Hanukkah Guide for the Perplexed, 2015
1. Hanukkah’s historical context, according to the Books of the Maccabees, The Scroll of Antiochus and The War of the Jews by Joseph Ben Mattityahu (Josephus Plavius) is as follows.
In 175 BCE, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies of Syria (one third of the disintegrated Greek Empire) wished to exterminate Judaism and forcibly convert Jews to Hellenic values, suspecting that the Jews were allies of his chief rival, Egypt. In 169 BCE, upon his return to Syria from a war against Egypt, Antiochus (IV) devastated Jerusalem, massacred Jews, forbade the practice of Judaism, and desecrated the Temple.
The 167 BCE Jewish rebellion featured the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family: Mattityahu, a priest from the town of Modi’in, and his five sons, Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan, and Elazar. The heroic, creative battle tactics of the Maccabees were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome and other global and regional powers. The battles of the Maccabees inspired future Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire from the battle against Pompey in 63 BCE through the end of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 135 CE.
2. Israel’s Founding Father, David Ben Gurion said: “The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history…. The Maccabees overcame one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history due to the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment ….”
3. Hanukkah has been a universal role model of national and religious liberation struggle against all odds, the victory of principle-driven faith and liberty over convenience-driven cynicism and opportunism, and of tenacious optimism over pessimism.
4. The US connection:
A bust of Judah the Maccabee’s head is displayed at West Point Military Academy, along with those of Joshua, David, Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon – “the Nine Worthies.”
John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Thomas Paine, and the organizers of the Boston Tea Party were referred to as “the modern day Maccabees.”
According to the diary of Michael and Louisa Hart, George Washington was introduced to Hanukkah in December 1777 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, while facing the superior British military. A Jewish solider lit a Hanukkah candle, explaining its significance. Washington’s replied: “I rejoice in the Maccabees’ success, though it is long past…It pleases me to think that miracles still happen.” On June 19, 1778, Washington implemented the battle tactics of Judah the Maccabee, and ultimately defeated the British troops.
“In God We Trust” is a derivative of the Maccabees’ battle cry, an adaptation of Moses’ battle cry against the builders of the Golden Calf: “Whoever trusts God; join me!”
In 1921, Justice Louis Brandeis stated: “As part of the eternal worldwide struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal worldwide interest….”
The US Postal Service has issued Hanukkah stamps annually, since 1996.
In Billings, Montana, on December 2, 1993, white supremacists broke windows of Jewish homes that displayed the Hanukkah menorah. On the following morning, the Billings Gazette printed a full-page menorah, which was pasted on the windows of more than 10,000 residents in a show of solidarity. The Billings’ Hanukkah gesture has been commemorated annually.
5. The name Maccabee (מכביor מקבי) is a derivative of the Hebrew word Makevet (מקבת), power hammer in Hebrew. It is also a derivative of the Hebrew verb Cabeh (כבה), to extinguish. Maccabee, מכבי, is also the Hebrew acronym of “Who could resemble you among gods, O Jehovah” מי כמוך באלים) יי). In Latin, the C is sometimes pronounced like a TZ. Hence, Maccabee could be the Latin spelling of the Hebrew word Matzbee, the commander.
6. Hanukkah — the longest Jewish holiday — is the only Jewish holiday that commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot/Tabernacles and Shavuot/Pentecost (the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia). The critical Hanukkah events occurred in Jerusalem and the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria: Mitzpah (the burial site of the Prophet Samuel), Beth El (Judah’s first headquarters), Beth Horon (Judah’s victory over Seron), Hadashah (Judah’s victory over Nicanor), Beth Zur (Judah’s victory over Lysias), Ma’aleh Levona (Judah’s victory over Apolonius), Adora’yim (a Maccabean fortress), Elazar and Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat), Ba’al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed) and the Judean Desert.
When ordered by Antiochus to end the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer, and Akron, Shimon the Maccabee responded: “We have not occupied a foreign land; we have not ruled a foreign land; we have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.”
7. Hanukkah (חנוכהin Hebrew) celebrates the initiation/inauguration (חנוך) of the reconstructed Temple. The holiday is education (חינוכ)-oriented. According to the First Book of Maccabees, Judah instituted an eight-day holiday on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev 165 BCE (just like King Solomon’s eight-day celebration of the inauguration of the First Temple), in order to commemorate Jewish history, in general, and the inauguration and deliverance of the holy altar and the Temple, in particular. A key feature of Hanukkah is the education/mentoring of family members. The Hebrew word, Hanukkah, חנוכה, consists of two words, Chanu-Kah (כה-חנוin Hebrew), which means “they camped/rested” (חנו), and 25 (כ-20, ה-5), referring to the Maccabees’ re-consecration of the Temple on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.
More information on Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays, including the Sabbath, annual fast days and the Jubilee, can be found here.