Friday, December 23, 2016

Not Your Grandmother’s Chanukah Story

In honor of the start of Chanukah tomorrow night, I have unearthed a little piece that I wrote for a social movements class way back when. It is long, but hey, so is Chanukah! 
If you like history then this is for you. If you would prefer a short version, wait for the first Chanukah vlog coming on Monday!

Chanukah is known as the “Festival of Lights.” The particularly cosmopolitan American may even associate the holiday more specifically with the lighting of the chanukia, an eight-branched candelabra that mimics the structure of the solid gold menorah of the ancient Jewish Temple. What most people do not know is that the chanukia is a symbol of a long-ago social movement for religious freedom—the Hasmonean Revolt.

The start of this struggle with Hellenization emerged from the Seleucid conquest of the Land of Israel under Antiochus III in 198 B.C.E.[1] Initially, Jews retained the right to practice their religious tradition, and conflict was contained to disputes between the Jewish Hellenists, or Misyavnim, and the Chasidim—individuals intent on preserving the tradition.[2] However, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes took the throne, he intervened in favor of the Misyavnim, and created a series of decrees forbidding observance of Judaism, and enforcing them with a death penalty.[3] The severity of this authoritarianism left the proponents of Judaism no choice but to respond with violence. Further, the protestors understood from Antiouchus IV’s involvement that success in ideological battle was now tied to success in establishing political autonomy.

While Seleucid rulers did not usually impose Hellenism[4], there are a number of reasons suggested for Antiochus IV’s involvement in the Land of Israel’s domestic strife. According to the first century B.C.E. historian Diodorus Siculus, Antiochus was subject to influence from various friends who advised that he “wipe out completely the race of the Jews” as a punishment for their resistance to outside cultural influences.[5] However Bringman, a German historian, refutes this position, rather emphasizing Antiochus IV’s ambition and consequent political motivations. Due to many costly battles fought elsewhere in the empire, Antiochus IV had a vested interest in obtaining access to the wealth of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. [6] Thus, he needed to develop a more powerful presence in the Land of Israel, to appoint the High Priest of the Temple who would provide him with access to the storage of the funds collected on behalf of the orphaned and the widowed in fulfillment of the Jewish Commandments. Antiochus sold the priesthood to an obliging Misyaven, Jason.[7]

Never the less, it is likely that Antiochus IV’s friends did influence the severity with which punishment was executed. The persecutions enacted in the winter of 167/166 B.C.E. attacked customs specifically unique to Jewish Tradition. Sabbath observance, circumcision and kosher were all punishable by death. In a singular case of Seleucidian cultural intrusion, royal officials enforced the regulations with a vengeance, burning Torah scrolls, and executing those who hid them.[8] Still many Chasidim resisted, often at the cost of their life. The famous story of Chana, who watch each of her seven sons murdered after they refused, one by one, to engage in paganism became a rallying point later in the unification of forces.[9]

The first mass revolt surfaced in response to Antiochus IV’s placement of idols, and appropriation of the orphans’ fund,[10] in the Temple. To the Jewish people, this was symbolic of the complete inundation of Seleucid influence, not only culturally, but politically as well. The Maccabees developed from this revolt, creating the Hasmoenan Movement that combined the religious fervor of the Chasidim with a desire to establish a crucial political independence. The Chasidim were not initially an organized force, but the Hasmonean family came from Shevet Levi, a tribe that historically was dispersed among the people as an inborn network of educators and leaders.[11] Fittingly, they united the dissenters as Maccabee fighters.

Gathering in the forests, the Hasmonean forces engaged in guerilla warfare, using their intimate knowledge of the surrounding area to their advantage. They sabotaged idolatrous altars and main roads, thus disrupting the basic functions of the government and mercenary forces. By 165 B.C.E., they had taken control of Judea.[12] A series of Seleucid generals attempted to quash the uprising, but the Hasmoneans, under the military guidance of Judah the Maccabee, proceeded to conquer until they controlled virtually the entire country. On October 15, 164 B.C.E. the Seleucid government restored the right to practice Judaism and provided amnesty to fighters, however, the Hasmoneans did not accept, refusing to acknowledge the political legitimacy of Antiochus IV and his government.[13]

The Hasmoneans were, however, painfully aware of the religious and political significance of the Temple, and, in December of that year, Judah and his men captured Jerusalem. On the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, Judah purified the Temple, and relit the menorah, which subsequently became a symbol of religious freedom and political autonomy. [14]

This victory was not complete, however. In 162 B.C.E., Antiochus V, the new Seleucid ruler, appointed a moderate hellenizer, Alcimus, as the High Priest. The Hasmoneans refused to tolerate this encroachment of their political power, and though Judah the Maccabee fell in the ensuing war, his brother Jonathan ultimately succeeded in replacing him as leader of the Hasmoneans, and became High Priest in 152 B.C.E. [15]

This marked the beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty and the progression of the Maccabee protest, from an ancient social movement to an independent Jewish government that ruled for hundreds of years in relative peace, and produced a golden age of religious study.[16] The emergence of such an illustrious era from the realization of the movement’s goals indicates that the initial conflict was not simply a religious spat, a “civil war between the Jews,”[17] but rather, it was a significant fight for cultural opportunity.

[1] Schiffman p. 42

[2] Feldman p. 10

[3] Schiffman p. 44

[4] Momigliano p. 100

[5] Feldman p. 13

[6] Bringmann p. 111-140

[7] Schiffman p. 42

[8] Schiffmann p. 44

[9] Haber p. 7

[10] Schiffmann p. 43

[11] Tcherikover p. 127-140

[12] Schiffmann p. 44

[13] Schiffmann p. 44

[14] Schiffmann p. 45

[15] Schiffmann p. 45

[16] Levine p. 254-257

[17] Feldman p. 15


Bringmann, Hellenist Reform and Religion in Judea (Gottingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprect, 1983) 111-140.

Feldman, “The Maccabean Revolt: The State of the Question.” (New York: Yeshiva University, 2011) 9-18.

Haber, “Living and Dying for the Law: The Mother-martyrs of 2 Maccabees.” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2006 Volume 4 Number 1

Levine, “The Age of Hellenism: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom.” Ancient Israel from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. (Washington DC: Biblical Archaeology Society 1999) 254- 257.

Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (Cambridge, 1975) 100.

Schiffman, “The Maccabean Revolt: What Really Happened.” (New York: Yeshiva University, 2012) 42-45.

Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1959) 180.
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