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Money, war and rebellion — it’s Chanukah, of course

By Leon Cohen
of The Chronicle staff

December 18th, 2008

I sometimes think Chanukah is the least understood of the Jewish festivals. Passover and the High Holidays seem relatively easy to comprehend and explain; but Chanukah involves history and sources that many people do not know or understand.

The Seleucid Empire c. 200 B.C.E.

The Seleucid Empire c. 200 B.C.E.

Yet the tale of Chanukah’s origins is one of the best in Jewish or any other history. Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday in terms of its characteristic ritual, the seder service-plus-dinner; but Chanukah is my favorite for its story, or what Hollywood would call its “backstory.”

To understand that story, you have to begin with the destruction of the Jewish state of Judah and of the first Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in 586 B.C.E.

The Babylonian conquerors, in keeping with their policies toward other conquered peoples, forced the most prominent Jewish leaders and families to move to Babylonia, leaving the poorest Jews behind.

In 539 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians, conquered the Babylonian empire. He annulled the Babylonian relocation policy; permitted Jews to return to Judah and Jerusalem; and allowed them to build the second Temple and to set up a form of self-rule under Persian domination. For about two centuries, Judah was a province of the Persian Empire.

Then in the fourth century B.C.E., Macedonia conquered the city-states that had created classical Greek civilization. Macedonian king Alexander the Great then led a combined Macedonian and Greek army into the Persian Empire. In the course of this invasion, he captured Judah in 332 B.C.E.

Ultimately, Alexander destroyed the Persian state and created an empire that stretched from Egypt to the border of what we know as India.

And this conquest constituted more than just a change of administration. Alexander and his soldiers and officials brought Greek civilization to the region and set up the Greek type of city, or polis, throughout the empire.

 
Two generals

Alexander died of disease before he could consolidate his empire. His generals struggled among themselves and ended up dividing the realm. Two of those generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus, are important for Chanukah.

Ptolemy set up a kingdom in Egypt that his family ruled for about two centuries. His last dynastic descendent was Queen Cleopatra VII, who charmed Romans Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony and who has been the subject of many plays, operas, novels and movies. Ptolemy established his capital at Alexandria, which had an important Jewish community.

Seleucus took the region extending from what is known today as Lebanon, Syria and part of Turkey to the border of India and created the Seleucid Empire in that territory.

Judah, now known as Judea, and its most important city, Jerusalem, occupied a strategic location between these two kingdoms. At first, it fell under the Ptolemies’ dominion; but around 200 B.C.E., the Seleucids captured it.

Both kingdoms at first allowed Judea a fair amount of self-rule under their domination. They also brought Greek civilization into close contact with Jewish civilization.

It appears likely that the Jews reacted much as Jews do today in response to modern Western civilization. Some wanted little or nothing to do with Greek ways, others wanted to embrace them entirely and throw Judaism over, and others wanted to combine the two in varying degrees.

In 175 B.C.E., Antiochus IV came to the Seleucid throne. This ruler had ambitions to conquer Egypt. But the Ptolemies made an alliance with a new power in the west, the Roman Republic, and together they thwarted Antiochus. At about the same time, the Parthians threatened the Seleucid Empire from the east.

Antiochus apparently decided he needed more money to finance his ambitions; and one of the places from which he decided to get it was the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem.

 
Crime and blunder

Here we must digress to consider an important question: How do we know about these events?

The primary sources are two Books of Maccabees. Scholars believe the author of the first was someone in Judea who may have been a witness to — or at least a contemporary of — some of the events. The second according to its own text summarizes a longer historical work originally written in Greek.

The rabbis of the Talmud era (c. 500 C.E.) excluded both books from the final canon of the Jewish Bible. However, when the Jews of Alexandria and, apparently, elsewhere decided to make a Greek translation of the Bible, called the Septuagint (c. 300-100 B.C.E.), they included these books plus others that the rabbis excluded.

The early Christians adopted the Septuagint as their “Old Testament,” and that is how the Books of Maccabees were preserved. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity keep I and II Maccabees as part of their Bible to this day. (Protestant Christian movements follow the Jewish community in excluding them.)

How accurate these books are, how to interpret them, and the details of the story they tell are matters of scholarly controversy. But the upshot appears to be as follows:

Antiochus IV pillaged the Temple and savagely put down the resulting popular unrest. Then with the apparent help of some local Jews he captured the Temple and ordered it used for worship of the Greek gods; and he outlawed Judaism, punishing people who maintained Jewish religious observances by torturing them to death.

Religious persecution like this was rare in the ancient world, and scholars have been puzzled about why Antiochus IV did it. (No Seleucid Empire records survive.) They propose several possible reasons: to unify his empire religiously; to impose Greek civilization; to suppress Jewish resistance to his plans; or to express an unreasoning and pathological hatred of Jews and Judaism, which would make him history’s first known true anti-Semite.

