The Story of Chanukah

The story of Chanukah began almost two thousand, one hundred years ago when most of the Mideast was under the influence of the Greeks.  The Greeks spread their culture throughout the area.  They developed architecture and art. They appreciated philosophy and literature.  They enjoyed sports and leisure.  The Greeks expected the people in these countries to happily adopt Greek ways while forgetting the ways of their ancestors.  This widespread culture was called “Hellenism.”

In Judea (now called “Israel”) where Jews lived, the spread of Hellenism did not go quite as smoothly.  The Jews appreciated many of the benefits that the Greeks had brought.  The Jews, however, would not bow down to the idols of the Greeks and would not give up their ancient rituals. 

To the Hellenist leader of Judea, the Jews were a peculiar and stubborn people, but since the Jews paid their taxes, they seemed harmless enough.  They were allowed to go about their business and worship a nameless, faceless God, Adonai.  They were allowed their holy Temple and their holy city of Jerusalem.  They were allowed to study the Torah and to live as their ancestors had always lived

Then, in the year 175 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), a new dynasty came to power. In its throne sat the Assyrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, know as Antiochus IV.  He wanted everyone under his rule to be Greek in every way.  He made laws that everyone had to bow down to his idols and forbade the Jews from reading Torah and observing Shabbat.  If they refused to follow his laws, they would be killed.  Though some Jews gave in, others did not.  Many Jews died for their beliefs.  The Jews were in danger of being wiped out entirely.

In a small town called Modi’in, there lived a brave man, Mattithias.  He saw the horrors that Antiochus and his army brought.  Mattithias, his sons and a group of Jewish followers fled to the hills.  Other Jewish families joined them.  They decided to rebel against King Antiochus’ rule and began to teach themselves to fight back.  Mattithias died during this struggle but his son Judah took his place as leader.  Judah and all his followers became know as the “Maccabees,” because “Maccabee” means “hammer,” and Judah and his followers struck at Antiochus’ army with heavy blows.  The Maccabees fought on against the armies of Antiochus.  They fought for three difficult  long years, finally making their way into Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Temple. 

When the Maccabees arrived in Jerusalem, they immediately began cleaning the desecrated Temple.  They swept out the filth and shards of shattered pottery.  They pushed out the statues and idols.  They tore down the crumbled, polluted altar and built a clean, new one, according to ancient law.  Potters and metal workers busied themselves making candlesticks, incense burners, and pots for sacred oil.  Children helped pull up weeds and plant flowers in the outside courtyard, new curtains were sewn, and the walls and floors were scrubbed inside and out.  Finally, on the twenty-fifth day of the third month of the Jewish calendar, Kislev, the Jerusalem Temple was ready.  In the year 164 B.C.E., the Maccabees dedicated the Temple and offered sacrifices to God.  The celebration was to last eight glorious days.  According to one story, they only found enough pure oil to light the menorah found to last for one day.  And miraculously it lasted longer.  The dedication festivities went on without interruption as the oil burned for more than a week. 

What is perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that those lights are still burning just as brightly today as we continue to celebrate Chanukah in our own homes.  The word “Chanukah” has come to mean “dedication” to celebrate both the dedication of the Holy Temple, and also the dedication it took the Maccabees to persevere in very dangerous and difficult times.