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The History of Chanukah

by Rabbi David E. Lipman in The Book of Jewish Knowledge: 613 Basic Facts About Judaism, Jason Aronson Inc., pages 47-50
(used with permission of the author)


Chanukah celebrates an historical event. In 165 B.C.E., A group of Jews successfully rebelled against the Seleucid King Antiochus.

Although the holiday focuses on the specific victory against King Antiochus's army, the story of Chanukah begins long before that specific event.

In 334 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Judea and brought to it Greek Culture. He didn't force anyone to participate in that culture, but he lowered the taxes for any group willing to accept this way of life.

When Alexander died, his Middle Eastern kingdom divided into two groups: the eastern kingdom (including modern-day Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon) was called the Seleucid kingdom; the western kingdom (including Egypt) was the Ptolemaic kingdom. These two groups fought one another for political control, and Judea was caught between them.

The Jews of Judea didn't care which group ruled them. They had their Temple, their sacrifices, and their High Priest, who governed the country. It didn't matter to whom they had to pay vassal taxes; the taxes were always too high anyway.

The major political center of Greek life was the polis, the city, and the wealthier Jews succeeded in having Jerusalem recognized as a polis. They changed their dress, their names, and their life-style to those of the Greeks.

In 169 B.C.E. the Seleucid King Antiochus IV attacked the Ptolemies. He lost. Word got back to Jerusalem that Antiochus was dead. A former High Priest, Jason, saw this as an opportunity to wrench the priesthood from Antiochus's lackey, Menelaus. He set up a revolution in Jerusalem.

Antiochus, of course, was still alive. Furious, he slaughtered a large number of Jews, declared martial law, and banned certain practices of Judaism as capital crimes, specifically Shabbat and circumcision. In addition, he profaned the Temple by introducing foreign worship. Antiochus was supported by some Jews.

The prohibitions established by King Antiohcus were intolerable to a group of Jews called the Hasidim (not related to the modern-day Chasidim). They fought against these decrees, but they needed leadership. They found this leadership in a priestly family, the Hasmoneans.


The head of the Hasmonean clam was Mattathias. We don't know much about him personally. The First Book of Maccabees reveals that he was a priest who moved from Jerusalem more than thirty miles to Modi'in. Therefore, he probably was not part of the big-power priesthood.

When a Seleucid ordered Mattathias to participate in a foreign sacrifice in Modi'in, he refused and slew a Jew who cam forward to obey the command. After slaying a Greek officer as well, Mattathias and his followers fled to the hills, and thus began the Hasmonean revolt. He successfully united the people under his authority.

Judah, called Maccabee, the Hammer, was one of Mattathias's five sons. There is a tradition stating that Judah inscribed on his shield the Hebrew letters mem chaf bet yod, which are the first letters of the words, "Who is like you among the gods, Adonai." By themselves, they form the word Maccabee.

Antiochus sent down an army to wipe out the revolt. Judah and his revolutionaries defeated that army in the mountains surrounding Jerusalem by using guerrilla tactics.

Antiochus sent another, larger army under the famous general Nicanor, but Judah and the revolutionaries defeated his army as well and entered Jerusalem.

Cleaning and Rededication of Temple

After defeating Antiochus's army, the Jews systematically cleaned the defiled Temple in Jerusalem; it apparently took almost a year. Judah declared a great holiday to celebrate the fact that the Temple was again in Jewish hands. In order to make this dedication a big event, the Hasmoneans declared that the ceremony should serve as a reminder of Sukkot, which lasts eight days. The Jews had been unable to celebrate Sukkot for three years because of their guerrilla fighting, so they celebrated Sukkot at the time of the Temple dedication.

The dedication of the Temple took place on the 25th of Kislev and, like Sukkot, lasted for eight days. The Hebrew word for dedication is Chanukah.

In the Aftermath of the War

Neither the Seleucids (the Greek power in Damascus) nor many Jews accepted the Hasmonean family as the governing priesthood. As a matter of fact, civil war continued in Judea for twenty years after the first Chanukah. Judah's family was finally victorious. Simeon, Judah's brother, was made High Priest, and Chanukah became a yearly celebration of the Hasmonean victory. The Hasmonean family ruled for a hundred years. During that time, there was a great deal of tension between the Hasmoneans and the sages. As a result, the sages were not particularly interested in maintaining a holiday that commemorated the dedication declared by the Hasmonean family. We find evidence of this power struggle in the traditional legend concerning the eight days of Chanukah.

We find in the Talmud, compiled 700 years after the event, a legend which explained the eight-day holiday as a time when the Temple had been desecrated and there was no sacred oil. Only one small jar marked with the High Priest's seal was found. This oil, enough to burn one day, burned eight days. This miracle (said the sages) resulted in the eight-day celebration of Chanukah.

Texts related to Chanukah, from the Talmud, First and Second Maccabees, and Josephus, can be seen by clicking here.