Another year has passed and the last of the Hanukkah candles has been lit, but what do we know about this rival winter holiday? It was not until the 19th century that Hanukkah became popular, largely because Jewish children felt left out during the Christmas season, or so the story goes. What is this holiday about, exactly? The First and Second Books of Maccabees give us most of our information on this Jewish holiday revolving around the so-called “Revolt of the Maccabees.”
The short version: the Seleucid king over Judea, Antiochus IV, suddenly and inexplicably developed a raging case of anti-Semitism for no reason. He then insisted that everyone follow the same Hellenic customs. To discourage foreign religions, he had pigs sacrificed in the Jewish temple, banned circumcision, and murdered Jews who clung to their religious traditions. Hence the revolt in which the victimized Jews defeated near diabolical forces.
And non-Jewish sources? Obscure at best, but not impossible. What happened before Antiochus IV gave the Hellenic Heil? The Jews instigated a local rebellion while he was invading Egypt. This alone would provoke antagonism, but there is more – namely corrupt Jews pulling political strings. The highest office was that of the High priest. Onias was High Priest at the time of the rebellion, but his brother Jason wanted the title and bribed Antiochus into giving it to him, but there is more – another schemer, Menelaus, offered an even larger bribe and so he was made High Priest.
Jason was none too pleased with this and when he heard the false rumor that Antiochus IV had been killed, he called together his forces and attacked rival Jews; this was the “revolt” that put the Seleucid king over the edge. This was not an oppressed peoples vying for religious freedom but simple infighting over power, politics, and money. Thus the foundation was laid and soon, others jumped into the fray. Enter the Maccabees, an essentially fundamentalist group who rejected all things Greek, including their policy of settling non-Jews in Jewish lands. Diversity? Multiculturalism? Not here, said Antiochus’ Jewish subjects.
Of course, we hear the same rejection of immigration into Jewish lands even today. Modern Israelites, like the Maccabees, wanted their territory to remain Jewish. In this sense, Hanukkah could be viewed as a reminder to put the tribe above all else. The rebels of the Second Century BCE certainly did. Judas Maccabeus led several battles in which the Jews defeated the Greeks, largely because the Greek army was divided on two fronts and did not take the Jewish threat too seriously, not until the rebels captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple – this is when the eight day holiday was first celebrated.*
Two short-lived kings later and the Jewish rebels were finally defeated, but Hanukkah lived on. Two centuries later and the story of the eight miraculous days of oil found its way into the legends via the Talmud; it is this miracle of light-bringing oil that is reflected in the lighting of the Menorah. Today, Jerusalem is still a hotbed of contention with high-powered Jews vying for control over temples and taxes while the surrounding areas are lit ablaze in one war after another. Hanukkah – is it a reminder of past Jewish political intrigue and double standards or a symbol of the unending perpetuation of the same?