The Chanukah Story

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Yefet, the son of Noah, had seven sons. The fourth son was Yavan (Greece). G-d bestowed upon the Ancient Greeks the trait of aesthetics. For 1700 years the Ancient Greeks played a relatively minor role in world history. But by the time Greece had conquered the Persian Empire, Greece had become a significant contributor to the annals of world civilization, culture, and philosophy.

At the beginning of the Second Temple Period, Israel was under Persian rule. After the Persian Empire's downfall, Israel was subjugated to Greek rule. In 3442 (318 BCE), the 19-year old Alexander succeeded his father, Phillipus, as Greek ruler. Alexander of Macedonia transformed the Greek Kingdom into a mighty empire which spread across Africa and the Middle East. The Emperor Alexander showed reverence towards Israel's Sages, especially towards Shimon Hatzadik, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). After Alexander was poisoned to death in 3454 (407 BCE), the Greek Empire was divided into four among the rulers Ptolemy, Selecus, Antigonus, and Philippus. Their kingdoms eventually became known as Egypt, Greece, and Syria.

The Seventy Two Sages

The Egyptian King Ptolemy Philodolphus amassed a vast collection of books on the sciences. He concentrated his collection in books on religion, and he was especially impressed by the logic of Judaism. There was one crucial book that was lacking from Ptolemy's library: The Five Books of Moses, otherwise known as the Torah. Before the advent of ArtScroll or Feldheim, the Torah, written in Hebrew, was inaccessible to the Hebrew-illiterate Ptolemy. It was "Greek" to him! Ptolemy wished to make the treasured Torah just that: Greek to him! He ordered seventy two Sages to come to his seaside resort near Alexandria. Each of the 72 Sages would be quarantined in a separate house, unaware of his purpose until arrival.

The Sages' work of seventy two days commenced. A total of thirteen textual changes were made in translation, in order to minimize heretical misinterpretations by the Greeks. Although the Sages wrote in solitary confinement, their thirteen changes were miraculously identical!

Syrian Greece

The Syrian dominion became known as the Selucidean kingdom, after Selecus, founder of its royal family. In contrast to Alexander's relatively cordial relationship with his Jewish subjects, Antiochus, the tyrannical Syrian-Greek ruler, resented the Jews' separatist policies. The tiny Judean kingdom in the midst of the mighty Empire became a thorn in his eyes.

Although there existed a noticeable segment of the Jewish population who embraced Hellenism -- Greece's values of paganism, strength and assimilation -- the majority of Judea rejected its foreign ideas. In 3610 (151 BCE), the Northern ruler, Sylvacus-Sautier, was murdered. Sylvacus's brother, Antiochus Epiphanies, replaced him. In contrast to his brother's relatively positive philosophical position towards Jewish ideas, Antiochus, often drunk from his frequent partying, was a pure Hellenist.

Kohen Gadol for Hire

It's told that a Jewish businessman once walked into the Rabbi's office in a New York synagogue. Approaching the Rabbi, the businessman asked how much of a donation would be necessary to become a kohen. The Rabbi, quite amused by the proposition, asked the potential donor, "In all honesty, what is your motivation to become a kohen?"

Answered the businessman: "My father was a kohen, my grandfather was a kohen, and I want to be a kohen!"

Of course, the title of kohen is a result of Jewish patralineage; its title could never be bought. Even more so, the title of Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would only be granted to a kohen who was a Talmudic scholar fit for such an important position; however, in the Hellenistic era, the title of Kohen Gadol could be bought!

Yeshua-Jason, a Hellenistic Jew, made a pact with Antiochus. Jason bought the position of Kohen Gadol for the price of 60 silver kikar, with a promise to raise an additional 80 silver kikar from donations! Under Jason's leadership, an Olympic stadium was built in Jerusalem. The Olympics represented the Greeks adulation of the body and a form of worship to their gods. The Greeks would play sports naked, anointing their body with oil. Jason encouraged the strong youth to exercise in the stadium. Many kohanim exchanged their holy tasks in the Temple for sports. The Jewish participants would hide their circumcision, in order to be further accepted into Greek Society. The effects of Greek culture were felt. Many Jews refused to circumcise their sons. Others would bathe with the Greeks on the Judean seashore, from Akko (Acre) to Gaza, under the impression that it would be easier for a Jew to assimilate rather than maintain one's separate identity.

