The Story of Hanuka (Chanukah)


David Barnett

When I look at the Hanuka candles I connect with my ancestors. Their actions are as fresh today as they were nearly twenty-two centuries ago. Their motives and those of their enemies seem to be constants of human nature - as do their frailties. It is the quality of Judaism, which remembers (and is rooted in) the constants of human nature, which makes it forever young yet forever old and forever relevant.

In 200 b.c.e. Antiochus III, the Syrian-Greek ruler of the Seleucid kingdom, defeated decisively Ptolemy IV, the Egyptian-Greek king, at Panium near the source of the Jordan. Both the Ptolemies and the Seleucids were successors to the empire of Alexander the great. For a hundred years the Ptolemies had ruled Judah from Egypt while the Seleucids tried to wrest it from them.

The Ptolemies' main interest in Judah was levying taxes. This they did through the hated system of tax farming. Leading citizens would go to Alexandria and bid for local tax collecting privileges. Anything above their bid which they collected, they could keep. Anything less had to be made good from their personal fortunes. There were laws to limit the profits of the tax gatherers but there were also laws to encourage informers on tax evaders. Certain families cemented and multiplied their wealth through tax gathering. The most prominent such family, in this era, were the Tobiads.

Garrison towns became quickly hellenised and the ruling classes tended to favour assimilation to Greek ways. But the countryside remained staunchly traditional and Jerusalem was an uneasy mixture. The Ptolemies left Jewish religious autonomy intact and the high priest continued to serve a dual religious and administrative role dating from Persian times. He held office for life but ruled with the aid of a council of elders. The high priest's administrative role was diminished by the existence of the tax farmers. The upper classes in Jerusalem held a spectrum of views ranging from the very traditional to strongly assimilationist. By the time of Ptolemy's defeat, Greek names were fairly common amongst the Jewish upper classes.

The taxes were very oppressive. Antiochus consolidated his position by promising tax relief. In return, the Jews of Jerusalem welcomed him and helped to oust Ptolemy's garrison there. For a few years everything worked well, and apart from the temporarily lower tax rates, nothing really changed under Seleucid rule.

But it did not last. In 190 b.c.e. Antiochus III suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the Romans. The Romans insisted on a huge war indemnity and took one of the king's sons, the future Antiochus IV, to Rome as a hostage. From then on, the Seleucid king always had financial problems and sought money wherever he could. Antiochus III met his death attempting to plunder the famous Elamite temple in 187.

His son, Seleucus IV was faced with the same financial difficulty. Tax rates were raised and strictly enforced. The government schemed with leading men of the various subject peoples to plunder their temples and national treasures.

In Jerusalem, one Simon, of the Tobiad tax-gathering family, was overseer of the temple. He clashed with the traditionalist high priest, Jonathan III, who dismissed him. In revenge, Simon went to the governor and told him of the enormous treasure concealed in the Temple. As a result, Seleucus IV sent the royal treasurer, Heliodorus, to expropriate the treasure. Jonathan pleaded that most of the money was private deposits given to the sanctuary for safe keeping. Heliodorus returned empty-handed. Some say that when he entered the sanctuary, he was scourged by a terrifying horseman and two youths.

In 175 Seleucus IV was assassinated by Heliodorus. Seleucus' brother, Antiochus IV, became king. He had returned from Rome after a fifteen year stay as hostage. Antiochus was an aggressive helleniser with a strong taste for things Roman. He introduced gladiatorial contests at Antioch and erected Athenian-style temples and public buildings in Syrian cities. He styled himself "Epiphanes" ("god incarnate") but his detractors called him "Epinanes" ("violent" or "insane").

Jonathan, the high priest, had a brother, Joshua. He was a Hellenist and changed his name to Jason. He wanted to impose Hellanic education on his people and "modernise" them. He went to Antiochus IV and offered him a huge sum of money if he would depose Jonathan. He also promised to open in Jerusalem a gymnasium for athletic games, and other hellenising measures. Antiochus was only too glad to agree; defying tradition, he banished Jonathan to Antioch (174).

Jason pursued his hellenising policy aggressively. He even sent money, on the eve of an Olympic games festival at Tyre, to purchase sacrifices to the Phoenician Hercules. The young Jews in the delegation refused to take part in this idolatry and gave the money to the royal treasury for ship-building instead.

