The Chanukah story as we know it describes a wicked tyrant, Jewish resistance, and the miracle of oil that burned for eight days instead of one.
Behind the tale, in the pages of history, lies a parallel story that amplifies what we know of ancient times and also raises a couple of interesting questions.
When Antiochus IV issued a series of decrees outlawing the Jewish religion, it was the first recorded instance of massive religious persecution. Historians, notably Victor Tcherikover (Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews), have noted that it was also an anomaly in the ancient world where polytheistic tolerance was the norm.
Why did Antiochus forbid circumcision, kashrut and specific mitzvot such as the consecration of the new moon? Why, when he needed allies instead of enemies in Judea as he consolidated his power in the region, did he incite the people to rebellion?
The usual answer is that Antiochus, continuing the process begun by Alexander the Great, wanted to unite his empire under Hellenic culture and religion, and the Jews were the last stubborn holdouts, the only people who rejected the new gods and new customs.
Or one could say that the deep-seated anti-Semitism of a Haman, a Hitler or an Antiochus needs no rationale. Documents show that the ancient Greeks – the Yevanim in Jewish literature – were in fact contemptuous of the Jews and their religion in a way that foreshadowed later European anti-Semitism.
But the record also reveals that a growing rift in Jewish society, plus total corruption within the religious hierarchy of the Holy Temple, had already made Jerusalem all but unrecognizable as the Jewish capital.
By the time Antiochus issued his anti-Jewish decrees in 167 B.C.E., the following had already taken place: * An irreligious Jew, probably not even a kohen, held the office of high priest.
* The Temple had been desecrated and sacrifices offered to a Greek god.
* The name of the capital had been changed from Jerusalem to Antioch.
* All official power was in the hands of the Jewish Hellenist sympathizers – more accurately described as collaborators in the destruction of Jewish religious and political autonomy. The story that culminates in the discovery of a jar of pure oil and the rededication of the Holy Temple really begins in the previous century with the first Hellenistic inroads, and continues with the activities of several shady individuals who gained power.
According to Their Ancestral Ways
Alexander of Macedonia entered Jerusalem in the summer of 332 B.C.E. His scheme for world domination included acculturation as much as conquest. He grafted new settlements and military colonies onto ancient towns throughout the Middle East and gave them new names. He gave them a new style of government, the polis, which brought economic and political privileges. As part of his master plan, he encouraged his soldiers to intermarry among the local population.
Alexander was the first of a series of kings to give the Jews in Judea permission to “live according to their ancestral laws” and other rights, such as exemption from taxes during the shmittah year.
In Jerusalem the Holy Temple, rebuilt after the return from Babylonian exile, was the center of both national and religious life, with little or no distinction between the two. The hereditary kohen gadol was head of state as well as spiritual leader of the nation.
The majority of the populace consisted of farmers and small craftsmen. All evidence indicates that for the average Jew, life continued to reflect the powerful influence of Ezra the Scribe, who had rebuilt the Temple and restored Torah observance among a people weakened by defeat and exile.
The sages of the Sanhedrin ruled on all matters of civil, criminal and religious law. The complex laws of agriculture applicable to the land of Israel described in the Mishnah were carefully observed, and the religious institutions we know today such as the synagogue, the division of Torah readings into a yearly cycle and the form of the prayers were already a part of Jewish life.
What happened to undermine this way of life?
Under Greek rule, Judea was a transit station for all goods moving from the East to the Mediterranean and between Egypt and its colonies. Trade with the Greek cities presented the Jews with new possibilities. Improvements in agriculture and impressive works of architecture were obvious manifestations of the material superiority of Greek culture.
Various priestly families, meanwhile, were beginning to attain wealth and influence, a situation that can be traced back to the their status during and even before the exile. Many of these families lived as landed gentry on country estates, returning to Jerusalem for their turn of service at the Temple.
A new class rose on the crest of commercial development under the Greeks as the gentry found common ground with local Greek settlers.
