Monday, December 19, 2011

The History of Chanuka

At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Jews were not an independent nation. Initially, they were under the rule of the Persians. Later, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, the land of Israel became a province of Alexander's empire. When Alexander died, his empire broke up into several sections. At first, the Jews were ruled by the Greeks of Egypt, the Ptolemies. However, the different Greek kingdoms were constantly struggling with each other, and eventually the land of Israel came under the rule of the Seleucid Empire, the Syrian-Greeks.

In the beginning, the Seleucid rule was fairly benevolent. Antiochus III, the king who brought Israel under Seleucid rule, permitted the Jews to “live according to their ancestral laws.” This meant that the Jews were permitted to continue their internal governance according to Torah law. However, during this period, certain Jews, primarily among the wealthy and politically powerful, began to adopt Greek modes of thought. These Jews came to be known as the Hellenisers, or Misyavnim. These Jews sought to gain increased power through political maneuvers involving the Greek kings. These activities came to a crisis during the reign of Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes. The Jews know him as Antiochus HaRasha - Antiochus the Wicked. The rise to power of Antiochus IV is described in I Maccabees (ch. 1):
From [the Greeks] came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king; he had been a hostage in Rome.[1] He began to reign in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks. In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us." This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium[2] in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.
Historians point out that the campaign against Judaism - called a shmad in Hebrew - was out of character for the Greeks. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch[3] explains that the shmad was a major change in policy for the Greeks, and took place only because of those disloyal Jews who encouraged it:
Not only Alexander but all the generals who succeeded him and who divided the conquered land among themselves—the Ptolomites in Egypt, and especially the Seleucides in Syria, and the immediate predecessors of Antiochus Epiphanes—all without exception rendered respect to the Divine Law of the Jews who they had subjugated. Their decrees assuring freedom, protection and support to those who demonstrated faith in the Law and their Temple, and the right to fulfill all their obligations under the law, have been preserved for our times.
Antiochus would never have been mad enough to initiate a war of destruction against the Jewish Law if the Jews themselves and priests of the Law had not show their contempt for the Law, thus suggesting the possibility of its obliteration.
One of the minor midrashim[4] identifies a specific heretical Jew, תתני בן פחת, as advising the Greeks on which specific decrees they should make against the Jews.

Thus, at the instigation of these power-hungry Hellenistic Jews—and with their active assistance—Antiochus embarked on an intensive campaign against the Torah. This involved the prohibition of Torah study, circumcision, the Sabbath, and many other commandments. The desecration of Jewish women was imposed by law, as was the imposition of the Greek pagan idol worship.

All of these policies were aimed at one basic goal, to wipe out the Jewish emunah (faith) that God had given the Jews a Torah that makes them distinct from all the other nations. The belief, expressed in the daily prayers, "that He has chosen us from all the nations and given us the Torah of truth."

Torah study was their primary target. As it states in the Al HaNisim prayer recited on Chanukah, "the evil Greek kingdom rose against Your nation Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to remove them from the laws of Your will." The first step was to eliminate the knowledge of Torah, and from this would follow the abandonment of all the commandments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
Their chief efforts were aimed at the exclusion of the teaching of the Torah from the training of the young and at the suppression of its study by the old, for they knew that once the Law would no longer be taught or studied in Yisrael, it would be an easy thing for them to induce them to transgress it. (Hirsch Siddur p. 152)
However, the oppressors did not stop with Torah study. They also forbade bris mila (circumcision), the symbol of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. And they forbade the observance of the Sabbath, another sign that distinguishes the Jews from the nations of the world.

The desecration of Jewish women as well, was part of a deliberate campaign to destroy the holiness of the Jewish marriage. The modesty of Jewish women is one of the Jewish people’s unique distinguishing characteristics.

All of this culminated with their attempts to impose their idolatry upon the Jewish people, as in their desecration of the Holy Temple by using it as a temple of idolatry.

This was one of the most tragic periods in Jewish history. Many died sanctifying the name of God, like Chanah and her seven sons. Ultimately, one family lifted up the banner of Torah and led the Jewish people against their Greek oppressors.

This was the family of Mattityahu HaKohen, the family of the Chashmonayim (the Hasmoneans). Mattityahu and his sons led the Jews to war. In the beginning they were just a tiny band of men. Eventually, the Jewish army came to number in the thousands; however, it never came close to matching the size and power of the Seleucid armies, which was one of the mightiest military forces of the time. The Seleucid forces were well trained, well organized, and tried in battle. Their forces were made up of heavy and light infantry, heavy and light cavalry, chariots, elephant units, and artillery units operating ballistas. The Jewish forces lacked all military training and, in the beginning, were armed with just farm tools and homemade weapons (later they were able to use captured weapons).

At one major battle, the Battle of Emmaus, the Greeks had between 20 to 40 thousand infantry and about 7,000 cavalry. This was against a Jewish force of about 6,000 men, most of whom were new recruits. The Seleucids were so confident of their victory that they invited slave dealers to join their troops to purchase all the captive Jews they expected to have after the fighting. However, contrary to their expectations, the Greek army was destroyed. This was truly a case of God delivering “the strong into the hands of the weak and the numerous into the hands of the few!”

Eventually, the Greeks were driven out of Jerusalem. On the 25th of Kislev, the Jews entered the Holy Temple and cleansed it of the impurity and idols that the Greeks had placed within it. Then they made a new chanukat haBayit (inauguration of the Temple). It was at this time that the famous “miracle of the lights” took place. Pure oil was needed for the menorah. Due to the Greek desecration of the Temple no such oil could be found except for one container that contained only enough oil to last one day. Since it would take eight days to get the necessary new oil, this presented a serious problem. The Jews used this oil for the first day and it miraculously lasted for the full eight days until new oil was available.

Although the war was far from over, this victory had freed the Jewish people to once again serve God properly, and that was the primary goal of the war. The following year, the Sages established an eight-day holiday beginning on the 25th of Kislev, in memory of this victory and the miracle of the oil. This holiday is called Chanukah, which means ‘dedication ceremony’ or ‘inauguration’, in memory of the rededication of the Holy Temple.

[1] Antiochus had been given to the Romans by his father Antiochus III after he had been defeated by the Romans in battle.

[2] The gymnasium was the centerpiece of Greek culture. It was a center for social and religious life, and was associated with pagan cults. The main activity of the gymnasium was sports, which were performed naked. This led to the desire to “remove the marks of circumcision” which was despised by Greek culture.

[3] Collected Writings vol. II, Kislev III

[4] In Otzar Midrashim,  מדרש לחנוכה(p. 193). This midrash is also quoted in She’iltos D’Rav Achai Gaon 27.

Further Reading:

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