The fasts commemorating the destruction of the First Temple which were annulled during the Second Temple period, were reinstated after the collapse of the Hasmonean dynasty and the destruction of the Temple * The holidays celebrating the victories of the Hasmoneans were cancelled after their downfall – except for Hanukkah * The grandson of Matityahu inclined towards the Hellenist Sadducees, and his son Yanai continued the spiritual decline of the monarchy * The intermingling of the priesthood and kingdom contributed to the collapse * Incidents occurring close to the Tenth of Tevet – the day the Torah was translated into Greek, and the day of the death of Ezra – indicated the spiritual problems that were present during the Second Temple period * Hanukkah remains, reminding us of the spiritual light that flourished in the Second Temple, and the victory of Jewry in the long term
The History of the Fast Days and Rabbinic Festivals
After the destruction (churban) of the First Temple, the prophets and Sages instituted four fasts in commemoration of the destruction: the Seventeenth of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, Third of Tishrei, and the Tenth of Tevet. Seventy years later, after meriting having the Second Temple built, these days of mourning became joyous festivals.
The Sages established many more holidays for the Jews during the Second Temple era, to thank God and rejoice over the salvations He performed for Israel. They are all mentioned in an ancient scroll called Megillat Ta’anit. Many of these holidays commemorate the victories of the Hasmoneans, for example: the 22nd of Shevat (167 BCE) when the evil Antiochus was forced to stop the siege of Jerusalem; the 3rd of Kislev the day the Hasmoneans removed the emblems of the Greek troops from the Holy Temple; the 24th of Av, when they reinstated Torah law as the law by which the Jews adjudicate themselves, instead of Greek law; the 27th of Iyar, the day the Hasmoneans abolished the signs of idolatry that hung upon the entrances of the houses and stores; the 15th and 16th of Sivan, when the Hasmoneans conquered Beit Sha’an and drove out the heathens who oppressed the Jews. The Sages also established holidays when the evil kings who persecuted them died: King Yannai on the 2nd of Shevat, and King Herod on the 7th of Kislev.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, the original enactment was reinstated and the Jews once again observed the four fasts, but our Sages were divided over the status of the festival days enacted during the times of the Hasmonean kingdom. In practice, it was decided to cancel all of the festival days enacted during the times of the Hasmoneans except for Hanukkah, which was the only holiday that retained its special status and remained in effect throughout the generations. The Sages explain that this is because of the special miracle that took place with the oil-flask and the mitzvah of lighting the candles that the Rabbis enacted to publicize the miracle. In order to better understand the significance of Hanukkah and the miracle of the oil-flask – the only remnants of all the holidays that existed during the Second Temple era – we must elaborate a bit on the events that occurred in those days, and explain their meaning.
Thirty-one Years of Hasmonean Wars
From the time Matityahu HaKohen raised the banner of revolt until the end of his son’s efforts, thirty-one years passed. In the third year of the rebellion, they liberated Jerusalem and lit the menorah, and the miracle of the oil-flask occurred. Four years later, Yehudah the Maccabee was killed in battle, and the Greek’s returned to rule in Jerusalem. Yonatan the son of Matityahu continued leading the remnants of the Maccabee’s camp, and for eight years waged guerrilla battles against the Greeks. As a result of internal wars in the Greek kingdom, and in exchange for an agreement of co-operation, one party agreed to give Yonatan autonomous rule in Jerusalem and its surroundings, and the Hasmoneans returned and cleansed the Temple, and deepened their influence. Ten years later, Diodotus Tryphon, one of the Greek rulers who opposed Yonatan’s increasing power in Jerusalem, lured him into joining him for friendly talks, and then murdered him (3618, 142 BCE). However Shimon, Matityahu’s last surviving son, wisely made a treaty with Tryphon’s rivals, in exchange for a tax exemption for the Jews of Judea. While the Greek kings were preoccupied with internal battles, Shimon cleansed the Land of the vestiges of Greek influence, conquered additional cities surrounding Judea, and fortified its political independence.
