Hanukkah is an 8 day holiday which commemorates the victory of the Israelites against the Syrian-Greeks resulting in restoration of the temple in Jerusalem and sovereignty for the Israelites. In addition this holiday celebrates the miracle of the cruise of oil which burned on the menorah for 8 days. This article will examine this holiday from a historical perspective starting from Alexander the Great and ending with the last of the Maccabees using early historical sources including Megillat Antiochus and the Book of Maccabees. This article will focus on the personalities of this era (i.e. Antiochus, high priests, and Maccabees) and how they shaped the events of their time. In addition this article will analyze the miracle of the oil for the menorah using the Talmud and associated commentaries. A companion article on this web site “Hanukkah – Halacha” discusses the holiday of Hanukkah from the perspective of Halacha quoting extensively from Shulchan Aruch and associated commentaries.
Megillat (Scroll of) Antiochus
Megillat Antiochus (“The Scroll of Antiochus”) is an apocryphal work, consisting of about 70 verses, recounting the story of Hanukkah and the military victories of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. There are different opinions when this scroll was written ranging from the time of the miracle of Hanukkah, disciples of Shammai and Hillel near the destruction of the second temple or up to the 5th century CE. It is possible that this scroll was written before the destruction of the temple and later edited. In any event neither the Talmud nor Maimonides mentions this scroll. It was translated into Hebrew from Aramaic early on and into Arabic by the prominent 10th-century rabbinic leader Saadiah Gaon. Although some communities read from this scroll on Hanukkah no blessing is recited before a public reading because this scroll is not part of scripture. It still forms part of the liturgy in some Yemenite Jewish communities.
(Since there are different versions of labeling verse numbers the author has chosen verse numbers from Sefaria since this reference is widely available online.)
Book of Maccabees
The Books of the Maccabees recounts the history of the Maccabees against the Seleucid dynasty. There are 8 books of the Maccabees of which the first 2 are canonized by the Catholic Church. Judaism does not recognize these books as part of scripture because prophecy ceased near the beginning of the second temple. Hence they are consulted for historical research and not for liturgical purposes. In this article the author has quoted extensively from the first two books of the Maccabees to provide detailed historical context and information about the lives of the Maccabees.
This book records the history of the Israelites starting from Alexander the Great until the last Maccabee with focus on the revolt against the Seleucid Empire and the founding of the independent Hasmonean kingdom. It describes the decrees forbidding Jewish practice and the subsequent revolt with the main time period from 170 to 143 BCE.
By contrast this book focuses on the events leading to the revolt starting from 178 BCE and concludes with the defeat of Nicanor, the Seleucid general, by Judah the Maccabee in the year 161 BCE. This source often adopts a theological tone including prayers, miracles, and mention of divine will. It is interesting to note that the author of this book ends on a humble note perhaps reflect his religious beliefs (2 Maccabees 15:38), “If it is well written and to the point, that is what the author wanted. If it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the best the author could do.”
Alexander the Great – 4th Century BCE
In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered most of the Middle East. However Alexander died young without a legitimate heir to his empire, with his only son born after his death. After dissension and rivalry his empire was divided into 4 stable power blocs – Macedonia, Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor (Turkey).
Ptolemies and Seleucids – 3rd Century BCE
Initially the Ptolemies occupied Israel with the Seleucids fighting against the Ptolemies to expand their empire. As a result Israel was a vassal state alternating between these 2 empires, with the Israelites divided in their loyalty to these opposing forces. In Israel the local government enforced the king’s decrees, maintained order, and collected taxes. The Sanhedrin, High Priest, and local courts controlled religious matters of the Israelites. Generally the foreign powers were tolerant of Judaism and permitted the temple in Jerusalem to function. During most of the 3rd century BCE the Ptolemies ruled over Israel with their treatment of the Israelites dependent upon the whim of the king. For example King Ptolemy II (reigned 285-246 BCE) was favourable to the Israelites resulting in a growth of the population and economy of Israel which resulted in a class distinction of the Israelites.
The wealthy class was allied with the king in terms of trade and tax collection but less observant of Judaism. They also used their position to influence their observant brethren to follow Hellenized practice. Acceptance to Greek society required adoption of practices and beliefs that were inimical to Judaism. The lower class, consisting of farmers and tradesmen, were not as close to the king’s officers and were generally more observant of Judaism. This class distinction would play out in the conflicts of between the Hellenized Israelites and the followers of the Hasmonean. Although there was a lower economic class in Israel there was not the squalor and crime that exists even today in developing countries because the rabbis encouraged independence, hard work, and thrift. As an example the Mishna (Peah 8:9) states, “Anyone who needs to take charity and refrains from taking (through hard work and thrift) will eventually become successful and support others.”
At the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, Simon the Righteous was both the temporal and religious leader of the Israelites as High Priest and Head of Sanhedrin. Following his death in 273 BCE the two functions were separated with the High Priest recognized as the representative of the Israelites to the foreign king and head of Sanhedrin as the religious leader of the Israelites. Although this division of power was sometimes beneficial it did lead to division between the Hellenized and religious Israelites which was a contributing factor to conflict at the time of Hanukkah.
