The Complex Story of Chanukah

We usually remember the gist of the Chanukah story; however, the story was much longer, complex and complicated, and we can learn from it a lesson for generations.


The Greek Empire


Over the course of hundreds of years, the Greeks developed a culture that achieved great advancements in science, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, military strategy, and politics. And its strength grew ever greater. After defeating his adversaries, Philippos, King of Macedonia, succeeded in uniting all of the Greek states under his rule. He invited the greatest Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, to teach his son, Alexander. When Alexander the Great ascended the throne, he began a campaign of conquests, and within three years (3426-3429, 334-331 BCE), the Greeks conquered vast expanses of territory – Asia Minor, Eretz Yisrael, Egypt, and the entire mighty Persian Empire to India.

After Alexander of Macedonia died, the generals of the Greek army began fighting over the throne. In the end, they divided the vast territory under their control into several Greek kingdoms.

As a result of the conquests, Greek culture spread throughout the world, consuming all the other cultures and forming a singular, Hellenistic civilization. The system of government, language, culture, and sporting competitions in every country were Hellenistic. The rich and dignified people in every land assimilated with the Greeks and imitated their ways.

Greek Rule in Judea

Judea, as well, was ruled by the Greeks, and there, too, Hellenism spread. The Jews, however, were different from all the other nations, and the process of Hellenization proceeded relatively slowly in Judea. Nonetheless, over the course of 160 years of Greek rule, their influence grew stronger and stronger, mostly over the affluent. It reached the point where the High Priests, Jason and Menelaus, were leaders of the Hellenists, working to increase Greek influences in Judea. They built a wrestling stadium near the Holy Temple and preferred watching the matches over performing their sacrificial duties in the Temple.

Alexander the Great died in 3437 (323 BCE). At first, Ptolemy and Seleucus fought Antigonus, defeating him in a battle near Gaza in the year 3448 (312 BCE). The winners divided the spoils, and Ptolemy took Egypt, while Seleucus received Syria and Babylonia. Later on, the two fought each other over Eretz Yisrael, and the Ptolemy dynasty prevailed, taking control of the Holy Land for over a hundred years, starting in 3459 (301 BCE). In the year 3562 (198 BCE), Antiochus III, a descendant of the Seleucus dynasty, conquered Eretz Yisrael, but his power waned toward the end of his life. He attempted to conquer the Pergamon kingdom in Asia Minor, but the Romans intervened on their behalf and defeated Antiochus, who was forced to pay heavy compensation fees. Antiochus Epiphanes, the wicked king who enacted evil decrees against the Jews, took the reins of power after his namesake’s demise (3584-3596, 176-164 BCE). (Most of the information in this and the following footnotes is taken from Dr. Mordechai Breuer’s Divrei HaYamim LeYisrael U’leUmot HaOlam, Mossad HaRav Kook Publishers).

Evil Decrees of Antiochos


In the year 3591 from creation (169 BCE), around 160 years after the Greeks conquered Eretz Yisrael, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) began oppressing the Jews. Under his rule, the Greeks despoiled the holy vessels of the Temple, breached the walls of Jerusalem, murdered thousands of Jews, and enslaved many others. In 3593 (167 BCE), Antiochus decreed that the Jews must forsake the Torah and its mitzvot and worship idols. He made it a capital crime to perform mitzvot, abolished the sacrificial service in the Temple, and turned the Temple into a place of idolatry. Torah scrolls were torn and burnt. Antiochus’ soldiers went from town to town forcing the Jews to eat pork and to erect altars for idol worship. Ritual circumcision was outlawed and Jewish women who insisted on circumcising their sons were executed. As a result of these decrees, many pious Jews fled to the deserts, caves, or other countries; and many were murdered in sanctification of God’s Name.


The Rebellion and the Miracle of Chanukah


The intense pressure that the Greeks exercised against the Jews kindled a spark in their souls, and when the Greeks arrived in the village of Modi’in, with the intention of forcing Matityahu, son of Yochanan the High Priest, to worship idols, Matityahu rose up and killed the Greek officer and his Hellenized collaborators. The uniqueness of his action was that instead of dying in sanctification of God’s Name, like the other pious Jews, he decided to kill the oppressor. By doing so, he, together with his sons, raised the banner of rebellion against the Greeks and Hellenism.

The war was difficult. Yehudah the Maccabee, the bravest of Matityahu’s sons, led the fighters. With courage and skill, the Hasmoneans overcame the Greek forces, and after two years of fighting, they succeeded in reconquering Jerusalem. On the 25th of Kislev, 3596 (165 BCE), they began purifying the Temple and restoring the sacrificial service to its original state. This is when the miracle of the Menorah took place.