Seeds of Crisis
Together with their achievements, it is likely that already during the days of Shimon the son of Matityahu, the sin of the Hasmonean’s in his wake had already taken root, for they assumed both the priesthood and the monarchy, and did not fulfill their obligation to appoint a king from Yehudah (Ramban, Genesis 49:10). The goal of the Torah is to separate between kingdom and priesthood, so that each authority can secure its position separately, and together, provide Israel with twofold strength. Such an approach was necessary in those days, because the tiny ship of Judaism had to conduct a titanic struggle against the mighty ocean waves of Hellenistic culture swelling around them.
It’s possible to give Shimon the benefit of the doubt. For nearly two hundred years of Greek rule over the land until then, the Kohen Ha’Gadol (high priest) was the head of Jewish autonomy, and Shimon basically inherited this role, and strengthened its position. In practice, however, the weakness caused by the intermingling of these two different authorities eventually led to the downfall of the Hasmonean’s kingdom.
This sin further increased during the days of Shimon’s son, Yochanan (who reigned for 31 years), and reached its worst peak during the times of his grandson Yanai (who reigned for 29 years). Nevertheless, thanks to the fire of faith and sacrifice that still continued to burn and shine from the days of the uprising, from a nationalistic aspect, the Hasmonean kingdom still continued to progress. However, the spiritual crisis that developed in their days, led to the deterioration of the Hasmonean kingdom, until the destruction of the Second Temple.
The Rebellion against Shimon and the Rise of His Son Yochanan
Let’s return to the story: When Antiochus Sidetes defeated his enemies and no longer needed Shimon’s aid, he instigated a conspiracy against him, and indeed, Shimon’s son-in-law, Ptolemy, rose up and murdered Shimon, along with two of his sons (3625, 135 BCE). With Antiochus Sidetes’ help, Ptolemy tried to take control of Judea, but Yochanan Hyrcanus, Shimon’s faithful son, fought him. Then, Antiochus Sidetes came to assist Ptolemy the murderer, pillaging Judea and bringing Jerusalem under heavy siege. However, Sidetes was forced to retreat because of revolts that sprang up against him elsewhere. He accepted Yochanan’s peace proposal, which stated that the Jews would pay a heavy tax to the Greeks in exchange for partial autonomy. Yochanan was appointed High Priest and Nasi (President). Shortly thereafter, Antiochus Sidetes’ army was crushed by the Parthians and Sidetes himself was killed. At this time, Yochanan began conquering additional territory in Eretz Yisrael, in order to expand Jewish settlement at the expense of that of the Gentiles, and to cleanse the Land of idolatry. These conquests brought the Jews wealth and economic prosperity.
Yochanan ruled Judea for thirty-one years (3625-3656, 135-104 BCE), and in the spirit of his grandfather, Matityahu, acted righteously most of his days, and strengthened the Sanhedrin. At the end of his life, however, he joined the Sadducees, who religiously and culturally tended towards the Hellenists, but nationalistically, identified with Israel. Concerning him, our Sages said: “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death, for lo, Yochanan the High Priest officiated as High Priest for eighty years, and in the end he became a Sadducee” (Berachot 29a). The Sadducees were semi-Hellenists, who tried to integrate Greek culture into the Jewish national framework.
Yanai and His Successors
After the death of Yochanan Hyrcanus (3656, 104 BCE), troubles began. His heirs did not obey his last will; his oldest son, Yehudah Aristobulus, an ally of the Sadducees, acted like a Hellenist ruler, throwing his mother and brother in jail, and declaring himself King and High Priest. He died a year later, after which his brother Alexander Yannai reigned for 27 years. He was a Sadducee, who favored the Hellenists and fought against the Pharisees (rabbinic Jews). However, he continued to extend the borders of Israel. He repented towards the end of his life, realizing that his ties with the Sadducees undermined Jewish nationalism. He therefore commanded that his righteous wife, Shlomtzion, sister of Shimon ben Shetach, inherit his thrown. She reigned for nine years (3684-3693, 76-67 BCE).