During the reign of the Ptolemies and Seleucids the economy of Israel was primarily agrarian with most Israelites working on small farms growing fruits (e.g. olives and grapes), vegetables, and flax for linen. In addition some Israelites operated dairy farms and raised sheep for wool. The best quality of olives for olive oil grew in the north of Israel which was a 4 day journey about 100 km from Jerusalem. (This distance would play a role in the 8 day miracle of the oil.) There was also a merchant class serving the local population and some involved in international trade.
At the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucid King Antiochus III conquered Israel by defeating King Ptolemy V, an immature and inept ruler. Unlike the tolerant Kings of Egypt the Seleucids pursued a heavy-handed policy against the Israelites especially in the area of taxation.
Antiochus IV (reign 175 – 164 BCE)
Antiochus IV was the Seleucid king during the Hanukkah miracle. He precipitated the Hasmonean revolt by declaring himself a god, interfering with the temple in Jerusalem, and dominating the lives of the Israelites. In 174 BCE he deposed the righteous High Priest Onias and replaced him with Jason, a Hellenized Israelite.
In 169 BCE Antiochus fearing future insurrection after the revolt by the corrupt high Jason outlawed the practice of Judaism including observing the Sabbath, maintaining the Hebrew calendar, and performing circumcision (Megillat Antiochus 1:10). In addition Antiochus set up idolatrous temples where pig was offered the temple in Jerusalem and throughout Israel (ibid. 1:14). The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 2:4) called these days of persecution as the days of darkness and the Syrian-Greeks would say to the Israelites, “Write on the horn of your ox that you have no connection with the G-d of Israel.” The intense persecution led to a revolt by the Israelites to fight for religious freedom. However the Hellenized Israelites supported Antiochus, “Many Israelites delighted in his religion meaning that they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath (1 Maccabees 1:43).”
The second Book of Maccabees Chapter 7 relates an incident of martyrdom with a mother and her 7 sons who would not submit to the decree of Antiochus to eat pork and upheld the law of the Torah. He ordered that they be tortured and then killed for not submitting to his decree. Then the king ordered the execution of the mother. A similar incident occurs in the Talmud (Gittin 57b) involving a mother and her 7 sons. However this incident involves the Caesar and a decree to worship an idol. All of her sons were martyred for observing the Torah prohibition of not bowing to idols. Before his execution she said to her last son, “My son, go and say to your father Abraham, you bound one son to the altar, but I bound seven altars.” She too went up to the roof, fell, and died. Although these incidents occurred at different times and situations the narratives convey the supreme sacrifice of the Israelites to fulfill the will of Hashem. However there is a difference between the Syrian-Greeks and Rome in that a revolt against the former was successful and resulted in the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty. By contrast two revolts against Rome resulted in the destruction of the temple and exile from Israel because Rome a descendant of Esau is protected by the blessing of Isaac (Genesis 27:40).
Chapter 7 closes (verse 42), “Enough has been said about the excessive cruelties.”The next chapter adopts an optimistic note by expecting divine assistance after intense persecution.
Verse 2 – “The Israelites implored Hashem to look kindly upon his people who were being oppressed and to have pity on the sanctuary which was profaned by renegades.”
Verse 3 – “To have mercy on Jerusalem which was being destroyed … to listen to the blood that cried out to Him.”
Verse 4 – “To remember the criminal slaughter of innocent children and the blasphemies uttered against His name.”
Jason (High Priest 175 – 171 BCE)
After Antiochus IV ascended the throne Jason, a brother of Chonyo, bribed the king to become high priest. Antiochus granted him authority to appoint Hellenized Israelites to positions of government thereby securing his power (1 Book of Maccabees 1:11). In addition to his political ambitions, Jason sought to change the nature of Jerusalem by erecting a gymnasium to teach Greek culture and sports which led to a weakening of Jewish traditions and worship (1 Book of Maccabees 1:14 and Book of 2 Maccabees Chapter 4:12-13). Subsequently the priests abandoned the temple service for sparring and ball games (ibid. 14). These gymnasiums were a place of idolatry and licentiousness because the players were often nude. The Hellenized Israelites disguised their circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant (1 Maccabees 1:15).
After consolidating his position in Jerusalem Jason promoted Greek culture and religion through Israel. The policy of Jason and his supporters led to the Hasmonean revolt which broke out afterwards. As the Book of Maccabees writes (ibid. 4:16-17), “Through (divine) retribution the very people (Syrian-Greeks) whom they envied … proved to be their enemies and executioners. It is no light matter to flout the laws of Hashem, as subsequent events showed.”