Internal Strife

Jason the Kohen Gadol still owed the king payment for his position. The greedy Antiochus was offered an even higher amount from Jason's friend, Choniov, who had recently become a complete Hellenist, changing his name to the Greek "Menileus." Menileus was instated as the new Kohen Gadol, notwithstanding his not being even a kohen by descent. Not even Menileus could raise the promised funds, which was a sore point for money-hungry Antiochus. The Greek ruler appointed Jason's brother, Lizimakeus, in his place. Menileus was not to despair. Pillaging from the Temple's treasury, he hoped to obtain the required funds, but was killed in the interim. Lizimakeus was indebted to Antiochus for his position, and also pillaged the Temple to attempt "compensation." Jerusalem's residents could not stand idly anymore. The Jerusalemites caught Lizimakeus in the act of pillage, killing him. In the interim, Antiochus went to battle in Egypt. Rumors spread that Antiochus had died. Jason and his army went to reclaim his title as Kohen Gadol from Menileus. The Jewish Hellenists told Antiochus that the Jews were happy about the false rumors. As a result, Antiochus took revenge in 3616, when he waged a surprise attack against Jerusalem. Antiochus did not even have to barge through Jerusalem's fortified gates, as the Hellenists had already opened them. Jason, in the meanwhile, had fled for his life. History has shown that the Jew is the Jew's worst enemy!

Spurred by the Hellenists, Antiochus proclaimed an official ban on observing the Sabbath, calculating the New Moon, and circumcision. Recorded in Megilat Antiochus is Antiochus' libelous decree:

"Are you aware that the Jewish People amongst us in Jerusalem don't offer sacrifices to our gods, they don't observe our religion, and even abandon it for their religion? They are even waiting for the day that our rule will end, saying 'When will our King rule, we shall rule over the sea and land, the entire world shall be given to us.' Since our army is vastly superior, let us arise against them and ban their covenant -- their Sabbath, the New Moon, and circumcision."

Nikanor's Arrival

Megilat Antiochus relates that in the year 3618 (143 BCE), Antiochus sent his general, Nikanor, to Jerusalem, along with military support. Many Jews were killed. A pagan altar was erected in the Jewish Temple. Nikanor brought a pig on the altar, offering its blood to the Temple's Holy Courtyard. The Kohen Gadol, Yochanan ben Mattityahu, was outraged at this breach of holiness. Concealing a sword, Yochanan requested an appointment with Nikanor. Surprised by the rebel's arrival, the evil Nikanor questioned Yochanan's motives. Yochanan replied by stating that he has come to heed the ruler's command.

Nikanor stated, "If you wish to heed my rule, then slaughter a pig and offer it on the altar! You will be clothed with royal raiment, ride the king's horse, and become one of the king's friends."

Yochanan replied: "My lord, I fear the children of Israel, lest they find out and stone me for my deeds. Remove all the people amongst us lest they inform others."

After Yochanan was alone with Nikanor, Yochanan beseeched G-d's Mercy that he should not fall into the tyrant's hands. Yochanan took three steps forward, and lunged his sword into Nikanor's heart.

After Nikanor was slain, Bagris was appointed in his stead. Bagris enforced the banning of the Sabbath, circumcision, and New Moon calculations. Any circumcised infant would be hanged, along with his parents. Nevertheless, many Jews risked their lives in order to fulfill this precious tenet. Megilat Antiochus relates that many Jewish women would throw their circumcised infants, and subsequently themselves, from Jerusalem's walls, rather than be killed by Bagris' henchmen.

Secret Sabbath Cave

Many Jews who held Shabbat (Sabbath) precious hid in a cave in the wilderness in order to keep the Shabbat precepts. Unfortunately, informers notified Bagris of their hidden location. As a result, Bagris sent troops to the cave's opening, calling out: out! Eat our bread, drink our wine, join our ways." Nonetheless, the cave's residents remained steadfast to G-d's commandments at Mount Sinai: "Six days shall you work, doing your creative acts; however, the seventh day shall be a Sabbath for Hashem, your Lord."