After her death, a bitter civil war broke out between her two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus (who were educated by their father, Yannai the Sadducee). In the year 3695 (65 BCE), the two brothers turned to Pompeius, the Roman delegate, to mediate between them. Two years later, Pompeius and his army invaded Judea, abolished the Hasmonean dynasty, and diminished the boundaries of the Land. He allowed Hyrcanus to retain his position of High Priest and leader of the Jews in Judea.
In the course of time, Antipater the Idumean (from Edom), who was one of Hyrcanus’ adherents, established ties with the Romans and became their trusted ally, eventually taking control of Judea. After he died, his son Herod continued in his ways. Since Herod helped Hyrcanus defeat his nephew, Hyrcanus gave him his granddaughter Miriam’s hand in marriage. This enabled Herod to eventually claim the Hasmonean throne. In the year 3720 (40 BCE), the Parthians conquered Eretz Yisrael and Aristobulus’ son seized control of Judea, all the while taking revenge on his uncle Hyrcanus. Herod fled to Rome, where he was officially appointed King of Judea. Armed with Roman troops, he returned to the Holy Land and reconquered it. This began his 36-year reign. He murdered his opponents and anyone else who might be a threat to his authority, including the members of the Hasmonean family, and even some of his own sons. When Herod died, in 3757 (4 BCE), the Sages established the day of his death – the seventh of Kislev – as a holiday.
The Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom
Even though the Hasmonean rebellion impeded the process of Hellenization, it did not stop it entirely. A few decades later, Hellenism once again struck deep roots among the wealthy Jews and among those who came in close contact with the Gentiles. The descendants of Matityahu, who had sacrificed his life in the war against Hellenism, became Hellenists themselves. Abandoning their roots, their reign was weakened; eventually, servants of the Hasmoneans – foremost among them, Herod – overpowered their masters, annihilated the entire Hasmonean family, and ruled in their stead, to the extent that Chazal said, “Anyone who claims to be from the Hasmonean dynasty is either a slave or a liar” (Bava Batra 3b). This deterioration continued until the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of all national achievements of the Hasmonean dynasty. Consequently, all the festivals enacted in commemoration of Israel’s salvation by their hand, were annulled.
The Tenth of Tevet
Not only that, but when the fast commemorating the destruction were reinstituted, our Sages added the noting on the Tenth of Tevet, two difficult incidents that occurred in close proximity during the Second Temple period: the death of Ezra the Scribe on the ninth of Tevet, and the translation of the Torah into Greek on the eighth of Tevet. The death of Ezra the Scribe expresses the inability to continue the tradition of the Torah in the framework of the clal (the community as a whole), and the translation of the Torah into Greek expresses the enticement after Greek culture.
Hanukkah and the Miracle of the Flask of Oil
Nevertheless, the days of the Hasmonean kingdom, including the times of Herod, were better than when the Gentiles ruled over us (Rambam, Hanukkah 3:1). Under their reign, Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel was greatly strengthened, study halls flourished in which the spiritual foundations of the Oral Torah were so deeply planted that, contrary to the laws of human nature, it continued to perpetuate the light of faith in the hearts of Israel throughout the lengthy years of exile. Not only that, but in a long process, Judaism crumbled most of the pagan tenets of Hellenistic culture, Jewish values of faith and morals increasingly spread among the nations of the world – and in direct and crooked means (Christianity and Islam), have become the foundation of all that is good and pleasant in human culture. Thus, in truth, it became apparent that in the long-term, Judaism has triumphed over Hellenism, and this is reflected in the miracle of the flask of oil, which expresses the eternalness of the Torah, whose light overcomes the darkness.
Consequently, together with the fasts commemorating the destruction, in which we repent for all of our negligence in revealing the light of the Torah, to this day, we continue to celebrate Hanukkah.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: