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A 5-Minute Hanukkah Story

Hanukkah holyday Menorah

 

It is always good to have a festival when we eat donuts. But this is not the main reason that Hanukkah exists. There are other reasons. The reasons that the festival of Hanukkah was introduced into the Jewish Calendar remind us too much of what is happening today.

 

 

Background

 

The Hanukkah story started long before the miracle of the oil. It started with the fall of the Babylonian and Persian Empires, and the rise of the Greek Empire, headed by Alexander of Macedonia. The appearance of Alexander was marked by a change in the world’s cultural infrastructure. He brought Hellenistic culture with him, and aspired to create a culture that was universal. Alexander of Macedonia assumed that cultural and societal unity would create the infrastructure for a stable empire.

 

In 300 B.C.E. (2,310 years ago) after Alexander died, his empire was divided between his three generals. Two of them received the kingdoms of the East: Ptolemy ruled over Egypt, and Slaukos ruled over Syria, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India.

 

The Land of Israel was at the confrontation point between the two powers, and crossed hands from one to the other a few times. For most of the first hundred years, it was under the rule of Ptolemy, and in the year 200 B.C.E. it changed hands to the rule of Slaukos, against whom the Jews rebelled thirty-seven years later. However, Hellenistic culture ruled under both regimes and continued to penetrate and establish itself as the one universal culture.

 

In the heart of the human ocean that adopted Greek culture, Jerusalem and Judea were a tiny geographic pocket; the residents of Judea and Jerusalem opposed the new world-view. In the days of Ptolemy, the Jews were left alone to live as they pleased according to their faith. Ptolemy even saw in the Torah of Israel a very valuable cultural asset, and asked the Sanhedrin to translate the Torah into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint.

 

Nonetheless, the Sages of Israel were afraid of this friendliness, and indeed they were right. Slowly there began to develop within the Jewish People Hellenistic tendencies. Young people who did not have strong roots were drawn towards the external beauty and the moral laxity of Hellenistic culture. With time, Hellenism also penetrated into the Jewish aristocracy. The elite adopted Greek culture, which provided cultural and economic entry to the greater world. With this, the majority of the people remained faithful to the heritage of their fathers.

 

The Hellenists

With the appearance of Antiochus, the situation changed. The small people who lived at the strategic crossroads and insisted on its own separatist customs bothered him. At first, Antiochus tried to appoint a regime in Jerusalem that was easy for him to work with. Antiochus removed the high priest, Onias III, from his priestly function and replaced him with the Hellenist, Jason. Antiochus later removed Jason and replaced him with Menelaus, a more extreme Hellenist than Jason.

 

Jerusalem became “Polis” – a Greek state-city. Greek institutions and a wrestling gymnasium were erected.

 

The Hellenist party received all the support of the great power. Hellenism prospered. The Hellenists regarded Torah and mitzvot as antiquated and obsolete beliefs. They regarded themselves as the flag-bearers of progress and culture, people of the big, modern world. They regarded those who kept the Torah as backward and “fanatic.”

 

The Decrees

With the counsel of his advisors, Antiochus came to the conclusion that he would not be able to repress the spirit of the Jews unless he harmed their religion. He announced decrees that forbid Torah laws: among them, it became forbidden to keep Shabbat, brit milah was forbidden, it was forbidden to bring offerings in the Temple. However, paradoxically, these very decrees were what brought about the removal of Greek culture from the Land of Israel and the victory of those who were faithful to the Torah.

 

The Hasmonean Rebellion

The rebellion broke out in Modi’in, a village of Cohanim from the family of the Hasmoneans. At the head of the village stood Matityahu Ben Yohanan, and he had five sons: Yohanan the Great (John), Shimon (Simon) Thassi, Yehuda (Judah) the Maccabee, Yonatan (Jonathan) Appus, and Elazar (Eleazer Choran (Horani or Avaran).

 

 

A group of Greeks besieged the village and concentrated its inhabitants in its center. Yohanan refused. One of the Hellenists arose and drew near to sacrifice a pig on the idolatrous altar. Matityau the Elder did not hesitate. He attacked the Hellenist and cut off his head. His five sons and the rest of the people who were standing near attacked the Greek soldiers. The rebellion started.

 

The Hasmoneans fled to the hills, and from there continued with warfare against the Greeks. They had nothing to lose. They despised the Greek lifestyle and preferred to die. Slowly, others joined them. Antiochus pushed them into a corner and they went out to fight fiercely for their religious freedom.

 

During the war, Matityahu the Elder died. His son, Yehuda was appointed commander. He led classic guerrilla warfare: hit and run. The Hasmoneans landed small but important victories. Morale in the Jewish villages rose. Many joined Yehuda’s forces. They fought face to face battles against the Greeks. Yehuda’s army saw that G-d stood with them.

 

The Hasmonean Victory

Yehuda aspired to reach Jerusalem and to purify the Temple. He blocked reinforcements of the Greek army and opened the way to the capital. In the last decisive battle that took place near Jerusalem, when Lysias, the Greek commander-in-chief, placed the best of his forces in battle – more than forty thousand soldiers – the weak and poor Hasmonean army defeated it. The way to Jerusalem was opened.

 

The Hasmoneans hurried to the Temple. They found there destruction and ruin, graven images and idols. On the 25th Kislev, in the year 165 B.C.E. (2,170 years ago) the altar was rededicated. This was also the day that they found the one small container of oil, with the High Priest’s seal. A miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days. In commemoration of this miracle, the Sages decreed the lighting of lights for eight days and thanksgiving and praise to G-d for the miracle of the military victory and for the miracle of the oil.

 

With historical perspective, we well understand that precisely the Jews’ adherence to their religion and their faith was what gave us not only the festival of Hanukkah, but also our very survival as Jews. In virtue of their strong faith, we remained the Jewish People and we were able to return to the land of our Fathers.

 

And in fact, history repeats itself; just that Hellenist culture replaced western culture.

Food for Thought

The festival’s name – Hanukkah

In the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (139a) a reason for the festival’s name is brought – “Hanukkah”. The name denotes the day of victory: “Hanu Koh” – they rested on the 25th day, in other words, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Maccabees rested from their enemies. Another reason: following the Maccabees’ victory, the Temple was purified and “Hanukat HaBayit” was made – the Temple was rededicated.

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