The History of Chanukah


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Chanukkah and History

By Barry Lazar

To understand historically what happened that there is something we call Chanukah, we must first know a small bit about Greek history. Alexander The Great conquered most of the known world. Alexander was a Greek. He basically conquered the land of Israel (or as some prefer to call it, Judah) but left the Jewish people to live their own life in the traditions of their fathers. When he died, approximately in 315 B.C.E., the Greek kingdom was split into three by the three men who took over from him, Seleucus, Ptolemy and Antigonus. Antigonus took the area around Greece, Seleucus took the area around Syria which is called the Seleucid empire. The third, Ptolemy, took the area around Egypt, called the Ptolemaic empire. The latter two were rivals for conquering the land and people of Israel.

At the same time the culture of the Greeks was spreading through out the entire world. It was a culture based on sport, war and worship of rulers. The Greek culture boasted a society rich in study and philosophy, art and beauty. They built magnificent building and sport arenas. Sport was basically performed in the nude and steeped with worship of the pagan gods. The Jewish people slowly began to split into two groups. One was the Hellenists, the Jews who enjoyed the beauty and splendor of the Greek culture and society. The second group, were the traditional Jews who followed in their fathers' ways. They tried to ignore the slowly growing Greek culture and society which was slowly establishing its roots in the land of Israel.

The two separate Greek empires developed followers amongst the Jewish populace as the empires showed favors upon their supporters. During this time there were many wars for the control of Israel. The object of these wars was generally monetary. The victim of the wars had to pay a tax or a tribute to the victor.

The monetary powers in Israel were divided into two. One was the High Priest, who had say over the monies that were brought into the Temple. The second was the inevitable tax collector. The tax collector in ancient times was an office that was bought by promising the ruler a specific amount of gold. The ruler would then give the tax collector the authority to collect from the populace, and an army of mercenaries to enforce the demands of the tax collector.

As long as the two were separate, the Temple was run properly. But as it is, were there is money there is corruption. When the pious priests died, the office of the High Priest was sold to the highest bidder. The person buying the office was no longer pious, but used the office for his own gains. Slowly the Hellenists grew in power due manly to the support they received from the various empires which supported them and infiltrated the Temple and its Service.

By the year 170 B.C.E., the Selucid ruler, Antiochus, who had desired greatness like that of Alexander the Great, suffered some military defeats which cost him dearly. He then looked at the Jewish land as a desirable asset to his empire and a mode of replenishing his dwindling treasury. He also wanted to use Israel as the jump off point for his battles against the Ptolemys. As would be, he found support from the Jewish Hellenists who as the time would have it, wanted to rule over their brethren. To gain the trust of Antiochus, the Hellenists began to introduce idols in various sport and cultural events around the small country. Prohibitions were enacted forbidding circumcision, Sabbath observance, and teaching Jewish tradition.

The traditional minded Jews were not organized and certainly not trained to fight against professional soldiers and well equipped armies. They tried to resist passively by staying out of sight, but they became hunted down. The climax came when mothers were slaughtered when they were found with circumcised babies. Men were put to cruel death for observing the Sabbath. More and more, the traditional way of life was being stamped out. Idols had been set up in most villages and offerings were made to them by the Hellenists who were eager to show their loyal support of their Greek protectors.

In a small village by the name of Modi'im, in the year 166 B.C.E., the Hellenists decided to show their support for their protectors by making the traditionalist Jews participate in the sacrificial offering to their god, Zeus. There a Jew began to offer a sacrifice in the public square. Mattisyahu, who was a descendent from the Priestly group that had worked in the Temple, was outraged at such a brazen act. He led his five sons, killing the traitorous Jew and also the accompanying Greek soldiers. Thus started the spark which was to become a full fledged revolt.

The tiny Jewish village, led by an aged man and his five sons, became the rallying point for the Jewish dissidents. Soon they had a small army of several thousand dedicated men. They were called the "Maccabbe's" an acrostic meaning "who is like our G-d" .Battle after battle, against armies greater in number, against the combined forces of the Greeks and the Hellenists, in spite of superiority in skills and tactical warfare, they made victory after victory. With each new victory, more and more Jews rallied to their support. In spite of the loss of Mattisyahu who was killed in battle, his sons took over the mantle of leadership.

Greek forces were reinforced by an enormous army of 50,000 professional soldiers, who marched into battle against a group much smaller.In spite of the Greek armies tremendous numerical advantage, they suffered a humiliating defeat. Upon sustaining such a heavy loss, the Greeks fled. The Maccabbe's now turned towards Jerusalem and waged a bitter battle against the Hellenists, killing thousands and taking control of the Temple.

Upon entering the Temple, they began purifying it by ridding it of all the pagan idols. They purified the vessels so that the services could be performed in purity. Unfortunately, the olive oil that was used to light the menorah had been tampered with. The oil was stored in special flasks and should have had the seal of the High Priest. However none could be found that was ritually pure. The Hellenists wanted that all oils should be impure and therefore they had contaminated all of the oils. However, just as the hand of G-d had been with them on the battlefield, so He was with them in the Temple. Miraculously, they found one flask, that still had the stamp of the High Priest and was not tampered with.

Now a flask of oil was sufficient for only one day's use. The production of new and pure oil took eight days. They decided to use the flask of oil and again, another miracle, it burnt for eight days, until new, pure oil was available. Thus we light our candles, each year in recognition and in memory of the miracle that G-d performed for that small group of dedicated and pious men who were willing to give their lives to live as Jews.

Happy Chanukah to You!


from the December 1997 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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