Jesse Monteagudo

The Story of Hanukkah

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | December 01, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: ancient history, Hanukkah, history of Hanukkah, Jewish history

To many Americans, Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, perhaps because the two holidays usually fall close to one another. However, thanks to the vagaries of the Jewish lunar calendar, Hanukkah 2010 begins at sundown on December 1, when most folks are hanukkah.jpgstill trying to digest their Thanksgiving turkey. In any case, the story of Hanukkah, though a day of special significance to the Jewish people who observe it, should be studied by all who believe in freedom, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The feast of Hanukkah is the only major Jewish holiday that is not based on a Biblical event. The Books of the Maccabees, which chronicle the events that form the historical basis for Hanukkah, are part of the Apocrypha and hence are not included in either the Jewish or the Protestant Bible. Though written in Hebrew in the first century before the Christian era, the Books of the Maccabees only survive in a Greek translation.

According to the Talmud, the Hebrews observed a festival during the early winter long before the Maccabees arrived. This precursor to Hanukkah was connected, like the Roman Saturnalia, to the increase in daylight that follows the winter solstice. Other, more typically Jewish, motives connected with this holiday included the kindling of fire, an ancient ritual linked to the dedication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The series of events that led to the transformation of this ancient holiday into Hanukkah began with the death of Alexander the Great in the year 323 BCE. Through his conquests, Alexander introduced Greek civilization to the peoples of the former Persian Empire, including the Jews. After his death, Alexander's generals divided his empire. Antigonus took Greece and Macedonia, Ptolemy took Egypt and its dependencies, and Seleucus took Syria and the East. Judea itself became a bone of contention between the Ptolemys and the Seleucids until 198 BCE, when Antiochus III took the Jewish state and made it a part of the Seleucid empire.

The conquest of Judea by a Hellenistic empire led to an intellectual and spiritual struggle between Hebraic and Hellenic lifestyles and philosophies. Many Jews, particularly the young, the rich and the well-educated, began to adopt Greek ways. Young Jews adopted Greek names, took part in nude sporting events in newly-established gymnasia, studied Greek philosophy, practiced Greek "friendship" and in some cases regained their foreskins through surgery. The Jewish high priest Jason, who was appointed to his post by Antiochus IV in 175 BCE, was an all-too typical example of this assimilated generation.

On the other hand, there were many Jews who remained faithful to their traditions and prayed for the day when they would be able to re-establish the Jewish Commonwealth. Appalled by the bad example of Jason and his contemporaries, traditional Jews banded together in groups known as the Hasidim or the pious ones (not to be confused with the modern Hasidim). In 168 the Hasidim took advantage of Antiochus's absence to seize the Temple and cleanse it of pagan idols.

Did this not go well with Antiochus IV. He returned to Jerusalem, restored Menelaus (Jason's successor as high priest) to power, and ordered his Jewish subjects to assimilate or else. The Temple was dedicated to the Greek god Zeus in a ceremony complete with idols and the sacrifice of pigs. Antiochus forbade, under penalty of death, circumcision, Sabbath observance, Torah study and other Jewish customs. Jerusalem was sacked and its people sold into slavery.

Not all the Jews submitted to this outrage. One of those who resisted was Mattathias the Hasmonean. When an agent of Antiochus came to the Hasmonean's village of Modin to order the required sacrifices, Mattathias killed him. Assisted by his five strapping sons -- Johannan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar and Jonathan -- Mattathias waged guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his allies.

When Mattathias died, leadership of the Jewish War of Independence (which is what it now became) was assumed by his son Judah, called the Maccabee or the hammer. The Maccabee and his brethren spread their revolt throughout Judea, killing hellenizers, destroying idols and circumcising boys with or without their permission or that of their parents. In 166 BCE, Judah the Hammer defeated a much larger Seleucid force at Emmaus and again at Mizpah. Jerusalem fell without resistance.

We all know what happened next. The Maccabees removed the idols from the Temple, cleaned and rededicated it, and restored the ancient rituals. According to legend, though the Temple only had enough sacramental oil left to light the ritual menorah for one day, the menorah managed to burn miraculously for eight days. Legend or fact, the real miracle of Hanukkah was the Jews' amazing victory against insuperable odds.

