While Hanukkah is a Minor Jewish Holiday, The Events it Commemorates Have Lasting World Significance

tags: Jewish history, Hanukkah, Maccabees

Ralph Seliger is the editor of The Third Narrative website, which promotes a two-state solution, fairness and empathy in academic debates on Israel and Palestine. 

Judah, from Die Bibel in Bildern, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860




Hanukkah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights,” commemorates actual historical events, but it’s a popular folk holiday rather than an important religious occasion.  Although commanded to light the menorah for eight nights, even very religious Jews would not have to take off from work to observe these days. 


A significant fact about this period of history nearly 2,200 years ago is that if the priestly Hasmonean family had not led the Maccabees, a rebel movement against the effort to replace traditional Judaism with a thoroughly Hellenized pagan faith, Christianity would almost certainly not have emerged a couple of centuries later.  And without the monotheistic models of Judaism and Christianity, it’s hard to see the rise of Islam.  Hence this rather small-scale struggle in a border region of one of the Hellenistic kingdoms that rose after the death of Alexander the Great had earthshaking consequences for what came afterwards.


In 586 BCE, the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire, ending the royal dynasty that began with David.  The Temple in Jerusalem built under the reign of David’s son, Solomon, was destroyed and most of Judah’s surviving population was forced into exile in Mesopotamia.    


In 538 BCE, the Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return from exile in Babylonia as part of the Persian Empire, and the Temple was rebuilt on the same site in Jerusalem.  About 200 years later, the Persian Empire was conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great; after Alexander’s sudden death, his conquests were divided among his generals.  Judea was contested between two powerful Hellenistic kingdoms, the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt.  Judea finally fell to the Syrian Seleucid dynasty.  


In 168 BCE, The Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, looted and desecrated the Temple.  He forbade circumcision, the possession of Jewish scriptures, and the observance of the sabbath.  He also required Jewish leaders to sacrifice to idols, a sacrilege compounded by using pigs as the main sacrificial animal.  


But it was actually the Jewish High Priest Menelaus who convinced Antiochus to enact these anti-Judaic measures. The Jewish Hellenists, led by Menelaus, were religious reformers who wanted to remove those parts of Jewish practice that were unique and separated Jews from others, such as dietary laws, sabbath observance, and circumcision. Some Hellenists continued to worship the Jewish God, but they moved their worship to outdoor sanctuaries and used pigs as a sacrificial animal.


Portable altars were sent into the countryside. Mattathias, the aged patriarch of the rural Hasmonean family of priestly lineage, began the revolt by killing a Jew who stepped up to publicly worship at such an altar.


The Hasmonean family fled into the Judean hill country where they found other Jews who were fleeing those same pagan decrees.  They organized a guerrilla army of over 3,000 men, known as “Maccabees” (Aramaic for hammer), staging assassinations and hit & run raids, mainly against Jews who were collaborating with the Syrians.   


Mattathias, his sons and their followers were traditional Jews who observed the law to such an extreme that when a camp of his followers was attacked on the sabbath, a thousand were killed rather than violate the sabbath by fighting.  But the Maccabees soon realized that they couldn’t be so rigid in their observance and still survive, so they introduced the principle that one could violate the sabbath in order to defend oneself.  Yet even this sensible step was a bold act of rebellion against Jewish religious authority, as the Maccabees lacked the legal standing to change the law, which was in the jurisdiction of the High Priest in Jerusalem or of the council of elders, the Sanhedrin.


After Mattathias died about a year into the rebellion, his son Judah took over as leader, expanding the Maccabees’ success as a guerrilla army.  They first defeated a Syrian force in 167 at the Battle of Ma’aleh Levona, about which not much detail is known, but Judah is supposed to have killed the Syrian-Greek general Apollonius and taken his sword, which he is said to have used the rest of his life. The following year, the Maccabees won another victory at Beth Horon, launching a surprise attack on the enemy encampment at Emmaus while most of their force was looking for Judah’s army higher up in the hills; upon their return to camp, the Syrians saw their base in flames and fled in panic.  But these were victories over second-rate troops, who were mostly levies and auxiliaries from various parts of the empire. 


