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Holidays 1: High Holidays

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Section: Chanukah Themes

Topic: What is Chanukah?

What is Chanukah? How has this 2100-year-old historical event been preserved so tenaciously in the Jewish national conscience? What are its lasting messages? How did the Sages of that time ensure that the celebration of Chanukah would continue even after the military victories of the Hasmonean army were no longer felt, when the Romans later conquered the Jewish State and exiled the Jewish people?

Maimonides (1135-1204, Egypt) summarizes the religious and historical bases of the Chanukah holiday:

Maimonides (Laws of Chanukah 3:1-3)

During the period of Greek domination (~ 273 BCE ~ 140 BCE) of the Second Temple era (350 BCE 70 CE), the Syrian-Greeks imposed oppressive decrees on the Jewish people, with the objective of eradicating the Jewish religion. They prevented the Jews from studying Torah and performing mitzvoth; they extorted Jewish wealth and violated Jewish women and girls; they entered the Holy Temple, defiling everything sacred. Their tyrannical rule constricted the Jewish people greatly, until the G-d of our forefathers mercifully delivered the Jews from the Greeks. The Hasmonean family prevailed over the Greeks, saving the Jewish people from Greek oppression, and establishing a Jewish monarchy.

Maimonides identifies the focus of Greek persecution as being the eradication of Judaism and all that is sacred in its way of life. He makes it clear that it was only Divine intervention that ended this intolerable situation. G-d handed a victory to what historical accounts attest was a vastly inferior Hasmonean army. This victory led to autonomy in the land of Israel and the Jews return to Jewish practice.

Maimonides goes on to describe how the Sages preserved the remembrance of the Hasmonean victory for all future generations. (He bases his descriptions on the Talmudic account of the Chanukah enactment [Tractate Shabbat]):

When the victorious Hasmoneans entered the Temple on the 25th day of the lunar month of Kislev, they searched the Temple grounds for any sealed cruses of pure oil designated for use in lighting the Menorah (the seven-branched candelabra used in the Temple). They found only a single cruse of oil that bore the seal of the High Priest, attesting to its purity. Although the vessel contained oil sufficient to burn in the Menorah for only a single day, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, until a fresh supply of sanctified oil could be prepared. To perpetuate the memory of that miracle, the Sages of that generation promulgated the observance of eight festival days, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. These days are to be celebrated with rejoicing, reciting declarations of praise and gratitude to G-d, and lighting candles each night at sunset at the entranceway of ones house, in order to publicize the miracle. These days are called Chanukah.

The Sages legislated the eight-day Chanukah holiday to commemorate the miracle of the burning oil, rather than the stunning military victory. Expressions of praise and gratitude shape the spirit of Chanukah celebration. Rabbi Mordechai Yafeh (1535-1612, Poland) discusses this focus, contrasting it to the focus of the holiday of Purim:

Levush Malchus (The Royal Garment [titled after the royal garments donned by Rabbi Yafehs biblical namesake, Mordechai see Esther 8:15], Laws of Chanukah 670:2)

In the historical events that led to the holiday of Purim, Hamans royal edict threatened the Jewish people with physical annihilation, for it called for complete physical destruction of the Jewish people. Jews were not given the option of converting to save their lives. Since the decree, had it succeeded, would have put an end to the Jewish peoples physical existence, the manner of the celebration of their salvation from Hamans plot took a physical form; Purim is observed with a festive meal.

In contrast, in the historical events that led to the holiday of Chanukah, the Jewish peoples enemies fought to subjugate the Jews, and to dominate them religiously. King Antiochus did not attempt to destroy the Jews physically; rather, he subjected them to extreme religious oppression, intending to force them to renounce Judaism. (Antiochus objective of forced conversion of the populace to the religion of the ruling nation is a common political strategy of conquering nations.) Had the Jews submitted to Greek domination by paying their taxes and accepting the Greek pagan philosophies and lifestyle, the Greeks would not have harmed the Jews physically.

When G-d granted the Jewish people victory over their enemies, the Sages established the Chanukah holiday as days of praise and gratitude to G-d, and not days marked by festive meals. The Sages knew that the fitting response to the Greeks attempts to prevent us from serving G-d (spiritual destruction of the Jewish people) was a reinforcing of our commitment to G-d (spiritual resurgence of the Jewish people).

Rabbi Yafah explains the Sages assessment of the Chanukah holiday and the appropriate response: the threat of spiritual destruction should be met with spiritual revitalization. Salvation from the threat of spiritual destruction should be celebrated in ways that inspire a strengthening of the Jewish peoples spiritual bond with the Creator.

Historic Documentation of Antiochus Religious Oppression of the Jews

In his monumental 1st century (CE) work on the history of the Jewish people, the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius describes the excesses the Greeks employed in their religious oppression of the Jewish people, which led to the Hasmonean revolt:

Antiquities of the Jews (Book XII, Chapter V)

In the 155th year of the Greek Seleucid dynasty (167 BCE), King Antiochus IV came up to Jerusalem and, feigning peace, took the city by treachery. He plundered the Temple (Beit Hamikdash), leaving it bare; he cast the Jews into great lamentation, for he forbade them to offer the daily Temple sacrifices to G-d.

When the king had built an altar for idolatry upon the altar of G-d, he slaughtered swine upon it. He also compelled the Jewish people to forsake the worship that they accorded their own G-d, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; they were forced to build temples and raise altars of idolatry in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day.

Antiochus also forbade the Jews to circumcise their sons, threatening to punish severely any violators of his decree and appointing overseers to compel the people to fulfill his decrees. Indeed, many Jews complied with the kings command, either voluntarily or out of fear of penalty; but the best men and those of the noblest souls did not regard him, but paid greater respect to the custom of their people than to the punishment for disobedience. These people suffered great misery and bitter torments; they were whipped with rods and their bodies were torn to pieces, and many were crucified alive. The Greeks strangled those women who circumcised their sons as well as their sons whom they circumcised, as the king had decreed, hanging their sons about their necks upon the crosses. Any sacred books of the law that were found were destroyed, and their owners were killed with miserable deaths.

Having described Antiochus cruel and tyrannical subjugation of the Jewish people, Josephus turns his focus to the Jewish revolt:

At this time, a Kohen (Priest) named Mattisyahu (Matathias) lived in Modiin (a city in Judea). He had five sons: Yochanan (John/Gaddis), Shimon (Simon/Matthes), Yehudah (Judas/Maccabeus), Eleazar (Auran), and Yonasan (Jonathan/Apphus). Mattisyahu lamented to his children the sad state of affairs, telling them that it would be better for them to die for the laws of their people than to live so ingloriously as they were forced to do.

When the Greek officials arrived in Modiin to compel the people to sacrifice as the king had commanded, Mattisyahu refused to comply with their order that, on account of great character and for other reasons, he begin the sacrificing. When one of the Jews stepped forward and performed the sacrifice, an indignant Mattisyahu and his sons came upon him and the Greek soldiers and killed them. After knocking over the Greek idol, Mattisyahu cried out, If anyone is zealous for the laws of his people and for the worship of G-d, let him follow me!


Chanukah survives as a testimony to the spiritual core of the Jewish people, which resists any attempt to extinguish it. The spiritual focus of the observance of the holiday of Chanukah lighting candles and reciting praises and declarations of gratitude to G-d commemorates the spiritual triumph and devotion that preserved Judaism then, and that continue to maintain it to this day.