A Hanukkah Guide for the Perplexed, 2017
In 175 BCE, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus wished to exterminate Judaism and forcibly convert Jews to Hellenism. He suspected that the Jews were allies of his chief rival, Egypt. In 169 BCE, upon returning to Syria from a war against Egypt, he 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 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 suppression of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 135 CE.
2. The name Maccabee (מכבי or 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.”
3. Hanukkah ( חנוכהin Hebrew) celebrates the initiation/inauguration (חנוכ) of the reconstructed Temple. Hanukkah (חנוכה) is also education-oriented (חנוכ). A key feature of Hanukkah is the education/mentoring of the family and community, recognizing education as the foundation of human behavior.
According to the First Book of Maccabees, Judah the Maccabee instituted an 8-day holiday on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev 165 BCE, to commemorate Jewish history, in general, and the inauguration and deliverance of the holy altar and the Temple, in particular.
4. The Hanukkah Menorah commemorates the legacy of the Maccabees, highlighting spiritual and physical liberty, in defiance of formidable odds; it also celebrates value-driven faith, tenacious optimism, patriotism, attachment to roots, and adherence to long-term values and interests over political-correctness and short-term convenience.
The Biblical commandment to light candles employs the verb “to elevate the candles” (Numbers, 8:1-3), since candles represent the soul, while the menorah represents the unity of the family and the people.
The Hanukkah candles are lit for eight days (representing eternity and the Jewish covenant with God), during the darkest time of the year, when the moon is hardly noticed, and the human mood tends to grow grimmer. The Hanukkah festival of lights symbolizes the victory of optimism over depression.
5. The US connection:
According to the Diary of Michael and Louisa Hart, George Washington was introduced to Hanukkah in December 1777 at Valley Forge, when he challenged the much superior British military. A Jewish solider lit a Hanukkah candle, explaining its significance: a conviction-driven, tactical victory against immense odds. Washington replied: “I rejoice in the Maccabees’ success, though it is long past. … It pleases me to think that miracles still happen.”
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.”
A bust of Judah the Maccabee 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.”
*”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!”
*The US Postal Service has issued Hanukkah stamps, annually, since 1996.
An annual Hanukkah candle-lighting educational event also takes place at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, commemorating a December 2, 1993, assault by Billings, Montana’s white supremacists, who tossed a brick through a window of a Jewish home that had displayed the Hanukkah menorah. On the following morning, the Billings Gazette printed a full-page menorah, which was pasted on the windows of over 10,000 non-Jewish residents in a show of solidarity.
6. The Land of Israel connection:
Hanukkah is the longest Jewish holiday — and the only Jewish holiday that commemorates an Israeli national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot and Shavuot (the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia).
The mountain ridges of Judea and southern Samaria (the Land of Benjamin) were the sites of critical Maccabees’ battles: 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 (named after Mattityahu’s youngest son) and Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat), Ba’al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed), Te’qoah, Mikhmash and Gophnah (bases of Shimon and Yonatan) and the Judean Desert, etc.
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.” Shimon’s statement is still relevant in 2017.
For more information on Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays, click here.