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A review of history. . .

Between 167 and 164 BCE, the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who was politically and militarily in control of Judea at the time, imposed a series of decrees upon the population of Judea, effectively banning the observance of Judaism. Though throughout the preceding centuries there had been many wars for territory and military and political hegemony in the Ancient Near East, this was the first pointed and deliberate religious persecution imposed by one people upon another.

These were the decrees handed down by Antiochus:

  1.  No Jewish sacrifices may be offered in the Temple of God. (This was the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, built for Jewish worship of the God of Israel.) Instead, mandatory sacrifices of pigs and impure animals must be dedicated to Zeus on the Temple’s altar.
  2.  Pagan temples were to be built throughout Judea.
  3.  No circumcisions were allowed, on pain of death to child, parent, and mohel.
  4.  The Torah was to be forgotten, and its legal system replaced with Greek law.
  5.  Shabbat and holy days were to be desecrated.
  6. The celebration of Antiochus’ birthday was enforced including the eating of sacrifices made in his honor.
  7.  Participation in Dionysian processions crowned with ivy wreaths was required.
  8.  It was prohibited to identify oneself as a Jew (including a prohibition on the use of Jewish names).

During the time that these decrees were imposed, a priest named Mattathias lived in Jerusalem, but moved to Modi’in. Mattathias had five sons: John, Simon, Judah (called “the Maccabee”), Elazar, and Jonathan. But Antiochus’ officers traveled throughout Judea, trying to persuade the Jews to abandon their religion and offer sacrifices to the Greek god Zeus. Mattathias refused. When he witnessed a Jew in Modi’in step up to the altar to offer the pagan sacrifice, he was overcome with anger, and he rose up and slaughtered the Jew on the altar. Then he and his sons fled into the hills.*

Eventually, Judah created a fighting force, returned to Jerusalem, and defeated the army of Antiochus. It was a stunning military victory

 The above is culled from the Book of Maccabees.
In addition to the war between the armies of Judah and Antiochus, there was also an internecine war among the Jews themselves. In 332 BCE, when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the entire area of Persia, Asia Minor, Egypt—generally what we now know as the Middle East—he brought with him Hellenistic culture and spread it throughout the region. Many Jews were attracted to its language, culture, and aesthetics. Within Judea, the institution of the gymnasium became a central locus of activity for many Jewish men. In pursuit of the Hellenistic ideal of “perfection,” they often took drastic steps to hide the signs of their circumcision. But there were those Jews, like Mattathias, his sons, and his community, who rejected the culture of Hellenism, and saw in it danger for the Jews of losing their national identity, and loyalty to God and Jewish religion. The victory of the Maccabees in taking back control of the Temple was not only a victory over the Syrians; it was a victory of Jewish assertion over the loss of adherence to Jewish practice and faith in the God of Israel.

This is history.

Now, for the miracle.

Several hundred years after the Maccabean Revolt, the Rabbis wrote the following story into the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, from Megillat Ta’anit:

“Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Chanukah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by th

e High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit [with that oil] for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival with Hallel (Praise) and Thanksgiving.”

For Jews around the world, Chanukah is one of the most beloved and celebrated of all times during our Jewish year. Nevertheless, Chanukah is not ordained in the Torah, nor does it even appear anywhere in the Tanakh—the entire Hebrew Bible. In fact, most of what we know about it comes from the Books of Maccabees, which are included in the canonical Jewish Bible, though they are included in the New Testament.

Chances are, if you were to ask many Jews in our time what Chanukah is about, the “knee-jerk” answer would be, “the miracle of the oil,” or “the oil lasted for 8 nights,” or some permutation thereof. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself. But in fact, this tale of the miracle of Chanukah is just that—a tale. Not that celebrating miracles is a bad thing, necessarily. In fact, on a daily basis, we Jews recognize and give thanks for a whole host of miracles, including our very lives, our health and families, and the world around us. On the other hand, our celebration of Chanukah also demands that we remember our history as a people.

 Chanukah is the commemoration of a military victory by a civilian army that saw the elevation of Judah “the Maccabee,” of priestly descent, to the status of a military general. It is also the story of an internal struggle within the Jewish community—a struggle which, in different iterations, continues to this day. And, it is the commemoration of the re-dedication of the Temple on Mount Zion to the God of Israel, after it had been defiled by the Syrian army.

On the other hand, as a people, we have witnessed countless events that we might justifiably characterize as “miracles” throughout our history. But in fact, most of them have come about because we have refused to relinquish our faith and our strength, both physical and spiritual, despite the challenges, both internal and external, that we have endured and overcome throughout our history.

And so, as we celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, we also celebrate the miracle of our history as a people, which is ongoing even on this day. And we pray for a long, vibrant, and peaceful future.

Chag Urim Sameach to all—a joyous Festival of Lights!

*The material on the decrees of Antiochus and the actions of Mattathias may be found in A Different Light, a brilliant compendium on Chanukah by Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.