Although the Talmud states that "saving a life takes precedent over Sabbath observance", since the cave's residents were sure that their lot would be death by the Greek army, they calculated that it would be better for them not to violate the Sabbath, even in these dire circumstances. On that day, approximately one thousand men, women, and children decided to sanctify Hashem's Name by dying a martyr's death. The Jews were burned alive by the enlightened Greeks.

Jewish Response

Mattityahu, son of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, dwelled in Modi'in, located in the Judean hills. Mattityahu was also known as Mattityahu Chashmonai (the honorable). Mattityahu had five sons: Yochanan Kodshi, Shimon Tasi, Yehuda Maccabi, Elazar Chorni, and Yonatan Hufsi. Mattityahu was outraged by the desecration of the Holy Temple, the religious persecution, and assimilation by the Hellenists. Although Mattityahu was advanced in years, in 3621 (140 BCE), he and his sons led guerilla warfare against the mighty Greek Empire. Hiding in caves throughout the Judean plains, Mattityahu and his sons, known as the Chashmonaim, would mobilize at night, setting fire to the Greek encampments. Their movement was far from being purely military. They would promote the clandestine teaching of Torah and perform ritual circumcisions.

Yehuda Maccabi & Valor

After a year of physical and spiritual fighting, the aged Mattityahu realized that his end was near. Mattityahu appointed his son, Yehuda Maccabi, as leader of the Jewish People. In 3622 (139 BCE), Mattityahu had died. Yehuda assumed his father's position as restorer of Israel's glory. Josephus writes that "Maccabi' is Greek for valor. Emblazoned on Yehuda's flag was "MaCaBi," which some explain as an acronym for: "Mi Camocha Ba'elim Hashem" -- Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Hashem! (Exodus15:11).

Yehuda Maccabi enlisted an army of 7000 Jewish fighters. With Divine aid, the out-numbered army was able to overthrow the Greek army positions in Judea, killing many, and causing the rest of the Greek soldiers to flee to Gaza. In 3622, in an act of Divine Providence, Antiochus's horses, apparently afraid of the elephants used as Greek 'tanks', threw Antiochus out of his carriage. The fallen Antiochus suffered mortal wounds from his smashed bones. His wretched carcass was left for days in the sun.

The End of the Third Exile

Antiochus' death symbolized the end of the Greek Empire of 180 years. Thus, the prophecy of Yaakov (Jacob) was fulfilled: The Yalkut Shimoni gives us an historical insight into Yaakov's dream of angels ascending and descending a stairway to Heaven. The first group to ascend and descend represents the Babylonian Exile of the Jewish People; the second group represents the Persian-Median Exile; the third group represents the Greek Exile. In his dream, Yaakov saw the third group of angels ascending the ladder 180 rungs and then descend. So, too, the Greek nation would become a world power for 180 years, then fall; However, Yaakov's descendants will always remain.

Temple's Re-Dedication

Megilat Ta'anit (chapter 9) relates: "During the days of the Greek Kingdom, the Chashmonaim entered the Sanctuary, rebuilt the altar, repaired the Sanctuary's walls, replaced the sacred vessels and were engaged in its rebuilding for eight days."

The Chashmonaim fashioned a make-shift pipe menorah and, miraculously, found a small flask of undefiled olive oil, closed with the Kohen Gadol's seal. The day was the 25th of Kislev, the same day that Aaron Hakohen, the brother of Moses, was commanded to dedicate the original altar. The small flask contained enough oil for only one day's lighting. Miraculously, the minuscule amount lit the menorah for eight day, ample time to press a new supply of oil.

Chanukah: Banishing the Darkness

A year later, the Sages enacted the eight-day festival of Chanukah, in commemoration of the miracle of oil. Chanukah means "dedication." It also means "Chanu- Ka'H" or "They encamped on the 25th (day of Kislev)." When the Torah was translated into Greek, three days of darkness emerged into the world. The Greeks outlawed three precepts: Shabbat, calculating the New Moon, and circumcision. On the 25th of Kislev, the Jewish People's Third Exile ended; the mighty Greek Empire had been extinguished by the small light of the Jewish People.

  • Chanukah: Halachot, Minhagim, V'Megilat Antiochus, Rav Zvi Cohen, Bnei Brak
  • HaRav Shlomo Rotenburg, Toldot Am Olam, volume 2
  • HaRav Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage, volume 1

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