Traditional Jews were outraged by Jason's activities.

Jason lasted three years. A certain Menelaus of the Tobiad family decided to usurp the high priesthood. Jason had sent him to Antiochus with the tribute. Menelaus offered the king 300 talents above what Jason was paying. Antiochus agreed and Jason fled across the Jordan.

Menelaus found it difficult to raise all the money he promised. One time he was summoned to Antioch to explain. He took some Temple vessels as a bribe for the king's representative, Andronicus. The old priest, Jonathan, denounced Menelaus as a looter. Andronicus had Jonathan murdered. The murder caused such an outrage, even amongst Greeks, that Antiochus executed Andronicus. Menelaus remained high priest and continued the policy of looting the Temple to pay the tribute.

While he was in Antioch, Menelaus had left his brother, Lysimachus, in charge in Jerusalem. An outraged mob repulsed Lysimachus and his soldiers from the Temple treasury. Three elders went to Antiochus in Tyre to denounce Menelaus as author of the troubles. Antiochus refused to listen and had them executed. This act convinced Jews that they must direct their struggle against Syrian rule altogether.

In 170 b.c.e. Rome was distracted by a new war against Macedonia. Antiochus took the opportunity to invade Egypt. When rumours spread that he had been killed, the Jews of Jerusalem were Jubilant. Jason returned at the head of 4000 men (better the "moderate" Hellenist than the tyrant Menelaus). Menelaus fled.

But Antiochus was very much alive. He came to Jerusalem and put down the rebellion with great ferocity. He also plundered the Temple of anything of pure gold. Jason escaped and Menelaus was restored.

In 168 Antiochus went again into Egypt, and it looked as if he would oust the Ptolemies. While he was at the gates of Alexandria, the Roman senate sent him an ultimatum to halt his invasion or be considered an enemy of Rome. Antiochus was awed by Roman might, having spent fifteen years in Rome. He withdrew in short order.

With time on his hands, and injured pride, Antiochus devoted his energies to hellenising and homogenising his empire. Judah was clearly the most resistant province.

Antiochus began with a campaign of terror. He sent General Apollonius, at the head of a large army, to Jerusalem. Entering on Shabbath, he killed men in the streets, abducted women and children and demolished houses. Terrified inhabitants fled the city in large numbers. Their homes were occupied by Greeks and Syrians.

Apollonius converted the City of David (south of the Temple) into a garrison stronghold and renamed it Acra. The garrison in Acra would remain a thorn in the flesh of Judah for the next quarter century.

The most important part of the plan was breaking the source of Jewish resistence - the religion. Antiochus decreed that all peoples should renounce their distinctive customs and become one people. Jewish Temple service was abolished. Study of Torah, circumcision, observance of Shabbath and Kashruth were forbidden on pain of death. Participation in the official Greek cult was obligatory. On 15th Kislev 168 b.c.e. they erected an alter to Olympian Zeus behind and above the alter of the Lord in the Temple and on 25th Kislev offered the first pagan sacrifice.

Loyal Jews (known as `hasidim) largely withdrew from the cities where the hellenists held sway with soldiers at their backs. Jews continued to study Torah in secret, at great peril. If too many Jews were gathered in one place the soldiers might come to investigate. When the Jews saw them coming they hid their scrolls and pretended to be doing some other activity (such as gambling - the origin of the draydle custom).

There were many apostates - a few willingly from amongst the extreme hellenists - but mostly under duress. Those who refused became martyrs in large numbers.

The story of Hannah and her seven sons is symbolic of this phenomenon. Six sons were killed for refusing to worship an idol. Each one cited a verse of Torah such as "You shall have no other gods before me". Finally, when the youngest also refused, the emperor whispered that the boy should pick up the ring he would drop and so merely appear to violate the Torah without really doing so. The boy answered, "Woe unto you. If you are so concerned for your honour, how much more must I be concerned for the honour of G-d". So the youngest boy, too was killed, and Hannah hurled herself from the roof and died too.