Whatever Antiochus’ reasons, the persecution proved to be “worse than a crime; it is a blunder” (as Napoleon’s foreign minister Tallyrand said about a different event).

In the town of Modi’in west of Jerusalem lived a family of kohanim (priests) descended from an ancestor named Hasmon, from which scholars have called them Hasmoneans (Hashmonaim in Hebrew). The father, Mattathias, had five sons, each of whom, according to I Maccabees, had a first name in Hebrew, but also a second name of uncertain significance. Of particular note is Mattathias’ son, Judah Maccabee.

This family beginning in 166 B.C.E. led a revolt against Antiochus’ war on Judaism; and after Mattathias died, Judah became the military leader. Judah proved to be a military genius, though it helped him that Antiochus had to divide his forces to fight the Parthians at the same time.

 
Why eight days?

In 164 B.C.E., Judah and his followers recaptured the Temple. After a cleansing process, they held there on the 25th of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev an eight-day long chanukat ha-bayit (dedication of the house), from which the holiday of Chanukah gets its name.

They then proclaimed that Jews forevermore should remember and celebrate the anniversary of the Temple’s rededication to Jewish worship — and that constitutes the Jewish religious significance of the holiday.

Why eight days? II Maccabees suggests that the first Chanukah was treated as a second Sukkot, the Torah-mandated harvest festival that lasts for eight days.

But others have suggested different explanations. A midrash in Megilat Ta’anit (first century C.E.) says the cleansing of the Temple took eight days and that is why the rabbis made Chanukah that long.

Where does the custom of kindling lights on the eight days of Chanukah come from? Nobody really knows.

The most frequently recited account comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 21b). This asserts that after the cleansing, the Jews needed to rekindle the Temple’s lamps with consecrated oil; but the Seleucids had desecrated all except one jar, enough to burn for only one day. When the Jews used this one jar’s oil, however, it miraculously burned for eight days until new consecrated oil could be prepared; and so Chanukah lights are kindled to remember this miracle.

There are problems with this story. First, neither of the books of Maccabees mentions it.

Second, ancient Jewish literature contains other accounts of the origin of the custom, such as a story that the Jews found eight iron spears in the Temple and stuck candles on them (midrash collection Peskita Rabbati).

Third, between the rededication of the Temple in 164 B.C.E. and the compilation of the Talmud around 500 C.E., there’s the book, “Antiquities of the Jews,” by first century C.E. Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He described the rededication of the Temple, wrote that a festival called Lights celebrates it, and suggested that light was a symbol of the sudden new freedom the Jews enjoyed.

But whatever the ultimate origin of the custom, it is clear that for more than 2,000 years, Jews have been kindling lights to remember the rededication of the Temple.

 
Minor to major

They did not do much else about the festival for a long time, however. For centuries, Chanukah was considered a very minor holiday.

It was celebrated with feasting and games, as well as the kindling of the chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah), but with no special synagogue service or taking off of work.

In the last couple of centuries, the holiday became more important. Part of the reason in some Western countries was its proximity to the Christian festival Christmas with its associated giving of gifts.

Many Jews took an Eastern European Chanukah custom of giving small gifts of money, or Chanukah gelt, to children and transformed it into a Christmas-like exchange of presents; and some Jews have incorporated other Christmas-like customs into the holiday.

Other Jews denounce such practices; but in a way, the Christmas-Chanukah interchange raises anew the very question the Jews contemplated when they encountered Greek civilization: How much of non-Jewish culture can one incorporate into Jewish observance while still maintaining Judaism’s integrity? A little? A lot? None?

But there also is a Jewish reason for Chanukah’s modern prominence — in fact, a Zionist reason. This has to do with something most accounts of Chanukah’s origin don’t discuss — namely, that the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire did not end with the recapture and rededication of the Temple. It continued for more than 20 years.

Moreover, the aim of the war changed. It started as a struggle for religious freedom. It ended as a fight for political independence.

The details of the war are complicated, but its upshot can be summarized. Antiochus IV died of disease in 164 B.C.E., triggering a struggle for the Seleucid throne. The leaders of the Jewish revolt played the contenders against each other. Periods of fighting and intrigue alternated.

Of the five sons of Mattathias, four died during the struggle: two, including Judah, in battle, and two by murder in the course of the intrigues.

Finally, the last surviving brother, Simon, reached an agreement with the Seleucid government in 141 B.C.E. that in effect recognized Judea’s independence.

And so was born the second independent Jewish state in the land of Israel, a kingdom ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, beginning with Simon, and that lasted until about 63 B.C.E., when the Romans conquered the area.

The creators of Zionism looked back to that state as an ancestor, and to its founding as a model for their own efforts. And so today, in the third independent Jewish state, modern Israel, Chanukah is a national holiday.