will be your descendants. They, too, will be servants of God, who will do the impossible, as long as they know it is the will of God.

The Hebrew word for thus in the verse is . The numerical value of the letters is 25. This is an allusion to the 25th of Kislev, the day that the Hasmoneans won their victory over the Greeks, and the day in the Jewish calendar on which we begin celebrating Chanukah each year. For it was in the days of the Hasmoneans when one man stood up against the enemies of the Jewish people, and like Abraham dedicated himself to attempt the impossible. It was one man against the world; but because Mattityahu understood it to be the will of God, the fulfillment of the covenant of Abraham, he knew that it had to be done and that ultimately he would succeed, no matter what the odds.

It is that spiritual valor which we commemorate each year in the festival of lights. We, too, can take inspiration from their great deeds. And we need that inspiration. For we, too, are isolated as a people, surrounded by enemies dedicated to our destruction, both physically and spiritually. We must know that no matter how dark it may get, the light will burn and never be extinguished.


from the December 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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