Hanukah is arguably the most celebrated and most well-known Jewish holiday of the year, so you probably already know the story. But you might have some of it wrong — the whole oil-lasting-eight-days thing? Never happened. And that thing you light with the candles called the menorah? It’s technically not called that. In case you don’t know much beyond the basic outlines, the complete coverage is in this week’s episode.
In the year 200 BCE, the Jewish province of Judea, located around Jerusalem, came under the control of the Seleucid Greek Empire, which had a mission to Hellenize its empire. At first, the Seleucid king allowed the Jews to continue practicing their faith and culture at the Temple in Jerusalem.
But there were two main Jewish factions fighting each other for control over Judaism. The ensuing civil war was between the Egyptian-leaning traditional Jews, like the Maccabees, who wanted to keep things the way they had always been, and the Greek-leaning Jews who saw in Greek culture a path to modernity, greater prosperity, and personal freedom.
By the year 175 BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a daft prick, decided to intervene in the civil war. Antiochus sacked Jerusalem and massacred as many of the traditional, Egyptian-oriented Jews as he could find. He outlawed studying Jewish texts and observing Shabbat. In 167 he defiled the Temple, outlawed the practice of Judaism, and had pigs sacrificed at the altar. That was a huge mistake.
Mattathias and his five sons, who became known as the Maccabees, rebelled. They were religious fundamentalists who allowed no modernizing compromise, killing anyone, Jew or Greek, who got in their way. In 165 BCE they succeeded in driving the Greeks out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple. They commemorated the event with a new holiday.
So why didn’t Hanukah make it into the Hebrew Bible? There are multiple theories. Perhaps the story of Hanukah wasn’t written in time to make it into the Bible, or it felt too recent to include. Or maybe later infighting between Jewish sects meant they couldn’t agree on how to include the story of the Maccabees, so they left it out altogether. Or maybe it’s because there were no divine miracles in the story, God didn’t play a role, so it felt inappropriate to include.
But probably the most popular answer is that the Maccabees were left out of the biblical canon so as not to upset the Romans. The Hanukah story is one in which a modern, prosperous, and powerful empire invades Judea and gets beaten by a rough band of fundamentalist rebels. Two hundred years later, the Jews found themselves in a similar situation with the Roman Empire, but this time they lost and the Temple was destroyed forever. So the Jews may not have wanted to promote a text that would seem to encourage yet more rebellion against the Romans.
When Judah became the leader of the rebellion, his military prowess earned him a nickname: Ha’Maccabee, meaning “The Hammer”. Hence the famous name.
The Maccabees suffered a huge defeat early in the rebellion because they wouldn’t fight on Shabbat, which King Antiochus knew and used to his advantage. So the Maccabees re-interpreted the Torah to allow them to fight in self-defense under the principle of saving a life.
Two hundred years after these events, Josephus referred to the holiday as “The Festival of Lights.” The word Hanukah came about a hundred years later and means “to dedicate,” a reference to restoring the Temple. But Hanukah still wasn’t put together with the events of the Maccabees until several hundred years later in the Talmud.
NAMES TO KNOW
King Antiochus IV Epiphanes: Seleucid Greek king who all but banned Judaism, wrecked the Temple, and had pigs sacrificed at the altar just to piss off the Jews.
The Maccabees: Mattathias and his five sons began a rebellion against the Seleucids. His son Judah took over for him and defeated the Seleucids a couple years later.
Josephus: Jewish-Roman historian of the first century CE who brought us a good chunk of the story of Hanukah. He is most famous for later recording the story of Masada.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
The Hanukah story is not found in the Torah. It comes from the First and Second Books of Maccabees, known as apocrypha, which are ancient books that didn’t make it into the finalized version of the Hebrew Bible but are still considered important historical works. The holiday itself is considered a “rabbinic” or “extra-biblical” holiday — not in the Torah, but still worth celebrating.
Time and again in this era of Jewish history, we learn that the absolute worst way you can insult the Jews is to outlaw their religious practices, especially to defame the Holy Temple or to prevent their worship of God. So here we have Greek culture being forced upon the Jews in their own country, and at the expense of them being allowed to live their own cultural and religious lives. No wonder they revolted.
In order to fully rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees needed oil to light the menorah. There was plenty of oil lying around, but not that much holy oil, which had to be specially blessed. The miracle of the oil came to us about 600 years after the revolt, when the Talmud wrote up the legend we all know about how the Maccabees found just enough oil to last for one day, but it instead lasted for eight. Possibly this story was included to give a “divine” imprimatur on a story that was really just about a great military conquest: throwing in a story about a miracle gives God a role, so enhances the holiness of the holiday.
On Hanukah, you are not actually lighting a menorah. The menorah was the seven-candle lamp used in the Temple. Because it was the central source of light in the Temple, it became the ancient symbol of Judaism. What you light on Hanukah is a modified version of the menorah, called a Chanukiah, which has a total of nine candles — eight branches for a candle for each of the eight days, plus a ninth, central, candle called the shamash, which is used to light the other eight.