The Greeks brought philosophy, technology, drama and art to Judea. As they didn’t seem to take their gods too seriously, the Jews didn’t let the Greek paganism keep them from following some of their ways. First steps away from tradition included adopting Greek names and manners. For example, a letter written by a man named Toviah opens with the standard pagan expression, “many thanks to the gods.”
Toviah had been one of the chief opponents of Ezra’s religious reforms; his descendant would later be a key player in the unraveling of Jewish institutions.
The Greeks’ Jewish Problem
The Yevanim despised the traditional Jews for their intolerance, which they considered barbaric. These Jews refused to dine socially on non-kosher food, to intermarry, to give lip service to the ceremonial gods – and in short, to behave like any “civilized” people.
Moreover, the Jews actually believed in their ancient religion of Torah and mitzvot, and in a system of morality and law they considered to be divine.
The Yevanim didn’t understand it and they came to loathe it. After all, like the Greeks themselves, the Jews had a reputation for being “philosophers,” the highest Greek accolade. Yet they combined with their philosophy “a number of observances which could only seem the grossest superstition to the Greek world. This disapproval was natural, for whereas the Greek intellectual stood in sharp opposition to the simple-minded Greek who worshipped the gods, the Jewish ‘philosophers,’ in other words the teachers in the Jewish synagogues, believed intensely in the Jewish religion” (James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Anti-Semitism).
Just believing in a supreme being wasn’t the problem. Aristotle had set forth the idea of a first cause, or creator, but one who set the world in motion like a clock and had no further dealing with mortal affairs. In the Greek view the Jewish God should likewise have stayed in the heavens where He belonged instead of dictating behavior and morality on earth.
Even stranger and more provocative to the Yevanim, the Jews believed their mitzvot should be followed in obedience to God’s command – “Your Torah” – and not because they were logical or even within the realm of human logic. It was unforgivable that the Jews ascribed limits to reason and logic even as they used and excelled in them.
The Jews also claimed to affect the natural condition of the world by bringing something they called kedusha, holiness, into the physical universe. The Greeks’ strictly materialist philosophy, codified by Euclid in space and Aristotle in time, saw an already perfect world in which physical nature ruled absolutely according to a fixed system of cause and effect. This view negated any possibility of a spiritual dimension within the real world.
Along with all this came an amoral and hedonistic lifestyle that held the promise of pleasure without consequences.
Tax Collectors and Games
The Jews who bought into the Greek philosophy likewise developed a strong a distaste for the particulars of the Jewish religion.
A scion of the House of Toviah named Yosef was one of these. Yosef ben Toviah was worldly, ambitious and international in his outlook, feeling little Jewish or Judean identity. When the high priest, Onias, failed to send the high tax revenues demanded by Antiochus III, Yosef obtained the position of tax collector for himself, on the pretext of smoothing things over with the king. For the first time, this function was removed from the office of the kohen gadol.
The tax collector had a free hand to gather the funds demanded by the king, and could keep any excess for himself. It was an opportunity for ruthless and unscrupulous persons to make a fortune at the people’s expense, and Yosef and his circle did just that – even to the point of executing 20 leading citizens of Ashkelon who resisted paying the harsh taxes. The elders and the “simple people” may have been outraged – but it was now possible to ignore them.
With the ascent of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (also called Epimanes, the “madman”) to the Greek-Syrian (Seleucid) throne, Jews opposed to the old order decided to get rid of the ineffective Onias, and replace him with a high priest more to their liking. Onias’s brother, Jason (originally Yehoshua), bribed Antiochus with 300 talents of silver and thus became the new kohen gadol.
He then did something that altered the character of Jerusalem and deepened the growing schism within the Jewish people: He attained permission from Antiochus to build a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount and to replace the existing government of Jerusalem with a Greek polis to be named Antioch.
With one stroke, he wiped out the longstanding constitution of the Jews that provided for a government based upon their ancestral laws. Performance of the commandments, while not forbidden, was no longer protected by law, which was now in the hands of the newly constituted government of Antioch at Jerusalem.
