Chanukah: History and Thought

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29 Jun 2006

The following material is adapted with permission from The Book of Our Heritage by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov and other sources…

War between Sanctity and Defilement

The war waged by the Hasmoneans against Greek rule was not similar to a typical revolt of the enslaved against their oppressors. Had it been Israel’s aim only to seek freedom, they were able to achieve full national freedom even under Greek dominion. The Greeks made no designs upon their bodily freedom. They desired only to enslave the Jews spiritually. More than this: The Greeks held that they were benefiting the Jews, in imposing upon them, Greek culture and wisdom.

It was their aim to ‘liberate’ Israel from ‘superstition and backwardness.’ The other peoples living under Greek domination willingly accepted Greek culture, and saw a great light in it. Among Israel too, there were many whose spirits were captivated by the enchantments of Greece. The Greeks wanted only to shed the spirit of their culture upon Israel, till the people of Israel would place their faith in Man’s strength, in his aesthetic sense, and the ultimate reliability of human reason.

The cardinal principles of Jewish faith that God speaks to Man and prescribes specific commandments for him to observe – these were to be nullified and uprooted from the Jewish heart. The people of Israel of that generation with the Hasmonean Kohanim at their head, viewed this ‘Torah’ of the Greeks as the root of all evil, as the most abominable form of paganism. All idolatry is an abomination, but when Man himself becomes an idol, and all his faculties minister to the idol – he has then created an infinitely worse abomination. When wood and stone are worshipped, they inflict no greater harm or ruin than their worshippers do, because they have no spirit of their own. Whereas, if man is deified, and ultimate faith is placed in the superiority of his good taste and the truth of his reason he is then capable of evil and destructiveness that are without limit.

Hasmonean CoinsThe Hasmoneans saw this defilement strike root among their people and branch out among them more and more from day to day. Till the Sanctuary itself was defiled. They saw war with the Greeks as a ‘war of obligation.’ For the people of Israel had been invested with the task of safeguarding purity and sanctity in the world. As it is written: ‘And you shall be unto me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation,’ ‘For all the land is Mine.’ These teachings stood in fundamental opposition to the belief which the Greeks sought to impose. The two could not abide together. Sanctity stood arrayed in war against defilement.

The Dominion of Greece

Yefet, the son of Noah, had seven sons, of whom Yavan (Greece) was the fourth. For seventeen hundred years the family of Yavan played an insignificant role in the world, till her star rose, and she became the chief of kingdoms, in the days of Alexander of Macedonia. The earthly hosts are like the hosts of Heaven. Just as God ordained boundaries for the Heavenly hosts – one was given dominion over the day, while another was restricted to the night likewise the hosts of the earth. Their Creator placed each of the nations and kingdoms within its set boundaries. To one He gave beauty, to another strength; to one wealth, to another wisdom, so that each might entrench himself within his own sphere, without needing to enter that of his fellow. Israel alone was ordained to be God’s precious treasure among all the nations. All the good and the beautiful that was to be found among all the nations, could be acquired by Israel also. In one respect Israel was to rise above them all in cleaving to God.

Yefet and his sons were given by God, the domain of beauty and wisdom. Their father Noah blessed them thus: ‘God, you have given beauty to Yefet, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.’ ‘The beauty of Yefet, within the tents of Shem.’ That is to say, it is fitting for the beauty of Yefel to enter the tents of Shem, and to find there its proper fulfillment. After Alexander of Macedonia had lifted Greece to the pinnacle of power, and had conquered nations, one of his successors, King Ptolemy of the Egyptian segment of Alexander’s empire, made his capital a center of learning and science. The Sages of Israel were then requested to translate the Torah into Greek, to enable the seekers of Greek wisdom to enter the outer gates of the Torah of Shem. The Jewish Sages relied upon the above interpretation of the blessing to Yefet, to confirm the propriety of their translation.

While Alexander lived, be showed reverence to the Sages of Israel and bowed his head before Shimon the Tzadik. Alexander’s Greece, replaced Persia in preeminence. And Yehudah lived under Greek dominion as she had previously done under Persian dominion. As long as Alexander lived, however, he inflicted no harm upon Yehudah, but rather showed her friendship. After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided into three parts. One of his generals achieved power in Egypt, one in Greece itself, and a third in Syria.

The Syrian kingdom became known as the Selucidean kingdom after Selecus, who established its royal family. Yehudah fell under the dominion of the Syrian kingdom and from them, the people of Israel suffered ever harsher oppression. The Syrian-Greeks resented the little Judean kingdom in their midst, which maintained its separateness despite its subjugation to them; which rejected all of Greece’s culture and wisdom, and stubbornly resisted its spirit. The competition was not one of strength, for physically Yehudah was subjugated to her conquerors. It was a contest only of the spirit. In the contest of strength, the hand of Yafet had prevailed. In the contest of spirit, the hand of Yehudah had prevailed, to the bitter chagrin of the rulers.