Such is the story of Hanukkah. But history continued. Judah the Maccabee continued his resistance until his death in 163 BCE. His brothers, Jonathan and Simon, continued the fight until 142, when the Seleucid monarch Demetrius II reluctantly recognized Jewish independence. Alas, the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled the Jewish commonwealth as both kings and high priests until the Roman conquest (37 BCE), acted like most successful revolutionaries, adopting many of the unsavory traits of the regime that it fought to overthrow. Hasmonean armies conquered surrounding lands, forcing their inhabitants to convert to Judaism, while their rulers enjoyed personal lives that would have shocked Mattathias and his sons.

Fortunately, most Jews did not follow their leaders into corruption. As modified by the Pharisees and Talmudic rabbis, Judaism and the Jewish people survived the Roman conquest and the destruction of the Temple. As for Hanukkah, its message of Jewish strength and patriotism gained a new meaning with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. The reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish rule in 1967 was a repetition, in secular terms, of Judah the Maccabee's victory 21 centuries earlier.


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THANK YOU for posting this! Although I am definitely not Jewish, it's great to see religion having a place in a gay blog, and a positive place at that. Anti-religiousness gets frustrating sometimes, so this is a great affirmer of being both gay and religious. Thank

Interesting, before I only knew about the oil running out etc. but not it seems there are more facts about the holiday. Good article, I've actually learned some good info from it.

I'm not jewish but I'm proud that more liberal sects of jews accept alternative lifestyles. :)

Bonnie Smith
COO/Director FXP
http://www.forexpulse.com

Thanks, Jesse, for the thorough explanation.

Thank you, Jesse! Until I read your explanation, Hanukkah was just there. Now it has some meaning.

Agreed, Paula. Now it's got context.

The Books of the Maccabees, which chronicle the events that form the historical basis for Hanukkah, are part of the Apocrypha and hence are not included in either the Jewish or the Protestant Bible.
It should be noted that for most Christians 1 & 2 Maccabees are considered to be part of the Bible as Deuterocanonical books (literally "second canon"). This includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Copts. The Eastern Orthodox also accept 3 Maccabees as part of their Old Testament. Canonical distinctions and quibbling aside, 1 Maccabees is the most fascinating to read IMO.

It's funny how growing up going to my very Reform Sunday School, they never really wanted us to put the biblical Jewish experience in wider historical/social context but I love hearing about that Jesse! And understanding that Hanukkah was, at heart, a cultural struggle makes perfect sense. That struggle has been a core part of the entire history of the people/religion. Pretty much, I'm on the side of the nude wrestling. :-)

But now you can understand, ginasf, why the Jewish boys wanted to reverse their circumcisions ... yet another reason to be picked last for the team!

The Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees *are* included in the Catholic Bible, and are among the books in the official canon put together (I believe by Eusebius) by the time of the Council of Nicaea (though the canonical list was not expressly stated at the Council). Jerome, with whom I may have other issues, included these books and the other deutero-canonical books, in the Vulgate, which is the official source Bible in Latin. The deutero-canonical texts were also included i the Septuagint in Greek. Luther decided to reject many centuries of Christian thinking when he went to the Jewish canon which had been set before Christ. The Christian canon included these books, and not others (III and IV Macabbes, for example, were not included). Most of the Eastern Churches also include the Deutero-canonical texts in the officially accepted biblical canon.

Luther wanted to break with official authority in more ways than necessary - his rejection of the deuterocanonical books is questionable.

The question of whether these are inspired works or not is a matter of debate - for that matter, the question of *any* biblical works being *inspired* is also a question. Certainly one can find many contradictions in the Bible, and one can clearly see an evolution of the perception of God between the earlier books, and say, Isaiah. At some point, God becomes less the angry and jealous tribal God of the Hebrews, in competition with other tribal gods, and more the overarching God of everyone.

For those who celebrate Chanukah, may your own lights shine brightly!

Although I was raised Lutheran, I have never heard Luther's "official" reasons for rejecting the Deutero-canonical texts -- although as implied above, rejection of authority from Rome could have been his real motivation.

If anyone has a 50-word-or-less explanation, I'd be glad to see it.