Menelaus (High Priest 171 – 161 BCE)
In 171 BCE Menelaus, an Israelite who was not from the priestly class, outbid Jason (ibid. 4:24) and became high priest. He promised a large bribe to Antiochus by selling off temple vessels (ibid. 4:32). Onias publicly accused Menelaus of the theft and sacrilege. Rather than acknowledging his sins, Menelaus had Onias put to death (ibid. 4:34). When the outraged Israelites revolted against Menelaus he put down the rebellion and by his order many Israelites including leading rabbis were killed (ibid. 4:40).
The Israelites sent a delegation to Antiochus to replace Menelaus with a bonafide high priest who would be loyal to the Israelites and faithful to the ways of Torah. When Antiochus refused, civil war broke out with Jason attempting to retake the office of high priest (ibid. 5:5-6). Antiochus put down the rebellion, killed thousands of innocent Israelites, and pillaged the temple (ibid. 5:11-17).
In the end Antiochus ordered the execution of Menelaus because the king felt that Menelaus was the cause of the loss of his soldiers who fought the Maccabees. The book of 2 Maccabees chapter 13 discusses the divine retribution as follows:
Verse 4 – “Hashem aroused the anger of Antiochus against the scoundrel (Menelaus) because he felt that Menelaus was to blame for all the trouble. He ordered him to be executed there in the customary local method.”
Verse 5 – “There is a tower seventy-five feet high, full of ashes.”
Verse 6 – “Anyone guilty of sacrilege or other crimes is brought up there and then hurled down to destruction.”
Verse 7 – “In such a manner was Menelaus, that transgressor of the law, fated to die, deprived even of burial.”
Maccabees (166 BCE -135 BCE)
Mattathias (166 BCE – 165 BCE)
In 166 BCE Mattathias, a descendant of the high priest who lived in Modi’in, sparked a revolt against the Seleucid empire by refusing to tolerate idolatry (1 Book of Maccabees 2:16). The officers of the king addressed Mattathias, “You are a leader, an honourable and great man in this city, supported by sons and kindred. Be the first to obey the king’s command … then you and your sons shall be numbered among the King’s friends. (In addition) you and your sons shall be honoured with silver, gold, and many gifts.” Mattathias answered in a loud voice, “Although all the gentiles in the king’s realm obey him … yet I, my sons, and kindred will keep to the covenant of our ancestors. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the law and the commandments. We will not obey the words of the king by departing from our religion in the slightest degree (ibid. 2:17-22).”
As he finished saying these words, an Israelite came forward in the sight of all to offer a sacrifice on the altar in Modi’in according to the king’s order. Filled with zeal Mattathias sprang forward and killed him upon the altar (ibid. 24). “At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice and tore down the altar” (ibid. 25). In turn the followers of Mattathias routed the local Seleucid army beginning the revolt.
He and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judah to plan the next steps. After the death of Mattathias, his son Judah the Maccabee organized an army of 6.000 men who fought a guerilla war in the deserts of southern Israel (2 Maccabees 8:16). At first they waged war against Hellenized Israelites (1 Book of Maccabees 3:8) destroying pagan altars and reinstating circumcision. When outnumbered by the Syrian-Greek armies Judah would encourage his followers by saying (ibid. 3:18-19), “Many are easily hemmed in by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few. For victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army. Rather on the strength that comes from Heaven.”
After several military victories they overpowered the Syrian-Greek garrison, captured Jerusalem, lit the Menorah, offered sacrifices to Hashem, and rededicated the temple. The Book 1 of Maccabees chapter 4 provides the details as follows:
Repairing the Temple
Verse 36 – “Then Judah and his brothers said: Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”
Verse 38 – “They found that the sanctuary was desolate, altar desecrated, gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts, and the priests’ chambers demolished.”
Verse 48 – “They repaired the sanctuary and interior of the temple and then consecrated the courts.”
Verse 49 – “They made new sacred vessels and brought the menorah, altar of incense, and table (of the show bread) into the temple.”
Verse 50 – “They burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps of the menorah.” It is interesting to note that there is no mention here of the miracle of oil burning for 8 days.
Dedicating the Temple
Verse 52 – “They rose early on the morning of the 25th day of the ninth month (Kislev).” This explains why Hanukkah is celebrated starting on this day which commemorates the celebration at that time.
Verse 53 – “The Israelites offered sacrifices according to the law on the new altar for burnt offerings.” As discussed below the daily offering may proceed in a state of ritual impurity. Alternately the Maccabees may have found some priests who were not ritually impure to officiate.
Verse 54 – “On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had desecrated it. On that very day it was rededicated with songs, harps, lyres, and cymbals.” Hence another reason for starting Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev to show the rededication of the temple on the very day it was defiled earlier.
Verse 56 – “For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise.” Hence this is another reason for celebrating Hanukkah for 8 days.
Verse 59 – “Then Judah, his brothers, and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the 25th of Kislev (original days of the dedication of the altar) should be observed with joy and gladness.” Hence the holiday of Hanukkah was accepted by the Israelites at the time of the miracle. However the sages ratified this decision at the next year as the Talmud relates (Shabbat 21b), “The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving in prayer and grace after meals.”