After the Torah was translated into Greek, the rulers of Greece first delighted in it, and were even inclined to forgive the pride of those who adhered to the Torah. Later, that Torah became as thorns in the eyes of succeeding Greek rulers, and they resolved to uproot it from the hearts of those who were faithful to it, in order to subjugate them completely in body and spirit. Israel’s Torah became a target for enemy arrows, and conflict erupted between mighty, conquering Greece, and weak, subjugated Yehudah.

When Does Beauty Become Ugliness?

The Heavenly hosts and the Earthly hosts both have tasks. But they are not alike with reference to freedom of will. The Heavenly hosts can only perform their assigned tasks. Men, however, are invested with freedom of will, and are capable of altering their tasks for evil to themselves and evil to all the world. When the beauty of Yefet dwells in the tents of Shem, and serves Shem, it is genuine beauty. When the maidservant seeks to replace the mistress; when the beauty of Yefet seeks to subjugate Shem’s tents, and to make ,Shem serve her, there is nothing uglier. Strength becomes transformed into brutal tyranny. Wisdom becomes cunning. Truth becomes distortion. Why ? For without tyranny, cunning and distortion, how could the mistress submit to the maidservant? What beauty remains for them?

The rulers of Greece were prepared to consent to major portions of the Torah; to those of its practices which they imagined as capable of being ‘poured into Greek utensils.’ Three mitzvot alone, however, they wished to annul completely. If these could be annulled, the remaining mitzvot could be transformed into empty Greek ritual; to be forgotten from the heart in the end.

The three are: Shabbat, the consecration of the new month, and the covenant of circumcision. Shabbat recalls to its adherents, and all who see them, that the world has a ruler, through whose word everything was created. Shabbat proclaims: ‘Accord honor to your Creator, and let all the Earth bow down to Him.’ It must be uprooted, and its memory forgotten. ‘We are lords of the earth and all its inhabitants shall bow only unto us,’ said the Greeks.

The consecration of the new month recalls to those who consecrate it, and to all who view them, that God’s power acts in Time. If the Beit Din sanctifies the new month, it is sanctified; its festivals are sanctified; and they become wellsprings of holiness and exaltation for body and soul. If the Beit Din fails to sanctify the new month, it remains profane. Since it is the basis for the observance of the festivals, the consecration of the month also teaches the Presence of God and the fulfillment of His aims, within History. The consecration of the new month hence teaches both the holiness of time and the holiness of history. It must be uprooted from Israel, and its memory must be erased. ‘We ordain festival times: we determine when to rejoice and when to grieve!’ said the Greeks.

The covenant of circumcision recalls to those who observe it, and to all who see them, that body and soul – both together – are hewn from one source. All the worlds together are one world – the world of the Creator and all that is found in them serves Him and performs His will. This covenant is to be uprooted from Israel; let it not challenge the Wise Men of Greece who say: There are two worlds – the body rules without restraint in its world, and the soul rules without restraint in its world with nothing standing in between. The body is not subject to the soul, and the soul is not subject to the body.

A world without its Creator, a year without holiness, a body without restraint – is there anything uglier ? Sights of external beauty in the place of the visions of God. Wild spectacles in the place of exaltation and holiness. A conflagration of instincts in the place of sanctifying the body. What value is there in such a life?


At first the Greeks thought that they would attract the people to their teachings with peaceful techniques. ‘They therefore won over the weak-minded among the people by giving them power in both the government and the Sanctuary. These were appointed as officials, Kohanim Gedolim, Elders and Judges. Together they formed a sect which came to be called, ‘The Hellenists.’ The Hellenists sought to spread Greek culture among the people. They incited the people to forsake God’s Torah, and to embrace the Greek way of life. as they had done. They arranged evenings of lust and licentious dancing. They erected altars to the Greek idols, to which they brought offerings. All their days were filled with celebrations, enchanting entertainment and inflammatory pleasures. The larger part of the people did not follow them and continued to adhere to the Torah of their fathers. They turned their backs on the traitors, and hated them in their hearts. They wept to their God over their traitorous brothers, and over the people of God who were handed over to enemies without, and to traitors within.

