Monday, December 18, 2006

The story of Hanukkah

Several of the members of Joshua's Army have requested some background on the story of Hanukkah. Here goes...

Hanukkah celebrates one of the important miracles in Jewish history and reminds us of the triumph of faith. It takes place every year in mid to late December. While its date varies if you go by the western calendar, in the Hebrew calendar Hanukkah always falls on the 25th day of Kislev.

Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish war for independence in the second century B.C. The story is told in the First Book of Maccabees, and retold in the Second Book of Maccabees. A contemporary military history of the war can be found in Battles of the Bible, coauthored by Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon.

After his death, Alexander the Great's empire broke into several parts, and Israel was under the control of the Seleucid empire, based in Syria. Israel had lived peacefully under the Persian Empire and under the Ptolemic empire (of Egypt), both which tolerated Judaism; but the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes was an arrogant, bigoted Hellenizer, who attempted to force the Jews to abandon their religion and to adopt Greek customs and worship.

There were those Jews who considered themselves `modern' and `assimilated' who were willing to go along with this, even to the extent of having surgical operations to reverse circumcision.

Others did not, and they were prosecuted vigorously and brutalized by the Greeks.

The start of the Maccabean Revolt sprang from a single spontaneous act of resistance. In the foothills village of Modiin in 167CE, a Greek army unit set up an altar, and ordered the local Jewish rabbi, Mattathias, to sacrifice a pig and eat it. He refused, as did his five sons. When a Jewish collaborator came forward to offer the sacrifice, a furious Mattathias "ran and killed him on the spot, killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and tore down the altar" (1 Mac. 2:15-25).

Mattathias, his sons and their followers then headed for the Judean hills, to launch a guerilla war. They were farmers who had no military training,fighting a professional army. There had not been a Jewish army since Babylon had destroyed the Judean kingdom four centuries before. Their only weapons were farming tools and whatever simple weapons they could construct, such as maces or slings. During this first year, Mattathias died, and his middle son Judah took over command as his successor.

Nicknamed "the hammer" ("Maccabee," in Hebrew), Judah constructed a guerilla army that staged daring nighttime raids on the Greek outposts, then melted back into the countryside. His successes attracted more supporters, and the revolt spread.

The war went on for 25 years, one of the most singular wars for independence in history. The miracle, perhaps is that it was fought at all, let alone won.

The Seleucids and Antiochus sent huge, well equipped armies into Israel to subdue the Jews. They were all defeated, at odds that seem miraculous even today. Judah Maccabee turned out to be a tactical genius, using unheard of tactics, leading the Greek phalanxes into the hills where they could not maneuver and destroying them.

In 164 CE, the Jews defeated a force comanded by the Viceroy Lysias that outnumbered them two to one. That battle took place six miles north of Hebron, near the Jewish fortress of Beth-zur. The victory allowed Judah and his army to retake Jerusalem.

When they entered Jerusalem, Judah and his followers entered the Holy Temple on the Temple Mount. The Temple had been wrecked and horribly desecrated, with profanities scrawled on the walls and the Ark by the Seleucids.

The Maccabees built a new altar. When the time came to light the N'er Tamid, the Eternal Light of the Temple, the Jews could find only one sanctified jar of oil marked with the seal of the High Priest. It was only enough to last one evening. On the 25th of Kislev, in the year 164 CE,the lamp was lit with this small jar of oil and, miraculously, stayed lit for eight days, until more oil suitable for the temple was made. The eight days of Hanukkah celebrate that miracle, as well as the divine intervention that had led the Jews to amazing victories over well-equipped professional armies far superior in numbers. "Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wants and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place" (2 Mac. 10:7).

The war itself continued. In 160 CE, near modern-day Ramallah, Judah was killed, but Judah's brother Jonathan, and then his brother Simon took command of the Jewish army, finally winning complete independence in 142 CE. At last, "All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid" (1 Mac. 14:12.).

Towards the end of the war, Antiochus and the Seleucids became so obsessed with defeating the Jews that they sacked their own cities and sold their own citizens into slavery to get money to pursue the war against the Jews.

The War of the Maccabees was the first war ever fought for religious freedom. Somehow, a group of farmers with no military training who refused to bow to their oppressors defeated a mighty empire and its immense standing armies. There seems to be no plausible explanation for the victory of the Jews except that it was a miracle.