Later on, the Greeks returned to Eretz Yisrael with reinforcements, conquered Jerusalem, and put Hellenized kohanim (priests) in charge of the Temple. However, in order not to increase tensions with the Jews, they abolished the evil decrees and allowed the Jews to keep the Torah and its mitzvot. But this did not stop the rebellion; the Hasmoneans continued to fight against the Greeks and Hellenism. The war effort knew ups and downs, but the Hasmonean brothers combined strength, diplomacy, and cunning to eventually gain political independence. Granted, the Jews lived under the aegis of the mighty empires – first the Greeks and then the Romans – but the governance of the Land was controlled by the Jews for the Jews.


It seems quite evident that had the Greeks been more patient, Judea would have succumbed to Hellenism, just like the other nations did. But the hand of God, which conceals itself in the historic process, was at work, fanning the flames of the conflict. Just as He hardened Pharaoh’s heart during the Exodus, so too, He hardened Antiochus’ heart, and in the process helped Israel reveal the faith, self-sacrifice, and courage hidden deep inside its collective soul.

On the thirteenth of Adar 3599 (161 BCE), the troops of Yehudah the Maccabee defeated the army of Nicanor; Nicanor was killed and the remnants of his troops retreated. This day was celebrated for generations. Immediately thereafter, the Greeks sent Bacchides at the head of a large army. Yehudah, unable to mobilize a great number of fighters, stood against him with a mere 800 soldiers. Yehudah was killed in this battle (3600, 160 BCE). Bacchides conquered the entire Land and awarded the position of High Priest to Alcimus, a Hellenist, who executed sixty of Israel’s elder sages. But the evil decrees of Antiochus were removed, so as not to escalate war with the Jews.


In practice, the miracle of the liberation of the Temple and its’ purification lasted for only four straight years. Indeed, during the Second Temple period, the days of Chanukah were not the only holidays Jews celebrated, for parallel to Chanukah, many other days in which great salvation was achieved, with God’s help, in battle against the Greeks, were celebrated. For example, such as the victory day over Nicanor on the 13th of Adar, the 24th of Av, the day on which Israel returned to judge according to the laws of the Torah, the 15th and 16th of Sivan un which they conquered Beit Shean and deported the Christians who had displaced Israel from their land . But all those holidays were cancelled with the destruction of the Temple, and only Chanukah remained for generations, because of the miracle of the oil, and our Sages ruling to light the candles (Rosh Hashanah 18b).

The Continuation of the Rebellion Combined with Diplomacy

Yonatan, Yehudah’s brother, assumed command of the remaining Hasmonean fighters, who fled and went into hiding. Over time, the Hasmoneans regained their strength and managed to harass the Greeks, but they were unable to reconquer Jerusalem. Then, a threat arose against King Demetrius’ rule, and, in order to maintain his power, he made a pact with the Hasmoneans, giving them Jerusalem and autonomy. Yonatan took advantage of the struggle for power in the Seleucid dynasty and received additional benefits from Demetrius’ rival. Thus, in the year 3608 (152 BCE), the Hellenist administrators of the Holy Temple were deposed and Yonatan began serving as High Priest. 

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). 

Shimon inherited his brother’s command and made a treaty with Tryphon’s rival, in exchange for a tax exemption for the Jews of Judea. While the Greek kings were preoccupied with internal battles, during the seven years of his leadership, Shimon cleansed the Land of the vestiges of Greek influence, conquered additional cities surrounding Judea, and fortified its political independence. 

The life of Shimon, Matityahu’s last son, ended in tragedy. The Greeks united with his son-in-law, Ptolemy, who rose up and murdered Shimon and his two sons, and together with the Greeks, waged a difficult war against Yochanan Hyrcanus and his remaining son. Many Jews were killed, but in the end, in a tortuous and turmoil-filled diplomatic effort, Yochanan Hyrcanus gained power and ruled for 31 years. 

The Legacy of the Maccabean Wars

Numerous lessons can be learned from the history of the Hasmoneans and their wars, but the primary lesson is that, on the one hand, Matityahu and his sons were willing to give their lives for the nation and the Torah, but on the other hand, when there was no alternative, they consented to make degrading agreements (over the Land of Israel and its sovereignty), while constantly striving towards the broad goal: Israel’s redemption through settling the Land, and observance of Torah and mitzvot.

In the generations of grandchildren and great grandchildren, the Hasmonean kingdom deteriorated spiritually, and afterwards, also nationally. However, thanks to political independence, Jewish settlements sprung up throughout the country, Jews immigrated from the Diaspora, birthrates rose, and the Jewish nation, which had undergone destruction and exile, rehabilitated itself to a large degree. Torah learning halls also flourished and increased.

Next week, ahead of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, with God’s help I will deal with the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom and the destruction of the Holy Temple, and we will learn that indeed, the miracle of the flask of oil expresses more than anything the main remaining legacy of the Hasmoneans for generations.

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:

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