In addition the Book of 2 Maccabees chapter 10 notes that the Israelites rejoiced for 8 days in compensation for the loss of celebrating Sukkoth and Shemini Atzeret of that year. The verses follow:
Verse 6 – “The Israelites celebrated joyfully for eight days as on Sukkoth, remembering how, a little while before, they had spent the feast of Sukkoth living like wild animals in the mountains and in caves.”
Verse 7 – “Carrying rods entwined with leaves, beautiful branches, and palms (reminiscent of Leviticus 23:40), they sang hymns of grateful praise to Hashem who had successfully brought about the purification of His temple.”
Origin of Name
There are several explanations for the word Maccabee as follows:
In Hebrew – A mallet which is similar to the Hebrew word מקבת because the Maccabees strike blows against their enemies.
In Hebrew – Opening letters of the four words מ,כ,ב,י in the phrase Exodus 15:11 from the Song of the Sea,”Who is like You (Divine) among the powerful, Hashem?” In Hebrew this phrase is מי כמכה בא-לים י-ה-ו-ה. This acronym emphasizes the religious aspect of the revolt acknowledging Hashem’s might when confronting enemies. Just as Hashem destroyed Pharaoh and his army, so may Hashem assist the Maccabees in defeating the Syrian-Greek forces.
In ancient Greek – hammer because the Maccabees strike blows against their enemies.
The reference Megillat Antiochus (verse 27) mentions the name Maccabee, “When he (Yohanan) returned (successfully from battle), he built a pillar which he called after his name: Maccabee, slayer of the mighty.”
Sons of Mattathias
This reference (verses 53-57) also records the blessing of Mattathias to his five sons and a comparison of his sons to earlier biblical figures. The following table shows the names of these sons in English and Hebrew, the earlier biblical figure, role of this figure, and verse number in this reference.
|Son of Jacob
|Son of Jacob
|Son of Saul
|Father of Phinehas
The following paragraphs discuss the context of each of these biblical figures and their counterpart in the war against the Seleucids for religious and political freedom.
Mattathias compared his son Judah to his biblical namesake as a leader and warrior as strong as a lion. For example Jacob before his passing, blesses Judah with success in war (Genesis 49:8) and compares him to a lion (ibid. 49:9). In addition Hashem commanded Judah to begin the major conquest of Canaan (Judges 1:1).
Mattathias compared his son Simon to his biblical namesake as a fearless fighter who with his brothers slew the males of Shechem (Genesis 34:25) after the rape of their sister Dinah by Shechem (named after the city). Simon and his brothers planned to rescue Dinah and take revenge against the inhabitants of Shechem for not judging the rapist and releasing Dinah. The brothers conspired against the inhabitants of Shechem by suggesting that they undergo circumcision (ibid. 13-14) to allow them to marry into Jacob’s family. When weakened by the circumcision, Simon and Levi (ibid. 25) went to battle and killed the males of Shechem.
Mattathias compared his son Yohanan to the biblical Abner, cousin of King Saul and commander in chief of his army (1 Samuel 14:50, 17:55, and 26:5).
Mattathias compared his son Jonathan to his biblical namesake as a fearless fighter who fought against the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:3 and 14:6-15) when other Israelites were afraid to wage war (ibid. 13:6).
Mattathias compared his son Elazar to Phinehas as an avenger who was zealous for Hashem and saved the Israelites (Numbers 25:11).
Judah Maccabee (164 BCE -160 BCE)
At 164 BCE the Maccabees controlled Jerusalem and surrounding areas but not the whole of Israel. In addition in this year Antiochus died when fighting in Persia. At this point it would appear that the story of Hanukkah is over because the Israelites were victorious and the temple was restored. However the battle with Seleucid kingdom waged intermittently for the next 30 years until a peace treaty was concluded under pressure from Rome.
After an internal fight for the throne the Syrian-Greeks regrouped with support of the Hellenized Israelites and attacked the Maccabees with a large army. Judah and his army defeated the Syrian-Greek army led by Nicanor on the 13th of Adar as recorded in 2 Maccabees 15: 27-28). After the victory this day was observed as a holiday until the temple was destroyed (ibid. 15:36). The Syrian-Greeks with the support of the Hellenized Israelites retook Jerusalem and installed a corrupt high priest (ibid. 7:20-22). In 160 BCE Judah the Maccabee was killed in battle (1 Book of Maccabees 9:18) and succeeded by his younger brother Jonathan. The following verses (ibid.) record the burial and mourning for Judah:
Verse 19 – “Jonathan and Simon took their brother Judah and buried him in the tomb of their ancestors at Modi’in.”
Verse 20 – “All Israel wept for him with great lamentation and mourned for him many days.”
Verse 21 – “(They said): How the mighty one has fallen, saviour of Israel!”
His brothers Eliezer (ibid. 6:43) and Yohanan (John in English) (ibid. 9:36 and 38) also died in battle in the years 162 and 160 BCE respectively.
