Hanukkah: Then and Now
By: HaRav Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Published in the U.S.A.
Hanukkah [חנוכה], which means “inauguration” or “dedication,” is an eight-day rabbinic holiday which begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, and which typically occurs during the Gregorian month of November or December. Hanukkah is sometimes referred to as the “Festival of Lights,” an apparent reference to the candles that are lit on each night of the holiday.
Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish military victory, circa 2nd century BCE, of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, an ancient Greek, Hellenistic empire which was founded by the Macedonian Greek general Seleucus I Nicator. Under the later rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek Seleucid Empire conquered Eretz Yisra’el, which then consisted of both Judea, Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), and other areas in Medinat Yisra’el (modern-day State of Israel).
Under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, thousands of Jews in Eretz Yisra’el were massacred; Jewish religious practice in Eretz Yisra’el was banned; the Beit HaMikdash [בית המקדש] (Holy Temple in Yerushalayim) was desecrated through the erection therein of an alter to the Greek god Zeus and the sacrificing therein of pigs; and, Jews were ordered to worship Greek gods.
During the persecution of Jews by the Greeks, Mattityahu haKohen ben Yohanan (“Mattityahu”), while in his hometown of Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut, aka: Modi’in (which is about 35 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv and about 30 kilometers west of Yerushalayim; not to be confused with Modi’in Illit), was ordered by a Greek official to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. When Mattityahu refused, a secular “Hellenist” Jew volunteered to perform the sacrifice. Mattityahu then killed both the secular Jew and the Greek official. Thus, the Maccabean Revolt [מרד החשמונאים], which consisted primarily of guerrilla warfare, was born.
The Maccabees’ most consequential victory was the conquest of Yerushalayim and the capture of the Beit HaMikdash [בית המקדש].
Although only enough kosher oil for one day was found in Beit HaMikdash [בית המקדש], that small amount of oil burned continuously for eight days, which was long enough for new, kosher oil to be squeezed from olives. Hanukkah is thus celebrated for eight days.
During the decades that followed, the Maccabees continued their insurgent activities, using guerrilla warfare tactics against not only the Greek occupiers and oppressors, but also against the secular “Hellenist” Jews who sympathized and cooperated with the Greeks.
The Maccabees achieved some degree of success. Although Eretz Yisra’el was still officially under the control of the Greek Seleucid Empire, the Maccabees acquired a degree of informal autonomy, which it used to raise an army and continue prosecuting a civil war against the secular “Hellenist” Jews.
The Hasmoneans, some of whose members were related to the Maccabees, rose to power. Unfortunately, the Hasmoneans, unlike the Maccabees, presided over great spiritual and moral decline within the Jewish nation. The last two Hasmonean rulers, the secular “Hellenists” Jews Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, had a dispute. In their attempt to settle the dispute, Hyrcanus and Aristobolus invited the Romans into Eretz Yisra’el to mediate and, hopefully, to help settle the dispute. The rest, as they say, is history.
As the late American broadcaster Paul Harvey might have said, now you know “The Rest of the Story.”
Subsequent to the time when the Jewish people, with the help of the Maccabees, conquered Yerushalayim, Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisra’el and Yerushalayim was lost for more than 2,000 years. In the Hebrew year 5708 (1948 on the Gregorian calendar), that sovereignty was regained, and subsequently retained though what can only be described as open miracles which were bestowed on the Jewish nation by the grace of Heaven.
Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since the time of the Maccabees. The Jewish people still have an enemy who contends that the Jewish people are not the rightful owners of Eretz Yisra’el and who, by force of arms, seek to dispossess the Jewish people of Eretz Yisra’el. There are still Hellenized Jews in Eretz Yisra’el and, just as during the times of the Hasmoneans, these Hellenized Jews occupy positions of political power, although they look to Washington, D.C., rather than to Rome, for salvation.
As no Jew in his right mind wants another Jewish civil war, we must continue to pray for Devine assistance, while simultaneously using the democratic process to transform Medinat Yisra’el from its current status as a Hellenized, Jewish state in name only, into a state which is guided by Torah and Halakha and, thus, is truly Jewish.
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