The evil Antiochus saw that the Hellenists were not achieving their aim; and that they were as outcasts in the eyes of the majority of their people. Whereupon he sent his armies, under the leadership of relentless brutal commanders, either to force the Jews into submission or to subject them to slaughter. These armies murdered, slaughtered and plundered. They spread desolation among the people, and afflicted them with all manner of persecution. They put to death tens of thousands of men, women, children and infants, who offered their lives for the Torah. Some of the people surrendered, bowed to the idols, and participated in the abominations. Some fled to the wilderness, or hid in caves. The Hellenists helped the enemy track down those who were in hiding; to torture those who had not fled, and to incite them to wanton transgression. And they handed over the daughters of Israel to the enemy tyrants for defilement. They then came to the courtyard of the Sanctuary and defiled it. They suspended the daily offering. They defiled the oils and the Menorah. They built an altar and offered a pig on it, whose blood they then brought into the Holy of Holies. The people heard and trembled in outrage. It became apparent that there was no escape from open war with sword and spear, against both the enemy and the traitorous brothers.

The Miracle of the Revolution

The first miracle was performed through the daughters of Israel. If a child was born to the wife of one of those who had fled into hiding, the mother would circumcise the child on the eighth day. She would go up upon the wall of Yerushalayim carrying her child. She would hurl herself and her child from the wall to certain death – thereby saying to her husband, and all her brothers who had gone into hiding to escape war: ‘If you will not go out to wage war against your enemies, you will have neither children nor wives, and your end will be total annihilation. We will observe what is holy to us, not in hiding, but publicly, before the eyes of all. If you intend to save us, emerge from your caves, and wage war against the enemy till you destroy him. God will be with you Then Matityahu and his five sons arose ‘like lions. They gathered about them all who were faithful and valiant. They went out to slay the enemies of God, or to be slain. For many days they battled – the few against the many, the weak against the mighty – but the hand of God sustained them, till they vanquished their enemies, and cleansed the land from Antiochus’ armies and their abominations. Then they came to the Temple Court, cleansed the altar, and rebuilt it. They made a new Menorah of wood and lit lamps for eight days. They kindled the lights of Torah, of joy, of faith and trust in God, in the homes of all Israel – in all their habitations, and for all generations.

Measure for Measure

The great salvation performed by God through his chosen Kohanim in behalf of his chosen people opened the eyes of many of those who erred. Many of the peoples saw that God’s name was called upon Israel; that He exacted vengeance in their behalf, and repaid their enemies measure for measure. After the Greeks had conquered most of the peoples of the world and became masters over them, they arrogantly thought: We will rise above the clouds, and will subjugate the chosen people. We will remove its crown of glory, and will cast it down to the ground, as we have done with so many other peoples. After the Hasmonean victory over them, their penalty was, to become the lowliest of nations. They intended to cause the Torah to be forgotten from Israel, and to extinguish Israel’s light; instead they added yet another Yom Tov of remembrance and testimony that the Torah will never depart from Israel.

An allusion to the matter is found in the saying of our Sages: ‘The mezuzah is on the right, the light of the Chanukah is on the left, and the head of the house, whose talit contains tzitzit, is in the middle.’ These three are safeguards against forgetfulness. Mezuzah causes us to remember His sovereignty tzitzit is intended to be a remembrance. The Chanukah light is also a remembrance. (The later Sages have said that gazing at the Chanukah lights, causes one to remember the mitzvot, just as gazing upon tzitzit does.)

Thus did our ancient Sages say: ‘And there was darkness upon the face of the abyss’ – this refers to Greece which darkened the eyes of Israel. For this reason the lights of Chanukah were prescribed. The Sages likewise interpreted the verse: ‘And its side was that of a serpent,’ as referring to Greece. For the serpent is without gratitude and the Greeks wished to uproot from Israel the sense of subjugation to God’s will, and of gratitude to Him. For this reason, the people of Israel prescribed additional thanksgiving over the miracle. The Greeks wanted to uproot the sanctification of the new month from Israel; that is to say, the power of perpetual self-renewal and God gave Israel an additional capacity for self-renewal. The mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is the first renewal which God gave to Israel, and Chanukah is the final renewal, till the Messiah will come.

The Greeks took pride in their strength and numbers. But they fell by the hand of a people who were few in number, and who were poorly armed. They took pride in their great wisdom, and in their well ordered government. But they were revealed before the eyes of the world as predatory animals. Their disciples from among the Jews, the Hellenists, scoffed at Israel for placing its trust in God, and waiting for His salvation. They said: ‘Learn the art of war from the Greeks; do not turn to your Torah and to your prayers. If you will rely on these, you will be trodden under the foot of any people who will attack you.

And then salvation came; through the mighty heroism shown by the weak against those who were renowned for strength. Further, the war did not begin from the strong and the militant among the Jews. It rather began with Kohanim who served in the Sanctuary upon whom no sword could be raised. ‘These with chariots, and those with horses, but the Kohanim of the Lord proclaimed the Name of their God. The others kneeled and fell, but the servants of God rose and prevailed.’ We learn, thereby, that none are strong before God, or before the people of God. For real strength endures only if it is based on purity. A genuine bond prevails only among the righteous but the bond of the wicked will not last.