Hannukah reminds us that with G-d's help, victory over evil is assured and no miracle is impossible. Modern Israel and the survival of the Jewish people against all odds are proof of that.

Symbols in Hanukkah

Aside from the Hanukkiah (candlesticks), the other great symbol of Hanukkah are those small spinning tops known as dreidels.

The four letters which appear on the four corners of a dreidel allude to the miracle of Hanukkah. They spell out: Nes (N-miracle), Gadol (G-great), Haya (H-happened) and Sham (S-there, meaning in Israel). Or, `a great miracle happened there.'

Indeed it did.

Chag Sameach! Happy Hannukah!


Anonymous said...

as this is a jooosih food involved?

Anonymous said...

You brought it alive for me. I linked to your article at Chanukah 2006 - The Carnival of Lights - thank you.

And BTW the blogger verification letters spell out ZIONS - how weird is that?

Anonymous said...

You brought it alive for me. I linked to your article at Chanukah 2006 - The Carnival of Lights - thank you.

And BTW the blogger verification letters spell out ZIONS - how weird is that?

Rosey said...

Nice screed Thanks for that. Chappy Chanukah to you. I gotta go light the candles now, kids are bugging me, they want their presents in, the spirit of the Macabees of Walmart.

Anonymous said...

You may not be happy with my comment but the story of the Maccabees has taken an apocryphal and false life of its own. This was 99% a civil war. The fact is that you and the readers of this blog would have been slaughtered by the Maccabees. From a religious point of view Modern Judaism is thoroughly Hellenized and the reality of the religion and worldview of the Maccabees would seem to even the most fervent Jew to be more like the Taliban's.

Let's stop rewriting our own history. It shows a lack of confidence. In our temples, in our yeshiva's what is being practiced is a synthesis of Judaism and Hellenism. Last time I checked at our Temple we were not sacrificing chickens or stoning anyone. And the Maccabees for certain would be slitting the throats of our greatest relgious scholars for their obvious Hellenized methodology!

Freedom Fighter said...

Dear Anonymous,
You're quite correct. I'm not happy with your comment, most of all because it is historically inaccurate.

`Civil war'? Are you serious? The Maccabees fought the Greeks, who were occupying their country as part of the Seleucid empire!

The fact that modern Judaism has evolved and now substitutes prayer (davening) as korbanos (offerings)in place of chickens, heifers and `meal offerings' due to the destruction of the Temple is hardly evidence of `hellenism'.

While western Civilization owes much to the collision of ethical monotheism (Judaism, by another name) and Aristotalian values, to call Judaism today a mixture of `hellenism' and Judaism is, in my view, a major stretch.

As for the Maccabees, they were men of their time, and no doubt would have evolved by now to where they would not have been stoning people or killing other Jews out of hand. The Jews they DID kill were `modern', assimilated Jews who wanted to be Greeks and collaborated with the occupiers of their country.

Your problem, I think, is with the Maccabee's intolerance for suicidal Jews willing to do the work of the enemies of the Jewish people.

There are a great many of this ilk around today, and while I don't support murdering them outright, they deserve much less tolerance than they receive from their fellow Jews.

I'll take Judah Maccabee over Noam Chomsky or Norman Finklestein any day.

Rather than `rewriting' history showing a lack of confidence, it is the cowardice of many Jews in confronting this attitude that shows the REAL lack of confidence.

Think about it.

Anonymous said...

I often hear of the "symbols of chaunika" but I find it interesting that we dont seem to consider the following as symbols.
(a)The Hammer (symbolic of the maccabees as strong and faithful leaders)
(b)The grape vines and fig trees (although perhaps the game of driedel using nuts and raisins could be said to represent these)
(c)The seal on the phial of oil, being representative of G_D's promise that as we keep the laws of the most high, so will he keep us.
I might also point out that having just come from battle, the soldiers were unclean and so dared not touch the great candlestick, so the menorah was made not of metal, but of clay, which to add to the miracle..would have sucked up alot of oil. That being the case why do we not use a clay menorah? Most Ive seen are brass, silver, or even plastic, but seldom clay.

Freedom Fighter said...

Interesting, Anonymous! A sword would do well also.

I think the hanukia are made of different materials as a matter of art and choice, rather than symbolism. Personally, I don't care what they're made of...seeing a whole bunch of kids lighting them and singing along with the adults is G-d's way of giving us a chance to say `screw you, we survive' to our enemies!

Chag Sameach.