By William Jackson
So lets start with the events that led up to the first Chanukkah. It all began with Israel being occupied by the Syrian-Greek Empire. The Greek occupation started with benevolence. Even though Israel was taxed the Greeks allowed them to keep their customs and religion.
The initial threat of Greece did not come from her taxation, it came from the influence of her culture. This was called Hellenism and it swept through the Middle East like a plague of locus. Sadly, many Jews embraced the concept and thus the term Hellenistic Jew was born. Compounding the impending loss of Jewish identity was the buying and selling of priestly positions.
So what was the threat behind this Greek culture? The problem with combining Judaism and Hellenism is that they are diametrically opposed to each other. Lets look at the differences.
It is easy to see here, like now, any mixing of Hashem’s word with secularism minimizes Torah.
As time went on the Greek kingship changed hands and with each change conditions became progressively worse for the Israelites. Not only did taxes increased drastically but the Greeks ransacked the Temple, Jerusalem was attacked and Jewish women along with their children became enslaved. Finally the last and the worst of the Greek rulers made his debut. This was Antiochus IV whose nickname was (for good reason) “the madman”. Antiochus started a policy of aggressive Hellenization which meant his aim was to stomp out Judaism.
It took a country Priest by the name of Mattathias to turn the tables on the madman. Mattathias started the rebellion against the Greeks and Hellenistic Jews by killing a Hellenist Jewish Priest. The Priest he killed was conducting a wrongful sacrifice in a small rural community 17 miles outside Jerusalem. On the run, Mattathias went to the hills with his five sons. From here they organized an Army of approximately 12,000 (3) led by Judah Maccabee (Mattathias’s son). This “rag-tag” Army was pitted against a professional Greek Army almost 4 times their size.
Gravely outnumbered, the Jewish rebels fought numerous battles against the Greeks and through Hashem’s grace after three years of combat defeated them. The band of Jewish rebels earn their name the Maccabees which stood for “the hammer”. In the end the Maccabees took back the Temple. So on the 25th day of of the Jewish month Kislev (1 Maccabees 4:52) the Maccabees re-dedicated the Temple to Hashem. This is where the word “Chanukkah” comes from which means dedication in Hebrew. “So they celebrated the re-dedication of the altar for eight days..” (1 Maccabees 4:56) and this is where the eight days of Chanukkah comes from.
According to Rabbinic tradition, the victorious Maccabees could only find a small jug of oil that had remained uncontaminated by virtue of a seal, and although it only contained enough oil to sustain the Menorah for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days, by which time further oil could be procured (4)
Many perceive Chanukkah as Israel’s defeat of the Greek Empire but this is only partially true. Since Israel was divided between both Hellenistic and Traditionalist Jews the re-dedication is more about the reaffirming of the sanctity of Hashem and those he desire purity in their faith, like the Maccabees.
(1) The Story of Chanukah, Chabad.org
(2) Walter B. Russell, The Effect of Hellenistic Culture on Jewish Life, Exploring Theology and Culture -J1
(3) Rabbi Ken Spiro, History Crash Course #29: Revolt of the Maccabees, Aish.com
(4) “Talmud, Tractate Shabbat”. Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 2013-07-29.