Chanukah Guide for the Perplexed, 2019
1. Chanukah’s historical context is narrated in the four Books of the Maccabees, The Scroll of Antiochus, and The Wars of the Jews. The Greek Empire was split following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), who held Judaism in high esteem. In 175 BCE, the Syrian/Seleucid Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies — who claimed the Land of Israel — suspected that Jews were allies of his Egyptian enemy. Therefore, he aimed to exterminate Judaism and convert Jews to Hellenism. In 169 BCE he devastated Jerusalem, massacred Jews, and prohibited the practice of Judaism. The 166/7 BCE rebellion was led by the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family – Mattityahu, the priest, and his five sons, Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan, and Elazar — whose dynasty lasted until 37 BCE.
2. The first day of Chanukah — the holiday of light – is celebrated when daylight hours are equal to darkness, ushering in longer daylight hours — raising optimism.
3. The impact on the formation of the US spirit:
Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, December 1915: “Chanukah, the Feast of Maccabees … celebrates a victory of the spirit over things material … a victory also over [external, but also] more dangerous internal enemies, the Sadducees (the upper social and economic echelon); a victory over the ease-loving, safety-playing, privileged, powerful few, who in their pliancy would have betrayed the best interests of the people; a victory of democracy over aristocracy. … The struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal worldwide interest. … It is a struggle in which all Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews … are vitally affected.”
Benjamin Rush, a key signer of the US Declaration of Independence and a major player in the ratification of the US Constitution, paved the road to the Boston Tea Party, 1773: “What shining examples of patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, the Maccabees, and the illustrious princes and prophets among the Jews.”
The West Point Military Academy’s Academic Boardroom displays the statue of Judah the Maccabee among the “Nine Worthies” — the top nine military leaders in human history: Joshua, King David, Judah the Maccabee, Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon.
Ambassador Hank Cooper, former Director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative: “We need modern Maccabees to preserve that heritage of liberty for our posterity. (“Where are Today’s Maccabees?” December 2013).
4. The name Maccabee (מכבי or מקבי ) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for sledgehammer (מקבת), describing Judah the Maccabee’s tenacious and decisive fighting capabilities. It may be a derivative of the Hebrew word for extinguishing (כבה), which was the fate of most of Judah’s adversaries. It could also be a Hebrew acronym (‘ימ כמוך באלים י): “Who could resemble you among Gods, O Adonai.” The four Books of the Maccabees were possibly written in Latin, which sometimes pronounces C like TZ. Therefore, the origin of the Hebrew word Maccabee could be the Hebrew word Matzbee, the commander.
5. Chanukah is the longest Jewish holiday — the only Jewish holiday (other than Israel’s Independence Day) that commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot/Tabernacles and Shavuot/Pentecost (the Exodus in the Sinai Desert), and Purim (Persia).
6. The mountain ridges of Judea and Southern Samaria (especially the Land of Benjamin) were the platform of critical Maccabee military 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 Maccabee son), 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), the Judean Desert, etc.
7. When ordered by Emperor Antiochus (Book of Maccabees A: 15:33) 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 as relevant in 2019 as it was in ancient times.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative.