Friday, December 11, 2009

The Story Of Hanukkah

Tonight marks the first night of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights .

While many of you may be familiar with the story of the Miracle of the Oil, what is frequently overlooked is that Hanukkah celebrates another miracle - the miracle of a group of farmers and tradesman utterly defeating the professional armies of the Seleucid Empire, a victory for freedom that belongs to all of us, Jew and Gentile.

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 victory Jewish war for independence in the second century B.C. E. 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 167BCE, 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 BCE, 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 BCE,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 BCE, 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 BCE. 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...

The spinning tops in Israel have a 'P'(פ) instead of 'S'. so instead of 'there', it's 'here'.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Happy Hannukah from Israel!

Freedom Fighter said...

Todah rabah, Chaver,

Chag Sameach!

Anonymous said...

Happy (belated) Hanukkah! I am sooo delighted to see that you are also a patron of the sacred texts site : it's one of my favourite hang-outs. It's the closest thing (that & Gutenberg) I know of to a real, traditional library in computer-internet-web land.

I tend to hang out in the Classics department (Roman & Greek). There's an extraordinarily beautifully illustrated edition of Cupid & Psyche from 1914 (I think). Books were works of art till the finale of the Edwardian era. I recommend also the Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Stoic philosophy), Epictetus (Stoic philosophy). I smile when I see the Eclogues of Vergil/Virgil, for I had to translate them once for a class assignment many decades ago. (Before any modernists whine that Latin is archaic & academic, I should point out that Latin is so close to both Spanish & Italian that I was able once to hitchhike through Italy & understand a remarkable amount of the speech without any formal class study of Italian, & I could understand a remarkable amount of Spanish in both Spain & Mexico without any formal class study of Spanish. Bring back the classics & dump the pc crap says I!)

In Taoism, I recommend the Tao Te Ching of LaoTzu/Lao Tze, Chuang Tzu/Chuang Tze, Lieh Tzu/Lieh Tze. If you're in a mood military, how about the Art Of War (Sun Tze/Sun Tzu)?

There's good, old Confucius in the Confucian section.

And finally, as an American Indian, (ie, one of the native race members of the US,) I occasionally check out their section devoted to us, though my ancestral nations were so minute in number & mixed so quickly in with the whites in New England that none of my nations retained their traditions long enough to be recorded.


Dinah Lord said...

What a wonderful and inspirational post.

Thank you, Joshuapundit!

Happy Hanukkah.

Freedom Fighter said...

Glad you all enjoyed this.

DD, which tribe? Sounds like Powhasset,perhaps?

Anonymous said...

To FF: No, but that's a very good guess. You probably recalled that I have lived in Boston in the past, but that's unrelated to my ancestral nations. They are both so tiny that I suspect that there may only be a tiny handful of either nation left. We're really obscure. And with the tragic death of my daughter, (in a freak rain-storm-created accident involving heavy traffic, on one of the coasts, at her college,) several months ago , I have only 1 distant cousin as a documentable blood relative, something like a 4th cousin (though I know her well, & I even babysat her when she was young, & I was visiting her country -- we're both old & widowed and, thus, my own line is mortal.)

Owing to my frequent criticism of terrorism & the forced Mahometanisation of my beloved (well, formerly beloved ) Western Europe & North America, I trust that you will understand my reticence, my taciturnity, on this subject : it would give away too much. Security is a subject that I take seriously. Besides, the anonymity is too much fun! ( I'll give you 1 hint : the English language is my 3d --third-- language. I'm not a native Anglophone. My birth language is so obscure that there would be no point puzzling re that (it's not an European language), but my 2d language is not obscure, though, alas, the passage of the seas of the decades has drowned most of that one). (2d hint : I used the preposition ' in ', not ' from '.) Good Hunting! as Kipling phrased it in the Jungle Books.

PS, I particularly enjoy both of the 2 Maccabees at the sacred texts site, for they deal with the ' classical ' period wherein I laboured as a specialty once, many aeons ago.

Is the Kabbalah (wasn't it Cabalah, formerly?) section in the Judaism department at the sacred texts site worth spending any time in? Is it relevant to modern Judaism? I'm completely unacquainted with it, although I did know some Buddhist & Kabballah Jews in LA in the 1970s during a very brief residence (six-months) there (& once was enough, thank you!).
Best Wishes