On Hanukkah, We Celebrate Those Who Gave Their Lives for Judaism
Hanukkah is a time to reflect upon the many ways that the Festival of Lights has impacted Jewry throughout history.
In the era following the conquest of the world by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, most of the world had embraced Hellenism. The Jews, however, tenaciously clung to their Torah and were the exception to the universal global trend.
Their unique practices were largely tolerated for the next 150 years, until Antiochus Epiphanes IV became emperor. Antiochus, with the encouragement of Jewish adherents to Hellenism, embarked upon a policy of forcing that ideology upon the Jews of Judea. Jewish rites were prohibited, and idolatrous practices were mandated. Those in violation were severely punished.
If the Jews had acquiesced and abandoned their heritage, they could have spared themselves much suffering. Yet most chose a different path — that of defiance.
Some ran and hid in the hills, others continued to keep their traditions active but hidden. The Talmud mentions some who defied authority: Chanah’s seven sons refused to bow to the emperor, resulting in their own deaths; the elderly sage Eleazar refused to partake of a food that merely resembled forbidden food, and was executed. His parting words were, “I will leave an example of strength, to die willingly, with courage, for the perfect and holy Torah.”
Resistance to religious persecution is central to the theme of Hanukkah.
When Roman armies first entered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Jews were ready to die rather than participate in a pagan rite when ordered to do so by the Roman General Pompey. Ten years later, when the Roman Emperor Caligula demanded that Jews worship his image, Jews again were ready to defy the emperor, regardless of the consequences.
More than 150 years later, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian provoked the Jews, again the Jews resisted. This time, they organized a full-scale revolt, under the leadership of Simon Bar Kochba, against the mighty Roman Empire.
During Christian rule, Jews endured all forms of persecution, from blood libel accusations to inquisitions to massacres. As during the times of the Maccabees, they resisted, but could have been spared the seemingly endless suffering if they had capitulated to their antagonists.
In Islamic countries over the centuries, many Jews chose to live humiliated as an underclass of dhimmi, often persecuted, but accepting their predicament.
The examples are far too numerous to count. Two thousand years of history is replete with sacrifice and martyrdom.
The notion of self-sacrifice has been recognized in Jewish history. The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Akiva defied the Roman emperor Hadrian’s ban on Torah study. Under Czar Nicholas I of Russia, young Jewish recruits in the Czar’s army faced enormous pressure, often including torture, to accept baptism. Their brave resistance prompted the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, to compare their suffering to that of the Jews under the rule of Antiochus. The Tzemach Tzedek considered these boys, known as “Cantonists” to be the greatest heroes among the Jews.
So, in the face of so much sacrifice and suffering, why rejoice on Hanukkah?
Because we celebrate the sacrifices made by so many over the millennia, and we affirm that those sacrifices were not in vain. By acknowledging their sacrifices, we are celebrating the purpose of life itself and the endurance of the Jews as a people.