The Historical Roots of Hanukkah
The story of Hanukkah is a story of a revolution in the service of religious freedom.
When Alexander the Great died, he left behind two successor generals: Seluces, based in Syria, and Ptolemy, based in Egypt. Both were Hellenizers, like Alexander, spreading Greek culture. Alexander had been understanding of the Jewish need for distinctiveness, but the Selucid rulers were intent on exploiting the resources of the land of Israel, which lay on their path to every battle with the Egyptian kingdom. They began interfering with the political and religious life of the Jews, allowing members of the priestly class who were not in the line of succession to buy the high priesthood in exchange for monies from the Temple treasury. The Jews rioted in response to these moves. Finally these interferences culminated in the Selucid king Antiochus IV declaring an outright ban on Jewish practice.
The ban led to scenes of high drama: Selucid soldiers forcing Jews to eat pork, violate the Sabbath and sacrifice to Greek gods. The Hasmoneans, a family from the priestly class in the small town of Modi’in, became the leaders of a guerilla force rebelling against the imposition of polytheism on the Jews. The family included father Mattathias and his sons Judah Maccabee, Simon, Johanan, Elazar, and Jonathan. We have no idea what Maccabee really meant, but today many translate the word as “hammer.”
In 164 B.C.E., three years into their 25-year rebellion against the Selucids, the Hasmoneans succeeded in recapturing the Temple in Jerusalem. Judah, the eldest son of the family, was responsible for the recapture of the city and the ritual purification of the Temple. The word Hanukkah means dedication, because the Temple had to be rededicated to Jewish worship. The rebellion continued until 142 B.C.E, when Simon, the second brother, became the first king and high priest in the Hasmonean dynasty and declared the country’s independence.
It was important to the Hasmoneans to maintain a connection with their origin as preservers of Judaism in the face of an outside force because during most of their reign they were in conflict with religious Jews. The Pharisees or Sages, ideological precursors to the rabbis who wrote the Talmud, opposed the Hasmoneans for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they saw them as Hellenists themselves who didn’t understand Jewish law. One thing that the rabbis deplored was that the Hasmoneans forcibly converted other people–the Idumeans, on the border of Jewish territory in the Land of Israel–to Judaism. They were the only Jews in the entire history of the Jewish people to ever do this. The Hasmonean dynasty also consolidated the power of the monarchy and the priesthood in a single figure, and the Sages didn’t like that either. Conflicts inside the country were bitter.
Creating Hanukkah as a holiday was part of an overall propaganda campaign that the Hasmoneans undertook to show themselves as true inheritors to the ancient biblical kings of Israel. We have archeological evidence of this: their coins did not have human figures on them, as a way to show that they were opposed to idolatry. The Hasmoneans also commissioned the books of the Maccabees, which they intended to become like the books of Kings in the Hebrew Bible.
The Rabbis, as successors to the Sages, fought back against the establishment of Hanukkah by not admitting the books of the Maccabees and the book of Judith into the Jewish canon of the Bible. These books appear in some versions of the Christian canon, sometimes as Apocrypha. The rabbis also downplayed the role of the Hasmoneans in the story of Hanukkah by perpetuating the story of the miracle of the oil, which appears in the Talmud. In this story, familiar to modern Jews, the real significance of Hanukkah was a divine intervention that validated the faith of the rededicators by stretching their single day’s worth of sanctified olive oil into eight days of light in the Temple’s menorah.
In spite of rabbinic reluctance, Hanukkah took hold as a permanent part of the Jewish calendar. In a dark and cold time of year, people like festivals. Hanukkah has seen real popularity in modern times.