Officials went round the smaller towns setting up alters and organising sacrificial meals of pork. In the town of Modiin (half a day's walk from Jerusalem) they sought out the leading citizen to set an example by offering the sacrifice and eating it. When they called on the priest, Mattityahu ben Jonathan the Hasmonean, he refused. Another prominent citizen, a hellenist, stepped forward, hoping to ingratiate himself with the authorities. Mattityahu slew the apostate. Before they knew what was happening, Mattityahu and his five sons and a few other daring men fell on the official and his soldiers and killed them.

This was the beginning of the organised revolt. Mattityahu and his sons took to the hills with other loyal Jews. They became known as the Maccabees.

Mattityahu made an important ruling. If they were attacked on Shabbath they could defend themselves. This neutralised the Syrian tactic of attacking on Shabbath hoping to find observant Jews easy prey.

Mattityahu died in 166. His son Judah proved to be a brilliant military leader. He limited has band of fighters to the most fearless men, but he could count on support in every village. He had eyes everywhere.

At first the Syrians did not understand how serious the uprising was. Apollonius came to suppress the uprising with his army from Samaria. Judah attacked and defeated him. Apollonius himself fell. Thereafter Judah used his sword. Every rout of the enemy provided Judah with more arms and supplies.

Antiochus could no longer ignore the rebellion. He sent a large army from Syria under generals Nicanor and Gorgias. In their train they welcomed Greek slave-traders who would purchase the large numbers of prisoners they hoped to take.

Judah's force gathered at Mitzpeh in Benjamin. Gorgias led his army to nearby Emaus. Gorgias planned to take part of his army and make a surprise night attack on Judah at Mitzpeh. But Judah learnt of it, withdrew from Mitzpeh and fell upon the sleeping camp at Emaus. The Syrians fled their camp. When the disappointed Gorgias returned he found his camp occupied by Jews ready to do battle. He did not want to meet it and retreated to the land of the Philistines, abandoning all his supplies, transports and the slave-traders' gold.

A larger Syrian army came. This too Judah defeated at Beth-Tzur, clearing the way to Jerusalem. There, Judah besieged Acra, neutralising its garrison. Now, the Jews were free to restore the Temple.

They demolished the alter of Zeus and cast its rubble into an unclean place. They took the stones of the defiled alter of the Lord and put them aside to await a prophet. A new alter was built from fresh natural stones. After cleansing the Temple, they performed a rededication (`hanuka) on 25th Kislev 165, three years to the day from its defilement.

Jews flocked to Jerusalem and celebrated eight days. At night the Temple gates were brightly lit. The Talmud records that they found only one small cruse of holy oil with which to kindle the menorah, but it lasted all eight days and this was seen as a sign from heaven.

For another twenty years the struggle for independence continued. The ailing Seleucid empire could not accept it, and they still had the Acra. There was also a considerable non-jewish population in the cities.

The Jews were help by the dynastic struggle in the empire. Antiochus died in 164. His son's regent made an armistice with the rebels. But Seleucus IV's son Demetrius gained control of the empire in 162 and attempted to restore his authority. Judah won his last great victory against General Nicanor at Adasa near Beth-`Horon. That day, 13th Adar 161, became known as Nicanor day. Judah was free to recapture Jerusalem.

One of the steps to independence was to become "friend of Rome". It suited Roman policy to weaken the Seleucids. Judah the Maccabee died in battle in 160. His brothers, Jonathan and Simon, continued the the pro-Roman policy. Over time, the Roman treaty made the Seleucids increasingly wary. In 142 a Seleucid recognised Simon as high priest and independent ruler.

The extreme hellenists, with their programme of forced assimilation, had provoked a violent reaction from loyal Jews. In that atmosphere it was nearly impossible to be a 'moderate' hellenist or loyalist.

It is ironic that later Hasmonean rulers became hellenised, corrupt and tyrannical. Eventually there was a succession squabble. In 63 b.c.e. the Roman, Pompey, entered Jerusalem in the name of preserving the peace in a "friend of Rome". Independence was over.

We remember the rededication of the Temple with the `Hanuka lights. We remember the miracle. We remember the triumph of integrity over evil. We remember winning independence. But I can't help recalling that we lost it again when we became complacent and lost sight of our integrity..

© David M. Barnett


This page revised 6 July 1999