The Story of Chanukah

How a small band of Jewish renegades took on the Syrian-Greek army.

Under the Hellenist Rule
When the Greeks conquered the world, they brought with them their highly developed Hellenistic culture – the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the multitude of Greek gods and goddesses, and the worship of the physical. At first, the Greeks were peaceful rulers, luring Jews to their culture by inviting them in and being open to searching the wisdom of Judaism. In the year 199 B.C.E., however, the land of Judea, which had been under the control of the Ptolemies (Greeks ruling from Egypt), was conquered by the Seleucids (Greeks ruling from Syria).

The Syrian-Greeks did not feel that it was appropriate for the Jews, now their subjects, to maintain their own national culture. By now, they felt, the Jews should have seen the error of their “primitive” ways and grasped the “far more advanced” Hellenistic culture with open arms…and many did. The majority of Jews, however, maintained the heritage of their ancestors, incorporating some Hellenistic activities, but remaining faithful to the Torah.

The Syrian-Greeks tried to force the Jews to assimilate. The study of Torah became a capital crime. If a parent was found to have circumcised an infant son, both the parent and child were put to death. The Syrian-Greeks set up idols in town squares and called the Jews to the square and forced them to bow to the statue or sacrifice a pig before it. They even forced Jewish brides before their marriage to sleep with the local Syrian-Greek commander. Their campaign against Judaism began slowly, but by 168 B.C.E. they had desecrated the Holy Temple by setting a statue of Zeus in the main plaza.


The Maccabees Arise
In the town of Modiin, west of Jerusalem, lived a man named Mattitiyahu (Mattithias). He was from the Hasmonean family, which is one of the branches of the Kohanim (priests). In 167 B.C.E., Syrian-Greek soldiers came to the town and demanded that the Jews sacrifice a pig to one of their gods. Knowing that Mattitiyahu was considered a righteous leader, they signaled him out. But Mattitiyahu refused to sacrifice the animal, even under threat of death. Not all the Jews of Modiin were so brave and devoted. When one of his fellow townsmen stepped forward and volunteered to sacrifice the pig, Mattitiyahu, outraged at the treacherous act, grabbed a sword and slew the heretic. Mattitiyahu’s sons joined him and they attacked the soldiers, decimating the force by the end of the day. Needless to say, Mattitiyahu and his sons fled Modiin and took refuge in the hills. While Mattitiyahu began the revolt, he did not live to see its end. After his passing, within a year of the start of the revolt, the leadership was taken up by his son Judah, a valiant soldier and a wise tactician. In the hill, Judah gathered a band of Jewish freedom fighters who were prepared to fight for the Jewish way of life. They became known as the Maccabees.


The Joy of Victory
Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, the Jews led a guerilla war to free their nation, their primary goal being to cleanse Jerusalem and the Holy Temple from the pagan idols desecrating it.

It was a challenging fight, with the vast power, might and numbers on the side of the Syrian-Greeks. But the Jews had a steadfast will and the knowledge that they were fighting for G-d and Torah. In 165 B.C.E., the Maccabees succeeded in retaking the Temple. They were aghast, however to find that the soldiers had thoroughly rampaged and desecrated the holy site.

The Jews immediately set to work removing statues, scrubbing the altar, and the many tasks necessary to rededicate the Temple. On the southern side of the sanctuary stood the grand, golden Menorah, but there was no oil with which to light it. As the Jews cleansed the Temple they searched for an unopened jar of pure oil. When all seemed lost, however, one small jar, with its seal still in tact, was found. The Jews rejoiced and hurried to the Menorah to rededicate the Temple.

One small jar of oil…It would take another week for a fresh jar of pure olive oil to be made. The Jews were in a quandary. Do they light the Menorah and let it fizzle out while they waited for more oil, or do they wait and use the oil the day before the new oil will arrive, in order to keep the flame continuous. Not wanting to put off the mitzvah, they decided to light the Menorah – and the miracle of Chanukah occurred. Despite the small quantity of oil, THE MENORAH REMAINED LIT FOR THE ENTIRE EIGHT DAYS, announcing to the world that G-d’s presence once again resided in the Temple.


On Chanukah, Jewish families around the world gather together in their homes and light the Chanukah candles. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the great miracles that happened during the Maccabee revolt in the time of the Second Temple period.

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