Now the Seleucids took the rebellion more seriously, dispatching an army under a high-ranking official and general, Lysias, which positioned itself strategically at the fortress at Beth Zur, about 30 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem.  It’s not clear if there was an actual battle, but there was a multilateral negotiation, including Lysias, Judah, the High Priest Menelaus and a Roman envoy.  Rome had recently established itself as the number one power in the Western world by conquering the Hellenistic kingdom of Macedonia.  The Roman envoy took the Maccabees’ side in the negotiation; all agreed to request that the King end the anti-Judaic religious decrees and for the rebels to return to their homes in safety.  The King was preoccupied with a military threat to the east, so he was happy to amnesty the Maccabees and end the conflict.  The High Priest Menelaus was the loser, as he had instigated the conflict in the first place, but his party was still in power in Jerusalem.


Toward the end of 164 BCE, after a few months at home and taking in the harvest, Judah renewed his war against Menelaus and the party of Hellenizing Jews.  Judah’s army stormed Jerusalem in a sudden attack; the city’s capture was not that difficult, as its defensive wall had been taken down a few years before by Antiochus.  But Antiochus had also built an inner fortress, known to us as the Acra, manned by a Seleucid garrison, where Menelaus and his followers fled for safety.


The Temple was retaken and reconsecrated, so that ritual sacrifices could begin again. Hanukkah was instituted by Judah to celebrate this event.  Eight candles of the menorah, lit progressively by a ninth candle during the eight-day holiday, symbolize the story of a divine miracle -- that in reconsecrating the Temple, a one-day container of oil lasted eight days, until more oil could be supplied.  This is also why oily foods, like potato pancakes and jelly donuts are treats associated with the holiday. 


But there was still a decades-long struggle for Judea to gain complete independence.  Judah had Jerusalem’s wall and other fortifications rebuilt.  In 163, Antiochus Epiphanes died of illness after suffering a military reversal in Persia.  Judah took advantage of Syrian inattention during this time of transition to besiege the Hellenizing party in the Acra, but this finally caused the Syrians to react.  The general Lysias, who had so recently negotiated with Judah, was now guardian to the new Syrian ruler, who was a child.  Lysias personally returned at the head of a first-class army, laying siege to the Maccabee fortress at Beth Zur.  Judah’s army attacked Lysias’s camp but was defeated there by the superior Syrian force, which included 32 war elephants.  Judah’s brother Eleazar stabbed the largest such elephant, mistakenly believing its rider to be the new young king; Eleazar was crushed beneath it.


Lysias captured Beth Zur and pursued Judah into Jerusalem, besieging what remained of Judah’s force manning fortifications on Mt. Zion.  Judah’s situation looked hopeless, but once again events elsewhere in the empire diverted Syrian attentions before Lysias could totally finish off the Maccabees.  On his deathbed in the east, Epiphanes had named another general, Philip, as regent for the new child king.  Lysias hastily made peace with Judah in order to rush off to defend his position in Antioch, the imperial capital.  And more than simply saving Judah and the Maccabees, this peace agreement provided for the execution of the High Priest Menelaus and the complete defeat of the Hellenizing reform faction that he led, by royal decree. 


A new Hight Priest with proper genealogical credentials (being of the Zadokite family lineage), Alcimus, was appointed and now ruled Judea as an autonomous realm within the Syrian empire.  But Judah’s retirement was short.  When Antiochus V was overthrown by his cousin, Demetrius I, Judah reappeared in Jerusalem to challenge Alcimus, alleging that he was not pure enough in his Judaism.  Again, the Maccabees swept their Jewish enemies before them to dominate the countryside. 


Eventually, Demetrius sent the Syrian general Nicanor in support of Alcimus.  Nicanor was reinforced by regular Syrian soldiers, but he mostly commanded Jewish troops, who again proved inferior to the Maccabees.  Nicanor was defeated and killed at a place called Adasa, northwest of Beth Horon.  Judah again took Jerusalem by force and emerged as master of Judea. 


He sought out Rome’s support for Judean independence from the Seleucids, and he did in fact get such a treaty from the Roman Senate, but this prompted Antioch to send a Syrian army commanded by the general Bacchides and joined by the High Priest Alcimus.  The Maccabees were unable to stand up to the formations of a professional Greek army; most of Judah’s 3,000 men melted away, but Judah chose to fight on with his remaining 800 men and died in battle in April 160 BCE.  His followers were tracked down and executed in large numbers. 


His brother Jonathan inherited the Maccabee leadership but they were reduced to a band of outlaws; about four years later, in 156, he made peace with the Syrian government, which rewarded him with what amounted to a “sheikdom” of a village called Michmash.  But in 152, the Syrian king, Demetrius I, was hard pressed by a pretender for the throne named Alexander Balas.  Demetrius called upon Jonathan to recruit Jews to fight for him, but Jonathan was not above taking advantage of the King’s weakness, so he occupied Jerusalem and allowed Alexander Balas to bid for his support. 