Jonathan Maccabee (160 BCE – 142 BCE)
The Book of Maccabees Chapter 9 relates the peaceful succession of Judah thereby avoiding painful disputes that occurred after the death of the Maccabees.
Verse 28 – “Then all the friends of Judah came together and said to Jonathan.”
Verse 29 – “Ever since your brother Judah died there has been no one like him to lead us against our enemies.”
Verse 30 – “Therefore we have chosen you today to be our ruler and leader … and fight our battles.”
Verse 31 – “From that moment Jonathan accepted the leadership.”
With both the Syrian-Greeks and Maccabees debilitated by war, peace entries ensued with exchange of prisoners and return of the temple to Jonathan who became the high priest. In addition Jonathan made treaties with different foreign powers (including Rome) causing further dissent between those aspiring for religious freedom and those who sought temporal power.
Although the conflict had subsided there was still tension between the Syrian-Greeks and Maccabees. Often external events, under the hidden guidance of Hashem, determine the future of the Israelites. In 153 BCE there was contention for the throne of the Seleucid kingdom which provided an opportunity for Jonathan to deal both with the current monarch (1 Book of Maccabees 10:20) and contender (ibid. 10:28-35) to obtain concessions. As a result he fortified Jerusalem and was recognized by the current monarch as head of Israel and high priest. Hence 12 years after the miracle of Hanukkah Israel, while still under the nominal control of the Syrian-Greeks, had achieved religious and political autonomy. Following another contention for the Seleucid throne Jonathan was able to negotiate additional concessions and expand the borders of Israel.
In 142 BCE a pretender to the Seleucid throne approached Jonathan for a peace treaty. Unsuspecting of the true motives of this pretender Jonathan travelled to Acre where he was eventually assassinated (Book of Maccabees 12:39-48 and 13:23). Simon, his brother, sent for the remains of Jonathan, and buried him in Modi’in, the city of his ancestors (ibid. 13:25).
Simon Maccabee (142 BCE -135 BCE)
Following the capture of Jonathan, Simon the last remaining son of Mattathias rallied the despondent Israelites and was chosen by the people as their leader. The Book of 1 Maccabees (Chapter 13) provides the details:
Verse 3 – “He exhorted them in these words: You know what I, my brothers, and my father’s house have done for the laws and the sanctuary; what battles and hardships we have seen.”
Verse 4 – “For the sake of this, for the sake of Israel, all my brothers have perished, and I alone am left.”
Verse 5 – “Far be it from me, then, to save my own life in any time of distress, for I am not better than my brothers.”
Verse 6 – “I will avenge my nation and the sanctuary, as well as your wives and children … against our enemies.”
Verse 7 – “As the people heard these words, their spirit was rekindled.”
Verse 8 – “They shouted in reply: You are our leader in place of your brothers Judah and Jonathan.”
Verse 9 – “Fight our battles, and we will do everything that you tell us.”
At once he completed the fortification of Jerusalem. The Seleucids formally recognized Simon as leader of the Israelites as the following verses relate:
Verse 40 – “Let there be peace between us.”
Verse 41 – “Thus the yoke of the Seleucids was removed from Israel.”
The Hasmonean Dynasty was formally founded by a resolution in 141 BCE at a large assembly of priests and elders of the land that ratified Simon as their leader and high priest. Verse 42 indicates his position, “The people began to write in their records and contracts: In the first year of Simon, great high priest, governor, and leader of the Israelites.”
Chapter 14 of the Book of Maccabees highly praises Simon as worthy of the name of the Maccabees illustrating the qualities of a great leader of the Israelites in terms of justice, military prowess, and religious observance. The verses follow:
Verse 4 – “The land was at rest all the days of Simon. He sought the good of his nation and his rule delighted the people.”
Verse 6 – “He enlarged the borders of his nation and gained control of the country.”
Verse 8 – “The people cultivated their land in peace. The land yielded its produce and the trees their fruit (prosperity as promised in Leviticus 26:3-4).”
Verse 10 – “He supplied the cities with food and equipped them with means of defense. His glorious name reached the ends of the earth.
Verse 12 – “Every one sat under his vine and fig tree with no one to disturb them (as stated in Zachariah 3:10).”
Verse 14 – “He strengthened all the lowly among his people and was zealous for the law. He destroyed the lawless and the wicked (as a righteous leader).”
In 139 BCE the Roman Senate recognized the Hasmonean Dynasty cementing his position. Simon proved to be a skilled military and political leader who expanded the borders of Israel, fortified Jerusalem, supported the Seleucid king, and received from him an exemption from tribute. However his son in law, Ptolemy son of Chovov (Abubus in 1 Book of Maccabees 16:11), vied for control of Israel (ibid. 16:13) and entered into secret negotiations with Antiochus VII, king of the Seleucid Empire. In 135 BCE Ptolemy invited his father in law to a family gathering in Jericho where Ptolemy was governor. Under his instruction Simon was assassinated ending the direct line of Mattathias as the verse (ibid. 16:16) relates, “When Simon and his sons were drunk, Ptolemy and his men sprang up, weapons in hand, rushed upon Simon in the banquet hall, and killed him, his two sons, and some of his servants.”
