Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Chanukah: The Untold Story

December 9, 2012 10:12 am 1 comment

Mattathias, who led the Maccabees in revolt. Photo: PD

During the eight days of Hanukkah, traditional Jews add the following to their daily prayers: “In the days of Mattathias the son of Johanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece set upon your nation Israel to make them forget your  teachings, and to remove them from the laws you desire, you in your great mercy…gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure.”

Sound familiar? The little history lesson in this prayer is probably very close to the story of Judah Maccabee and King Antiochus you remember from Hebrew school: The underdog heroes attain a miraculous victory over the powerful villains against all odds, winning back their religious freedom and purifying the defiled temple in Jerusalem.

That’s the short story. The longer version is not quite as heartwarming or morally clear-cut. Ancient historical records, especially the little known Book of Maccabees, actually tell of a bitter and bloody internal conflict that pitted Jew against Jew in a fight for political and religious domination.

Towards the end of the fourth century BCE, Greek Hellenistic culture had spread to every part of Alexander the Great’s massive empire, and Judea was no exception. Certain Jews, mainly those belonging to the wealthy elite of Jerusalem, enthusiastically embraced the offerings of this culture—Greek names and dress, the gymnasium, even the Greek gods—and curried the favor of Alexander’s heirs, the ruling Seleucids, in return for their cooperation. The poorer farming communities of the rural Judean countryside, however, resisted the changes that were sweeping the ancient world, unwilling to give up the traditional Jewish beliefs and customs of their ancestors.

The focal point of the conflict was often the high priesthood, which at the time was the most powerful office in the land. Tensions boiled over when Hellenized Jews paid Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (the famous Antiochus of the Hanukkah story), to replace the reigning high priest with a Hellenist sympathizer who was not born of the priestly line. At the time, explains famed Jewish historian Solomon Grayzel, Antiochus’ actions were economically and politically motivated, and had nothing to do with suppressing Jewish religion. After all, there is no record of him imposing anti-Jewish policies on the many diaspora Jewish communities under his rule. However, when Antiochus’ power play sparked an uprising in and around Jerusalem, he reacted harshly by banning circumcision and observance of dietary laws within Judea, and erecting a statue of Zeus in the Holy Temple.

Now the growing rift in Judean society blew wide open. Hellenized Jews not only supported the repressive policy, but also helped Antiochus’ men violently enforce it in the traditional Judean villages. In response, when the traditionalists rose up under the leadership of Mattathias, their fury was directed at their Hellenized countrymen. 1 Maccabees reports that Mattathias’ followers, called hasidim, or “pious ones,” slaughtered assimilated Jews and circumcised male children by force. Fearing for their lives, well-connected Hellenists called upon the Seleucid armies for protection, and it is with the ensuing battle that the well-known version of the Hanukkah story begins.

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

1 Comment

  • 250 “progressive, left-wing” rabbis have signed a letter in support of the President’s proposal to allow tax cuts to expire at the end of the year for those making above $250,000 annually. The letter was written by Bend the Arc Jewish Action, which bills itself as the largest Jewish social justice organization devoted to domestic policy issues.

    Making $250,000 OR$ 300,OOO in the New York-New Jersey tri-state area does not make one wealthy.

    I notice this was signed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. How many of them live in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut? How many of them pay exorbitant tuitions to day schools and yeshivas beginning at age four for their children?

    Most people do not spend this type of money until college. In many cases, college is cheaper. I hope none of these rabbis will tell me that sending my children and grandchildren to day schools or yeshivas is a luxury of choice.

    As an observant Jew, I have no choice nor do the majority of young observant-Jewish families who, even though they may make a combined salary of $250,000, are struggling. Try buying kosher food for the same price as non-kosher food. The choice to live in a religious community is based upon the need to educate our families in the ways of Torah observance. It is a sacrifice we all make.

    Who are these rabbis to tell us that we have so much money that we can afford the luxury of higher taxes?SOME CHANNUKAH GIFT.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

    Edison, NJ

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Book Reviews Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    It is cocktail hour on an April afternoon in 2004. The sun is hot on Amsterdam’s canals, and I am sitting at Café den Leeuw on the Herengracht with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is still a member of the Dutch Parliament, and we talk about Islam. Specifically, we talk about the concept of “moderate Islam,” or what she calls “liberal Islam.” And she has one word for it. “It’s absurd,” she says. “It’s complete nonsense. There is no ‘liberal […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    Everybody knows that cooking varies from country to country. There are Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, etc. We associate different styles of cuisine with different languages. Do we also think of the association of different cuisines with different dialects? We should, because cooking also varies from region to region. Litvaks and Galitsyaners have their own traditions of preparing gefilte fish. Marvin I. Herzog, in his book The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History (Indiana University, Bloomington, and Mouton & Co., The […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    An analysis of New York Times wedding announcements showed that women married in Jewish ceremonies were less likely to take their husband’s last names than those married in Roman Catholic ceremonies, the Times reported on Saturday. The largest gap between the two groups was in 1995 when 66 percent of Catholic women took their husband’s names and 33 percent of Jewish women did the same. Nearly half of the women featured in the publication’s wedding pages since 1985 took their husband’s name after marriage, while about […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    JNS.org – Through appreciation of both his comedy and humanitarian work, legendary Jewish entertainer Jerry Lewis is staying relevant at age 89. The only comic to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Lewis added another award to his trophy case in April, when he received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Gordon Smith, NAB’s president and CEO, said the organization was “honored to recognize not only [Lewis’s] comedic innovation, but also his remarkable […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli athletes marked a successful day on Sunday, as gymnasts won multiple bronze and silver medals in the 2015 European Games in Baku. The Gymnastics team won two silver medals and one bronze in group events, while Neta Rivkin, an Israeli Olympic gymnast, won bronze for the Solo Hoops event. Sunday’s gymnastics wins follow Sergey Richter’s bronze on June 16 for the Men’s 10 meter air-rifle, and Ilana Kratysh’s silver for women’s freestyle wrestling. The 2015 European Games in Baku are […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Russian-American Jews are some of the most successful ballroom dancing competitors in the U.S., South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) Radio reported on Thursday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said their success can be traced back to Jewish discrimination in the former Soviet Union. Because of the prejudice they faced, Russian Jews had to perform better than their peers in every field, including dancing, in order to have a chance of getting ahead. “They knew that if they […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    An Israeli dancer made use of Jewish props in an extraordinary routine that left judges amazed when he auditioned for season 12 of TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance on Monday. At first, the panel of judges appeared confused when Asaf Goren, 23, began his audition in Los Angeles with a tallit (prayer shawl) over his head and the blowing of a shofar, which he explained “opens the sky” for people’s prayers. However, as soon as he started his “Hebrew breaking” performance, […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    JNS.org – A fairytale ending to Jewish basketball coach David Blatt’s first season in the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not meant to be, as the Blatt-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night dropped Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, 105-97, to lose the best-of-seven series 4-2. Blatt, who just last year coached Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv franchise to a European basketball championship, failed to finish a second straight hoops season on top. But after the Cavaliers began the NBA […]

    Read more →