The position of High Priest had been vacant for seven years following the death of Alcimus.  Following the Greek custom of the secular power appointing religious authorities, Alexander named Jonathan the new High Priest, even though he was not of the Zadokite family and therefore had no claim under Jewish law and custom.  Ironically, the successor to Judah the Maccabee, whose cause was to save Judaism from Hellenism, had now become a Hellenistic prince, and he sent Jews to fight in Seleucid dynastic battles.  At one point, he sent the King 3,000 men to suppress a rebellion in Antioch.  They happily burned, plundered and killed people in the pagan capital to their hearts’ content.


Jonathan was personally caught up in one of these conflicts, captured and murdered by a pretender to the throne in 143 BCE.  His brother Simon, who had become governor of part of the coastal plain and provided Judea with a port by stationing a Jewish garrison in the pagan city of Jaffa, then became head of the Hasmonean clan.  Simon maneuvered to grab hold of the important fortresses in Judea which had previously alluded them – Beth Zur, Gezer and finally the Akra in Jerusalem in 141.  Simon further expanded Judea’s borders by incorporating the entire coastline from Jaffa to Ascalon, near what is now the Gaza Strip.  Simon became the first Hasmonean leader who obtained the title of “Ethnarch,” prince of the people. 


But a few years later, there was another round of warfare between the Maccabees and a Seleucid monarch, Antiochus VII.  In the meantime, in 134, Simon was murdered by his son-in-law and succeeded by John (Yohanan) Hyrcanus.  Jerusalem was again besieged by the Syrians and forced to surrender in 133.  Hyrcanus had to relinquish most of the territories that his father and uncle had captured in previous years. 


Antiochus VII died in a military campaign in the east and Hyrcanus spent years again expanding Judea’s borders.  Hyrcanus led Judea for 30 years until his death in 104.  His fortunes as a ruler and war leader waxed and waned but by 110, he had conquered Samaria, destroying the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim, and incorporated the Galilee in the north.  In the south, he conquered the Idumeans and converted them to Judaism.  


He was succeeded eventually by his son, Alexander Jannaeus (aka Alexander Yannay, short for Yonatan/Jonathan).  Alexander ruled as king (minting bilingual coins in Hebrew and Greek) and continued in the tradition of his father as a conquerer, mostly employing Greek mercenary soldiers; he captured all of the coastal plain in the west and Trans-Jordan in the east, but he could not hold them for his entire reign. 


The Pharisees were the popular party of the people, as opposed to the Sadducees – the party of the priests.  The Pharisees incorporated the Hellenistic love of learning and reason into Judaism, welcoming all men to study the law, the Torah directly; they also took in a version of the Greek idea of resurrection.  But the Pharisees were also sticklers for the law, with a tendency to criticize.  At first, the Hasmoneans supported the Pharisees, but there was a sharp falling out with King Alexander Yannay who must have had limited tolerance for criticism. 


When Alexander suffered a military defeat in battle with a neighboring Arab people in 90 BCE, he fled to Jerusalem.  His Pharisee enemies made an alliance with -- of all people -- the Seleucid king of the time, Demetrius III, who sent an army that badly defeated Alexander’s mostly Greek mercenary force.  But seeing the return of Seleucid soldiers may have unnerved some of Alexander’s Jewish enemies, who switched sides to support Alexander.  When Demetrius withdrew his army, Alexander rallied and defeated his enemies.  Alexander celebrated this triumph by carousing with his concubines while crucifying 800 Pharisee rebels and slaughtering their wives and children before their eyes as they died.  


But the Pharisees survived as a popular movement and political faction.  On his deathbed in 76 BCE, Alexander transferred royal authority to his wife, Salome Alexandra, and is said to have advised her to reconcile with the Pharisees (probably because they were so popular).  She appointed their oldest son, Hyrcanus II, to serve as High Priest.  But the real power was in the hands of the Pharisees.  They were able to exercise this power because Alexandra allowed them, for the first time, to be appointed to the Sanhedrin, the council of state, which had previously only seated priests and lay nobles.  With this kind of power, the Pharisees executed Alexander’s counselors who had advised him to stage that monstrous mass crucifixion. 