In turn Simon’s son, Yochanan Hyrcanus, who was not present at this gathering killed the assassins and assumed control of Israel. Despite the great spiritual miracle of Hanukkah all 5 sons of Mattathias met an untimely death, either through war or political intrigue.
The Talmud (Avodah Zara 9a) provides a timeline for the 420 years of the second temple as follows:
From a secular viewpoint the reign of Antiochus IV appears to be another case of a deranged despot who sought world domination. He viewed controlling Israel as a stepping stone to conquering Egypt and therefore sought an alliance with the Hellenized Israelites who would support his ambitions. From a Torah viewpoint Hashem deals with the world according to the following principles:
- Measure for Measure (Sotah 8b)
- One Sin Leads to Another (Avot 4:2).
Measure for Measure
This means that when Hashem takes corrective action against man, the nature of the action is commensurate with the failing both in manner and severity. In addition Hashem may take preemptive action before the sins become too numerous. In the case of Hanukkah, the Israelites were lax in observance of mitzvoth and desecrated the temple through corrupt high priests. In turn Hashem allowed Antiochus IV to impose harsh decrees against the Israelites and introduce idols in the temple (Beit Chadash Orach Chaim 670). The second Book of Maccabees Chapter 6 explains Hashem’s apparent tolerance of these decrees as follows:
Verse 12 – “Now I urge those who read this book not to be disheartened by these misfortunes, but to consider that these punishments were meant not for the ruin but for the correction of our nation.”
Verse 14 – “Thus, in dealing with other nations, Hashem patiently waits until they reach the full measure of their sins before punishing them. However with us (the Israelites) he has decided to deal differently.”
Verse 15 – “In order that Hashem may not have to punish us later, when our sins have reached their fullness.”
Verse 16 – “Therefore Hashem never withdraws his mercy from us. Although He disciplines us with misfortunes, He does not abandon his own people.”
Hence this source concludes this explanation by an assurance that Hashem will never abandon the Israelites as mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 26:44).
In a similar vein the 6th Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of righteous memory, explains that the sins of Israel started with following Greek culture which led to profaning the Sabbath and Holy Days, eating non-kosher food, and neglecting laws of family purity. In response to these failings Hashem allowed the defilement of the temple, persecution, and war. Through a great return to Hashem including martyrdom the miracle of Hanukkah occurred (Yom Yom 29 Kislev – daily lessons complied by the 7th Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of righteous memory).
One Sin Leads to Another
One transgression leads to another often of greater magnitude (Avot 4:2). In the case of Hanukkah one can see how events spiraled out of control:
- Jason introduced Hellenistic practices but remained faithful to Judaism.
- Menelaus introduced idolatry to temple and was not faithful to Judaism.
- Civil war broke out between Hellenized and traditional Israelites with casualties on both sides.
- Antiochus put down the rebellion and outlawed Judaism at the pain of death.
In addition to the corrective action, Hashem also aided the Maccabees in a miraculous fashion as mentioned in the prayer of thanksgiving for Hanukkah, “In Your (divine) great mercy, You (divine) took up their grievance … and delivered the strong (i.e. Seleucids) into the hands of the weak (i.e. Israelites), the many into the hands of the few.”
Although the victory of Hanukkah was achieved through war the prophet Zachariah teaches that war is not an end in itself. In his prophecy of rebuilding the second temple he states (ibid. 4:6), “Hashem says: Not by military force nor by physical strength, but by My (divine) spirit” As Rashi explains on the this verse, Hashem inspired Darius II of Persia to permit the Israelites to build the temple and pay for expenses (Ezra 6:7). Hence the Israelites built the second temple without military force while remaining subjects of the king. By contrast the Maccabees rededicated the temple after and achieved independence. In the case of Hanukkah the Hellenized Israelites had desecrated the temple and therefore the Maccabees could not rely on divine assistance alone, necessitating military action. The prophet Zachariah speaks of a situation with faithful Israelites while the Maccabees dealt with a reality of Hellenized Israelites.
Name of Hanukkah
The reader may ask, “What does the word חנוכה mean?” There are many answers to this question, each of which provides a different perspective on the holiday as follows:
- Historical – 25th of Kislev. The word חנוכה may be split into 2 words חנו כה which means the Israelites rested (from their enemies) on the 25th day (of Kislev) as explained above (Mishna Berurah 670:1 based upon Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona on Shabbat 21b).
- Theological – Rededication of the temple חנכת המזבח (literally dedication of the altar) as explained by the Mishna Berurah 670:7 based upon Maharsha on Shabbat 21b. After the victory over the Seleucids the Israelites rededicated the temple and constructed a new altar as explained above. The word חנכת occurs 6 times in scripture and all of them refer to the temple as explained below.