The gymnasium further undermined Jewish life in Jerusalem, as the institution par excellence of the Greek way of life: Here young men received the education fitting for a Greek citizen. Philosophy and the arts were combined with the ideal of physical perfection. In the arena, naked contestants competed in athletic contests and games; sacrifices were offered to Heracles and Hermes.
The author of the First Book of Maccabees tells us that the young kohanim began running to witness the competitions instead of attending to their priestly duties in the Temple. Before long, Jewish youth began to compete in the games as well.
After three years, an even more ardent Hellenizer, Menelaus, became high priest. According to the Second Book of Maccabees, Menelaus, who was not even a kohen, possessed “nothing that qualified him for the high priesthood, but with the passions of a savage tyrant and the rage of a wild beast.” His oppressive actions, including robbing the Temple treasures, led to riots in the streets of Jerusalem.
In 169 B.C.E. Antiochus invaded Egypt, but his victory was erased through the intervention of the newly emerging Roman Republic. Rumors then arose that Antiochus had been killed, and Jason saw his chance to recapture Jerusalem by attacking the city.
Antiochus, receiving word of a rebellion in Jerusalem, and confirming his reputation as a madman, unleashed a reign of terror in the city in which 40,000 men, women and children were massacred and an equal number taken captive. A fortified military complex was established adjacent to the Temple mount, where Syrian soldiers were joined by a number of Jewish sympathizers. The soldiers plundered, raped and destroyed at will.
Large numbers of people fled to the hills and caves outside Jerusalem. In Kislev of 168 B.C.E. a pagan idol was set up on the altar of the Holy Temple, and on the 25th of the month, hogs were offered up to Zeus Olympus. Every type of desecration was perpetrated upon the Temple including lewd acts common to the cultic prostitution of the time.
The Jews saw their way of life being swept away. But it was only after Jerusalem had been sacked and the Temple desecrated that Antiochus outlawed Torah and mitzvot on pain of death.
At this point, with all power in the hands of the Yevanim and their allies, and with the Temple service completely compromised, it seemed as if the Jewish day in history was over. But the spiritual battle had yet to play out. Antiochus (presumably with information given to them from within the camp of Hellenizing Jews) aimed his poison arrow directly at the Jewish concept of holiness and the physical mitzvot that, to the Romans, represented the Jews’ alien and barbaric way of thinking.
But something happened that neither Antiochus nor the Jews themselves could have foreseen.
Pure Oil of the Soul
Led and inspired by the Maccabees, almost everyone except for Menelaus and his circle of extreme Hellenizers now switched sides and participated in the revolt against Antiochus and his decrees, helping the Jews to fight and ultimately win the war. Even those who had abandoned Jewish tradition began to observe the commandments.
Pushed to the brink and faced with the annihilation of Judaism, they left all reason and logic behind and joined the losing side, even risking their lives to die as Jews rather than continue to live as Yevanim.
Their turnaround is explained by Kabbalah and chassidut as an arousal of the innermost core of the Jewish soul called yechidah, also symbolized by the pure uncontaminated oil found in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple.
This aspect of the soul transcends intellectual understanding and cannot be contaminated because it is never severed from its divine source.
Although Greek philosophy had permeated Jewish thinking, this supra-rational level of the soul burst forth even before the miracle of the oil and gave the Jews strength to withstand the decrees and win the war.
So the decrees of Antiochus precipitated the rallying of the Jews and their victory, resulting through Divine Providence not in the demise of the Jewish religion but in the survival of Judaism as we know it. The Jews were strengthened spiritually to withstand the persecution and exile that still lay ahead, and the ranks of the sages expanded beyond the priestly class as a new age of Torah scholarship was ushered in.
The memory of those who gave their lives with mesirat nefesh, total self-sacrifice, rather than transgress the commandments echoes through history as the battle against the Yevanim is waged over and over again – ” in those days, at this time ” – only to be finally won, the prophecies tell us, with the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate victory of light over darkness.
Tzivia Emmer is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.