Still, anti-Pharisaic elements remained, consolidating themselves around Queen Alexandra and her second son, Aristobulus.  When the Queen died in 67 BCE, civil war broke out between Aristobulus and his older brother Hyrcanus II, who was the legitimate successor.  Aristobulus won and Hyrcanus renounced the throne -- but not for long.  Hyrcanus, advised by the Idumean convert Antipater (the father of the future King Herod), allied himself with the Arab Nabateans.  In the spring of 65, Aristobulus was besieged on the Temple Mount by Hyrcanus and his Arab allies. 


In the meantime, the Roman general Pompey was winning victories in the region, making him a decisive presence.  The Romans decided in favor of Aristobulus, and the mere word of this decision caused the Arab coalition to disperse.  But the disputation of the two brothers continued before Pompey in Damascus in 63 BCE; Pompey lost patience with Aristobulus and ordered Roman forces to occupy Jerusalem.  Hyrcanus opened the city’s gates to the Romans, and their joint forces laid siege to Aristobulus’s soldiers on the Temple Mount.  In the fall of 63, this alliance overwhelmed Aristobulus’s men; in the slaughter that ensued, the Romans even cut down the priests and Levites at the altar as they engaged in performing their usual ritual sacrifices. 


Judea was now a vassal princedom under Rome.  Hyrcanus II reigned as High Priest but not as king.  Judea lost all its non-Jewish territories, losing its access to the Sea and most of Trans-Jordan.  It still included Judea, Samaria, the Galilee and Idumea.  In 40 BCE, Hyrcanus II was overthrown by a Parthian invasion in league with his nephew Antigonus.  Three years later, Antigonus was overthrown by the Romans and Antipater’s son Herod was made king. 


Herod married Mariamne (Miriam), a granddaughter of Hyrcanus II and made her brother Aristobulus (another Aristobulus) the High Priest.  In the year 30, Herod executed the retired ex-ruler Hyrcanus II, his wife’s grandfather.  In the following year, he struck down his wife, accusing her of being unfaithful.  Then he killed his wife’s mother, Alexandra.  In the year 25 BCE, he had even the distant relatives of Hyrcanus tracked down and murdered.  The Hasmonean clan was almost literally drowned in blood. 


As we’ve seen, most of the battles waged by the Hasmoneans or Maccabees were against other Jews, and toward the end, against each other.  They began as rural fundamentalists who violently attacked the more cosmopolitan Jews who mainly inhabited Jerusalem.  In this way, they bore some resemblance to the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, with their Jewish enemies being entirely dependent upon a foreign military power, whom they served as armed auxiliaries.  


The Hellenizing Jews who allied themselves with the Syrians were more cosmopolitan than the Maccabees, but the price of admission to the predominant Greek culture of the time was to surrender any semblance of Judaism as we’d know it. These were not truly the ancient equivalent of today’s progressives advocating tolerance and multiculturalism, because they were not defending the right of people to practice or not to practice Judaism as they chose.  It would be a foolish misconception to parachute modern values into the ancient Middle East.


Most Jews were known in the Greco-Roman Hellenistic world as backward rural hicks who made tough soldiers.  So Jewish mercenaries served one or other contending party in a struggle for the Seleucid Syrian throne.  Judea won its independence in large part because Syria became absorbed in dynastic civil wars.  


The Hasmonean priestly family that led the fight for Judean independence eventually took complete power, becoming not only the High Priests but also taking the kingship. Reestablishing the monarchy in this way is regarded as a usurpation according to Rabbinic Judaism, because the kingdom of ancient Judah had been ruled by the Davidic dynasty, the family line descended from King David, which was overthrown by the Babylonians.  Rabbinic Judaism is the more mellow offshoot of the Pharisaic Judaism that dominated Judea during the Hasmonean and Roman periods; it is the stream of Judaism that still defines what we regard as the Jewish religion today, after the sacrificial cult of the priestly caste ended with the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.   


The Hasmoneans soon became a Jewish version of Hellenistic kings. They took on Greek names and fought bloody wars. John Hyrcanus conquered the neighboring country of Idumea or Edom and forced its people to become Jews.  And from the conquered Edomites arose Herod who married into the Hasmoneans and, as apparently a paranoid psychotic, wiped them all out. 


The Hasmoneans also sought the countervailing protection of Rome against the Syrians, a course of action which eventually resulted in Judea becoming a vassal-kingdom within the Roman Empire, and later to come under direct Roman rule. Then came the catastrophic rebellion of 66-70 CE, chronicled by Josephus, and the failed Bar Kochba rebellion about 60 years later, which ended ancient Judea as a country entirely.

comments powered by Disqus