- Hint – acronym for the method of lighting the menorah. Rabbi David Abudarham, a 14th century commentator on Jewish liturgy, writes in his major work “Sefer Abudarham” that the letters of חנוכה spell out the following message:
ח – Corresponds to 8 gematria of letter ח.
נ – Represents the Hebrew word נר which is candle in English.
ו – Means “and the halacha”.
כ – Means “according to”.
ה – Corresponds to school of Hillel הלל.
Hence the acronym means that we light up to 8 candles and the Halacha is according to the school of Hillel which means we increase the number of candles per day.
The sages chose the 25th of Kislev as the start of Hanukkah as Maimonides (Laws of Megillah and Hanukkah 3:2) explains, “On the 25th of Kislev the Israelites overcame their enemies and entered the Sanctuary.” According to Rabbeinu Nissim (ibid.) the Israelites overcame their enemies on the 24th of Kislev and rested from the war and entered the Sanctuary on the next day.
Theological – Inauguration
Although the word חנוכה does not appear in scripture the word חנכת (inauguration of) appears 6 times in scripture, with 3 of them referring inauguration of the Tabernacle in the desert which was completed on the 1st of Nissan 2249 (counting from creation). At this inauguration the 12 heads of the tribes presented identical offerings which the Torah lists in the book of Numbers (7:10-88). The Torah uses the expression חנכת המזבח (inauguration of the altar) in verses Numbers 7:10, 84, and 88 which is the only time this expression occurs in the Torah. Perhaps the threefold mention of this term expression is an allusion to the 3 temples in Jerusalem built by King Solomon, Israelites with authorization of King Darius II of Persia, and the Messiah, respectively. The verses in the book of Numbers follow:
Book of Numbers 7:10 – “The head of the tribes brought offerings for the inauguration חנכת of the altar.”
Book of Numbers 7:84 – “This was the inauguration חנכת offering of the altar presented by the heads of tribes on the day it was anointed.”
After enumerating the offerings the Torah (Numbers 7:88) states, “This was the inauguration חנכת offering for the altar after it was anointed.”
Chapter 7 of the Second Book of Chronicles records the inauguration ceremony of the first temple built by King Solomon. Verse 5 mentions the number of offerings at the inauguration and verse 9 records the days of inauguration as follows:
Verse 5 – “King Solomon slaughtered 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep. The king and the people inaugurated ויחנכו the House of Hashem.” (A similar verse is recorded in 1 Kings 8:63).
Verse 9 – “On the eighth day they made a solemn gathering for the inauguration of the altar חנכת המזבח.”
Miracle of Oil
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) relates that when the Syrian-Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils there. When the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them they found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest implying that it was undisturbed by the Greeks. The rest of the oil in the temple was impure and therefore unfit for the menorah. Although there was sufficient oil to light the candelabrum for only one day, a miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it for 8 days.
The commentators on the Talmud raise a number of questions about the oil of the menorah:
- Can oil become impure?
- Can impurity be overridden for the sake of the community?
- How did the oil become impure?
- Why did it take 8 days to obtain pure oil?
- Why is Hanukkah celebrated for 8 days when there was sufficient oil for 1 day?
Can Oil Become Impure?
The Mishna (Eduyot 8:4) records an opinion that liquids of the slaughtering area of the temple (i.e. blood and water) do not become impure. Since oil is not used in the slaughtering area of the temple this view has no bearing on the miracle on this question. However the Talmud (Pesachim 16a) records a view that all liquids used in the temple service (i.e. blood, water, olive oil, and wine) are pure. Hence according to this view how did the oil become impure? The Talmud (ibid.) answers that although temple oil cannot transfer impurity it may become impure.
Maimonides rules according to the former view as follows:
Primary Categories of Impurity 7:1 – “It is explicitly stated in the Torah that foods and liquids contract ritual impurity based upon Leviticus 11:34. Liquids that contracted impurity do not transfer impurity according to Scriptural Law but do according to Rabbinic Law.”
Impurity of Food 10:16 – “Liquids that flow in the slaughtering area of the temple (i.e., blood of sacrificial animals and water used to clean them) are pure. They do not contract impurity, nor do they transfer impurity. This matter is a Halacha conveyed by Oral Tradition.”
The Torah states, Leviticus 24:4 states, “Upon the pure menorah, he (the priest) shall set up the lamps, before Hashem continually.” The Sifra on this verse explains that continually means that the lighting overrides ritual impurity of the priest, oil, or menorah when there is no alternative. Maimonides (Laws of Daily Offerings 3:10) accepts this ruling. The Talmud (Yoma 6b) records a dispute about the nature of this override. Is ritual impurity merely set aside or in fact permitted?
If impurity is merely set aside then every effort should be expended to light the menorah in purity as Maimonides (Laws of Entering the Temple 4:15) explains, “The prohibition against serving while impure was not released entirely for communal service with a fixed time (e.g. daily lighting of the menorah). Rather the prohibition is merely superseded temporarily, because of the pressing situation … there is no alternative.” Hence in the case of Hanukkah, the Maccabees searched for pure oil. However if they could not find pure oil they would light the menorah in impurity and did not require the miracle of Hanukkah.
