1. Education

The Roots of Historic Hanukkah

A Minor Holiday Marks A Political Event


Mosaic of Menorah

05.27 Unknown Roman Artist place found: Tunis Tunisia Mosaic of Menorah 3rd century-5th century A.D. Mosaic 22 7/16 x 35 1/4in. (57 x 89.5cm)

Museum Collection Fund Brooklyn Museum

Each year starting on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, Jews celebrate the eight-day festival known as Hanukkah, a Hebrew word that means "to dedicate." While some misinformed Christians liken Hanukkah to a Jewish Christmas, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Historic Hanukkah Commemorates A Jewish Revolt

Hanukkah is actually a minor festival for which there is no basis in the Jewish Bible. Instead Hanukkah is a more of a nationalistic, historical holiday that commemorates the defeat of Syrian Greeks in the Seleucid Empire by a priestly family called the Maccabees in 165 B.C.

The Maccabees were a family of priests from the Judean countryside, not part of the Jewish priestly caste that inhabited Jerusalem. Hence, unlike the urban priests who tried to assimilate and get along with their occupiers, the Maccabees resisted domination by the Seleucid Empire.

The Jerusalem priests essentially had traded Jewish national sovereignty for the right to worship as they pleased at the Second Temple, the heart of Jewish life. Even this meager sop to Jewish identity was lost during the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who claimed to be a god and demanded that all his subjects worship him. His soldiers took over the Temple in Jerusalem and erected a bust of Antiochus there as a religious idol.

Worse still, the Seleucid soldiers sacrificed pigs to the god-king in violation of Jewish religious dietary laws known as kashrut (kosher), which classified pigs as unclean animals because they ate offal and other refuse. According to Jewish law, the soldiers' actions defiled the Temple and made it unfit for worship.

Slaughter of the Innocents

The greatest blow however, came when Antiochus forbade the Jews to circumcise their newborn sons. For centuries circumcision had been a visible sign of Jews' relationship with God, a symbol of the covenant between the Almighty and the people known as Israel.

In one gruesome episode, Antiochus' soldiers slaughtered newborn sons they found circumcised and then hung the babies' corpses around their mothers' necks as a warning. It's hardly surprising that such an outrage would spur the Jews, under the leadership of Judas Maccabees, to rebel against Antiochus and retake the Jerusalem Temple by force.

As they gained more power and prestige, the Maccabees became the Hasmonean (pronounced "hash-mo-knee-an") dynasty of priest-kings. The Hasmoneans ruled Judea from around 160 B.C. until A.D. 70 when Roman legions under Titus, son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, destroyed the Second Temple and crushed Jewish independence. [See Roman Occupation Timeline.]

The Maccabees' exploits are recounted by historian Flavius Josephus in his tome, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, Chapter 7, and in an extra-biblical writing known as the Book of Maccabees. In the Apocrypha of the Christian Bible, the book is divided into 1 and 2 Maccabees, but the book is omitted completely from the Jewish Bible. Biblical historians consider 1 Maccabees the more reliable of the two books because its events can be verified from other historical records.

The Omission of Hanukkah and the Maccabees for Political Reasons

The Book of the Maccabees probably was eliminated from the Jewish canon for political reasons, according to David Shasha, executive director of the Sephardic Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY.

Shasha wrote in the center's newsletter, Sephardic Heritage Update:

"The rabbis who canonized the Hebrew Scriptures at Yavneh circa 100 CE neglected to include the Book of Maccabees in their Bible. ... The rabbis saw the Hasmonean dynasty as usurpers to the Priestly offices in the Temple and the monarchy. The Hasmoneans ... did not come from the Zadokite lineage and took it upon themselves to lead the rebellion against Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks."

In other words, the rabbis who canonized the Jewish scriptures thought the Maccabees had no right to revolt and reclaim the Temple. Consequently the rabbis sought to discredit the Hasmonean influence on Jewish culture during the time of the Pharisees, Shasha noted.

The Non-Historic Hanukkah Holiday Is a Talmudic Legend

While the rabbis could discredit the Maccabean records, they couldn't eliminate Hanukkah as a holiday because it had become so popular. Instead, Shasha wrote, the rabbis developed an after-the-fact tale that a single bottle of sacred oil -- barely enough to keep the Temple candelabrum lit for one day -- lasted through the eight days of re-dedication ceremonies in 1 Maccabees 4:42-56.

This story was included in the Talmud, the Jewish collection of wisdom and interpretation, to give the Jews some rabbinic sanction, if not biblical authority, for the eight-day festival that remains popular today.

Sources on the Roots of Historic Hanukkah:

  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press 1994).
  • "The History of Hanukkah" by David Shasha, Sephardic Heritage Update, Dec. 1, 2010. http://groups.google.com/group/Davidshasha
  • Antiquities of the Jews, by Flavius Josephus (Public Domain) http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/JOSEPHUS.HTM

It's Your Turn!
How do you honor the history of Hanukkah?

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.