Chanukah: History and Modern

Today Chanukah is dance music, parties, potato latkes, sufganiyot, gelt and gifts galore.

It is amazing to delve into the history, and a story that has a similar theme as other Jewish holidays.  In Chanukah times it was the Greeks, they were so advanced in everything else, but in spirituality they were threatened by the Jews, so they didn’t mind if Jewish people lived among them, just didn’t practice their traditions and culture.  That is what binds us as a family, our ancestors did the same things that we are doing today, and it is such an honor to pass it on to my children.

Below is some history of the events that led to a small group of Jewish soldiers, the Macabees, to defeat the large Greek Majority.  What I love is the father of these soldiers was Matisyahu, which is my sons name, you will see it translated as Matathias.  My Hebrew name is Yehudit, who was a heroine in the Chanukah story, she got the commander drunk and fed him home made cheese, cut off his head, and saved her nation.  One Rabbi was explaining to me that in Eastern Europe they would eat a pancake made with cheese for Chanukah honoring Yehudit.  Once they moved to the western world it was replaced with oil, and also the doughnuts that are the Chanukah staple in Israel, he told me that there was a time when Israeli’s needed jobs, and making the Sufganiyot during Chanukah employed a lot of people, and the demand was high for the oily and sugary treats.

Read on my friends,

Party on,

Enjoy your celebrations,

Chag Chanukah Sameach,

Coach Yulia

R’ Dovid Winiarz (the Facebuker Rebbe)

The Maccabean Revolt

By Rabbi Ken Spiro

The year is 167 BCE and the horrible persecution of Judaism by the Greeks is in full swing. The Greek troops show up in the town of Modi’in (a site west of Jerusalem which you can visit today off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway) and demand that the Jews there sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. The elder of the town, Mattathias, who is a cohen, that is of the priestly class, refuses. Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers…We will not obey the king’s word by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left. (I Maccabees 2:19-22)

But there is a Hellenized Jew in the town who is willing to do what is unspeakable in Jewish eyes. As he’s about to sacrifice the pig, Mattathias stabs him, also killing the Greek official present. He then turns to the crowd and announces: “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant.” (1 Maccabees 2:27)

Those who join Mattathias and his five sons — named Yohanan, Shimon, Judah, Eleazar, Yonaton — head for the hills, expecting that the Greeks are going to come back and wipe out the whole village as a reprisal. In the hills, they organize a guerilla army, led primarily by the oldest of the sons named Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, which means “the Hammer.” Maccabee is also an acronym for mi komocho ba’alim Hashem, “who is like you among the powers O God,” — the battle cry of the Jewish people.

We don’t know exactly how large this Maccabee army was, but even the most optimistic estimates put the number at no more than 12,000 men. This tiny force takes on the fighting Greek army of up to 40,000 men.

It’s not just a numerical superiority the Greeks have. The Greeks are professional soldiers — they have equipment, they have training, and they have a herd of war elephants, which were the tanks of the ancient world. The Jews are vastly outnumbered, poorly trained, and poorly equipped (not to mention, they have no elephants), but what they lack in training and equipment they make up in spirit.

Most of the battles take place in the foothills leading from the coastal plain area (Tel Aviv) to Jerusalem. The Greeks are trying to march their armies up the natural canyons that lead into the mountain areas, the stronghold of the Jewish army. There’s only a few places where the Greeks can ascend and this is where the Maccabees choose to take them on.

Now when we read the story of the Maccabees it seems like it’s something that takes place over a few weeks — the battles take place, the Jews win, and the Greeks go home. But, in fact, it takes 25 years of fighting and a great many casualties on both sides until the Selucid Greeks finally reach a peace agreement with the Jews.


After the first three years, the Jews are able re-conquer Jerusalem. They find the Temple defiled and turned into a pagan sanctuary, where pigs are sacrificed on the altar. When they re-enter the Temple, the first thing they do is try to light a make-shift menorah (as the real gold one had been melted down by the Greeks) but only one vial of pure lamp oil with the special seal is discovered. They use this vial to light the menorah and miraculously it stays lit for eight days, by which time fresh pure oil has been pressed and delivered to the Temple.

The Maccabees then purify the Temple and rededicate it on the 25th of Kislev, which is the date on the Hebrew calendar when we begin to celebrate the eight days of Chanukah. (The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” or “inauguration.”)

Early in the morning of the 25th day of the ninth month which is the month of Kislev…they [the priests] rose and offered sacrifices, as the law directs, on the new alter of burnt offerings which they had built…it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals…So they celebrated the dedication of the alter for eight days…(I Maccabees 4:52-56)

The miracle of the oil lasting for eight days (which is not mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees) is described in the Talmud:

…and when the royal Hasmonean House gained the upper hand and vanquished them [the Greeks], [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one flask of oil…with the Kohen Gadol’s [High Priest] seal, and it contained only [enough oil] to burn for one day. A miracle occurred and it burned for eight days. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

Chanukah — one of two holidays added to the Jewish calendar by the rabbis — celebrates two kinds of miracles: 1) the military victory of the vastly outnumbered Jews against the Greeks; and 2) the spiritual victory of Jewish values over those of the Greek. It is this spiritual victory which is symbolized by the lights of Chanukah.

If we look at these two miracles, clearly the military victory was greater yet it is the miracle of the oil that is commemorated during the festival of Hanukah. The military victory may have been more impressive, but as we already mentioned, the real battle was spiritual and not physical. It is precisely this spiritual victory that is symbolized by the light of the menorah. (Fire, the soul and spirituality are all connected in Jewish thought). The light of Chanukah is symbolic of the inner spiritual strength of the Jewish people that despite all odds is never extinguished. It is precisely this inner spiritual strength that has enabled the Jewish people to outlast the greatest empires in history and have monumental impact on humanity.

The rededication of the Temple does not end the fight however. A Greek garrison remained stationed in Jerusalem in the Acra fortress and the Greek armies besiege Jerusalem and attempt to re-conquer the City. Many more battles will be fought before the conflict finally ends

It’s not until 142 BCE, during the reign of Seleucid monarch Demitrius, that the Greeks finally have enough of the fighting and sign a peace treaty with Simon, the last survivor of the five sons of Mattathias. (In 162 BCE-Eleazar falls in battle: thrusting a spear into the belly of war elephant on which he thought the king was riding, the elephant falls on him crushing him death. Yehuda is killed at the battle of Elasa in 161 BCE and Jonathan falls in battle in 142 BCE.)
In [that] year, Israel was released from the gentile yoke; the people began to write on their contracts and agreements: “In the first year of Simon, the great High Priest, general and leader of the Jews.” (1 Maccabees 13:41-42) Thus Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel is officially restored.

Leave a Reply