According to the view that impurity is permitted, the Maccabees could have used impure oil directly without the need for an extensive search for oil. However they wanted to inaugurate the menorah in purity.
Method of Impurity
Based upon the above views, the reader may ask, “Why was there a need for the miracle of the candles burning for 8 days?” The answer is that these dispensations only apply if the impurity involved contact with a dead person (Maimonides ibid. 4:12) However if the impurity arose from a different source (e.g. Israelite after a seminal emission, carcass of a non-kosher animal whether large or teeming) then impure oil could not be used for the menorah. The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 470:3) offers this reason for searching for pure oil.
The commentators on the Talmud debate the source of impurity to disqualify the oil. A literal reading of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) implies that the Syrian-Greeks defiled the oil. However from Torah law, a live gentile can neither acquire nor transmit impurity, meaning that the impurity must have resulted from contact with the dead. In the opinion of the author Hellenized Israelites could have caused the impurity through direct contact or by instructing the Syrian-Greeks to contaminate the oil through an animal carcass. In effect the Syrian-Greeks and Hellenized Israelites, upon losing control of the temple, may have followed “a scorched earth policy” and contaminated all of the oil in the temple save for one jar.
The reader may ask, “Why did it take 8 days to produce new olive oil? Seemingly it should have been done in 1 day.” There are numerous answers to this question and for the sake of brevity the author will list the following by topic.
- Geography – Since the best olives grow in the Galilee, north of Israel, it took 4 days to journey from Jerusalem to the Galilee and 4 days back (Beit Yosef Orach Chaim 670 in the name of Rabbeinu Nissim). In addition since the miracle of Hanukkah occurred in the winter, there were not many olives on the trees near Jerusalem necessitating the 8 day trip. The olives that were picked were assumed to be impure (Orach Hashulchan Orach Chaim 670:3).
- Ritual Impurity – The priests were ritually impure from contract with the dead as a result of the war requiring a 7 day purification process (Numbers 19:11-12) and 1 day to make the oil in purity (Beit Yosef ibid.). The commentator Beit Hadash (Orach Chaim 670) questions the reason of impurity because if all of the priests were ritually impure then they would contaminate the oil when pouring it into the menorah. Rather he explains that not all of the priests were impure and those that were pure lit the menorah. Therefore he favours the above explanation of distance based upon geography.
Hanukkah 8 days
The reader may ask, “Since there was sufficient oil for one day, why is Hanukkah celebrated for 8 days and not 7?” There are numerous answers to this question and for the sake of brevity the author will list the following by topic.
- Military victory – Hanukkah commemorates two miracles, the victory over the Syrian-Greeks (one day) and the oil (7 days) (Meiri on Sabbath 21b).
- Miracle of oil – Since the Israelites realized that there was only enough oil for one day, they used only 1/8 of the oil each day. Miraculously the oil burned for the whole night (Beit Yosef on Tur Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 670 – Note 1).
- Miracle of oil – The Israelites poured all of the oil on the 1st lighting but miraculously the jar of oil was full on the next morning (Beit Yosef ibid.).
- Miracle of oil – The Israelites poured all of the oil on the 1st lighting but miraculously the menorah was full on the next morning (Beit Yosef ibid.)
- Historical – It took 8 days to prepare the temple for use by removing all idolatrous objects from the temple and constructing a new altar (Aruch Hashulchan Orach Chaim 670:4 – Note 2).
- Historical – Compensation for the loss of 8 days of celebrating Sukkoth and Shemini Atzeret of that year (Book of Maccabees 2:10:6-7).
- Commemorative – The celebration of Hanukkah for 8 days alludes to circumcision, which was banned by the Syrian-Greeks (Megillat Antiochus verse 11) and now reinstated (Aruch Hashulchan ibid.). Circumcision is normally performed on the 8th day following the boy’s birth (Genesis 17:12).
- Rabbi Yoseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, also wrote a commentary on the Tur Shulchan Aruch of the 14th century called the Beit Yosef. In this commentary he analyzes the source and reason for the Halacha including historical observations.
- Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein of the 19th century wrote the Aruch Hashuchan which is an organized summary and analysis of the sources for the Shulchan Aruch.
This article examined the holiday of Hanukkah from the perspective of history starting from Alexander the Great and ending with the death of the last of the Maccabees. Although the Israelites were able to obtain independence from the Seleucids and rebuild the temple these victories came at the cost of many human lives including fighting between the Israelites and death the sons of Mattathias. This article also examined the story of Hanukkah from Hashem’s perspective including Hashem’s apparent tolerance of persecution and eventual divine assistance of the Maccabees and concluded with a discussion of the miracle of the oil. As mentioned above, war is not an end in itself but a means to achieve religious freedom as the prophet Zachariah teaches (ibid. 4:6), “Hashem says: Not by military force nor by physical strength, but by My (divine) spirit”.