(P.S. Luther definitely had his idiosyncrasies -- he also rejected the entire monastic clergy system along with concepts such as meditation, contemplation, and anything we now call "esoteric" Christianity. But is this surprising from a frustrated former priest who married a former nun? He had probably had more than enough of it all!)

The Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees *are* included in the Catholic Bible, and are among the books in the official canon put together (I believe by Eusebius) by the time of the Council of Nicaea (though the canonical list was not expressly stated at the Council).
There wasn't an "official canon" per se until the Council of Florence in the 15th century, which Trent reaffirmed a few decades later. There really wasn't a need as controversies over doctrine and the Canon which would necessitate such didn't really occur until the Protestant Reformation. Yes there were numerous schisms, controversies, etc. but the issue of the Canon and doctrine relating to it hadn't been a big deal until then so other than the local councils of Carthage and Laodicea, no other council addressed it until Florence.
Jerome, with whom I may have other issues, included these books and the other deutero-canonical books, in the Vulgate, which is the official source Bible in Latin. The deutero-canonical texts were also included i the Septuagint in Greek.
Yet he did so under protest and never changed his opinion that these books were not Scripture nor canonical. The translations he included in the Vulgate of these books were hurried and taken strictly from the LXX rather than the careful analysis of many sources such as he did with all the other OT books.
Luther decided to reject many centuries of Christian thinking when he went to the Jewish canon which had been set before Christ.
Luther followed Jerome's opinion on the matter, which was the practice of many, though certainly not all, Catholic scholars since the 5th century. The difference was that Luther separated these books from other OT books and tried to make Jerome's view the official view of the Church. Obviously the Church came to reject Jerome's view on these books.
The Christian canon included these books, and not others (III and IV Macabbes, for example, were not included). Most of the Eastern Churches also include the Deutero-canonical texts in the officially accepted biblical canon.
3 Maccabees is considered to be canonical by the Eastern Orthodox but not by Roman Catholics.
Luther wanted to break with official authority in more ways than necessary - his rejection of the deuterocanonical books is questionable.
If this were on solely matters of authority you could make a case for this but not an objective look at the history of the formation of the canon. Many Christians accepted these books as being Scripture and many did not. It wasn't an issue that divided folks into separate churches prior to the Reformation. One of Luther's reasons for rejecting the deutero books was that Catholics relied on them for some doctrines, such as purgatory, which he rejected.

I simplified my responses in this greatly but there is much online that one can find on the history of the formation of the Canon - be careful of the apologists pro and anti deutero though. There are many good books too. I'm partial to Lee Martin McDonald's The Biblical Canon as well as The Canon Debate.

My Roman Catholic upbringing (and Bible) included I & II Maccabees. I was surprised to find them absent from Protestant Bibles. But I knew about Hannukkah!

Although I am glad that the Jewish culture survived its many struggles throughout history, I have mixed feelings about the mantra "God delivered His chosen people" through endless tribal skirmishes. (On the other hand, I'm more comfortable about that mantra if we consider the Allied victory of World War II -- pure historical prejudice on my part.)

This discomfort, I am sure, arises from the many atrocities that have happened and continue today "in the name of the Lord". I am not being at all anti-Jewish, for Christianity is rife with like examples.

I hope, Jesse and all, that the true human victory over the last two-thousand-plus years is the appreciation of culture in hand with the rejection of tribalism. Today, thank God, we do our best not to tolerate one little group trying to rub out the neighboring little group. Today, not completely but moreso than in earlier ages, we know that humans must learn to live together -- somehow. Even today, it isn't easy. Look at the modern Middle East, for just one example.

So I hope that many celebrate not only the victories of the past, but also the hope that future conflicts will be unnecessary. The older I get, the more I tend to feel that pacifism is ideal if it is a possible choice at all. If humanity can get to the place that war isn't necessary, then the life within us, Jew and Gentile alike, will be the flame that miraculously burns on and on, lighting a dark universe.

Figures... it starts off being about us Jews and it ends up being all about the goyim. *removing tongue from cheek*

No, ginasf ... If what you claim were true, then why did Jesse go to the trouble of posting on a blog where most of the readers are "goyim" -- I didn't get the feeling he was trying to convert anyone.