For the week ending 24 December 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

A Brief History and Background of the Chanuka Story

by Rabbi Moshe Lazarus
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In general, Jewish national history may be broken down into four major periods of exile: the first is the Egyptian exile (15 century BCE), while the second may be divided into three sections: the Assyrian exile (564 BCE) during which the ten tribes were exiled, the Babylonian exile during which the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed (The First Temple) in 422 BCE, and the Persian exile, ending with the return to Eretz Yisrael and the beginning of the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash in 351 BCE, 70 years after its destruction in fulfillment of the prophecy of Yirmiyahu.

After the death of Alexander the Great, his short-lived world-conquest was fragmented into three large sections and one small section. The Land of Israel became a continual battleground between two parts of the Greek Empire — the Ptolemies based in Egypt and the Seleucids based in Syria. Ptolemy Lagos, who ruled Egypt, gained first control over Israel. During the next century, domination of Israel changed hands several times, as Egyptian Greek and Syrian Greek wrestled for control. Near the end of the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes, the Egyptian ruler levied oppressive taxes upon the Jews. The weak High Priest, the political leader, was unable to collect this tax. His ambitious nephew, Joseph ben Toviah, an exceedingly cruel man, volunteered to supervise the collection of taxes in exchange for governorship over Israel. He created an army of tax gatherers called Muchsanim who mercilessly plundered the people. This new class of Jews began adopting the lifestyle of their Greek patrons. The family of Toviah was able to keep its control over Israel through the invasion of Antiochus the Great of Syria. During the administration of Chonio, the great-grandson of Shimon HaTzaddik, the oppression of the Tobiads relented. However, they were not to be done away with. They conspired against their own people, and sent to Antiochus Epiphanies, grandson of Antiochus the Great, who had succeeded Selucus as ruler of Syria, a kohen (priest) named Jason to buy the office of High Priest. With this done, this corrupt small party was back in power.

Under Antiochus the Great, the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, had been officially recognized as the rightful leaders of the Jews. His grandson, Antiochus Epiphanies, was a ruler who flaunted his Athenian citizenship and worshipped Greek culture. The Tobiads were able to influence him to make decrees against the religious foundations of Judaism. An overt campaign to eradicate the spiritual life of the Jews was initiated. Extreme decrees forbidding study of Torah, brit mila, and observance of Shabbat, were issued. In addition, the effects of Hellenism were being felt. In general, two camps polarized into the vast majority of observant Jews called Chassidim, and the smaller but influential Hellenists. Idolatry was introduced in the Beit Hamikdash. A famous story of the heroism of Chana and her seven sons who refused to bow before the idols, which resulted in the death of all seven sons, is background to the Chanuka story. There was no organized resistance since the Jews had been bled of all money and were not able to keep weapons. But a single, seemingly insignificant event kindled a spark. In the town of Modi’in a Jewish Hellenist attempted to offer a swine as a mock-offering to G-d. An outraged Mattisyahu, the leader of the house of the Hasmoneans, arose and killed him. He fled with his sons and followers to the hills and waged guerrilla warfare until he died. His son, Judah, carried on the war and rallied more support to his side. After three years of war, in the year 3596 (165 BCE) the Jewish People re-entered the city of Jerusalem. During the war their chief strength had been prayer, and now repentance was the tone.

As they entered the Temple, the most sacred place in the world, they immediately began purifying it from the defilement of the Greeks. They found one small crucible of oil, enough for one day, and kindled it. It was the only pure oil found, and it would take eight days to make new pure oil. They had fought a war not for national independence but because of their loyalty to G-d. Therefore, they merited having a miracle, a sign that G-d was still with them. The oil burned for eight consecutive days. A year later, in commemoration of the miracle, the Sanhedrin instituted the holiday of Chanuka. The main importance of the Chanuka story is not the victory of the war, as miraculuous as it indeed was, but the sign that G-d gave the Jewish nation: “I am with you if you are with Me”.

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