Because it’s celebrated during the Christmas season, Hanukah is badly understood. It’s not a Jewish Christmas, or even — strictly speaking — a religious holiday. It was the ancient Israelis’ Fourth of July, and its (true) story was deeply influential in the creation of the United States.
A little background: In the earliest historical (non-biblical) records, the land of Israel — which corresponds to modern Israel, the West Bank, and western Jordan — was divided into two Hebrew kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judea in the south. In 720 b.c., the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery; these are the so-called “ten lost tribes”; of the original twelve Hebrew tribes, ten lived in Israel, and the other two, Judah and Benjamin, in Judea. (Virtually all modern Jews descend from those two tribes.) After conquering Israel, the Assyrians laid siege to the Judean capital, Jerusalem. The siege failed, and peace terms were negotiated. Instead of being annihilated, Judea became a client state of the Assyrian Empire.
When Assyria began its decline in the seventh century b.c., Judea regained its independence. It stayed independent until 586 b.c., when it was conquered by the Babylonian Empire. In 539 b.c., Babylon fell to the Persian Empire, wherein Judea remained until 332 b.c., when it — along with the rest of the world — was conquered by Alexander the Great.
Alexander had a soft spot for the Jews (possibly because his teacher, Aristotle, had studied with a Jew; possibly because a Jewish legend predicted that a Greek would vanquish the Persian Empire). He annihilated Gaza, but passed through Judea in peace, reportedly stopping in Jerusalem to give an offering at the Temple. Judea became part of the Greek Empire, but the Judeans were allowed to maintain their independent legislative-judicial system, and to continue to practice Judaism.
When Alexander died, his empire was split up by his generals. Judea became the northernmost part of the Ptolemaic (Greek–Egyptian) kingdom until 200 b.c., when it was captured by the (Syrian–Greek) Seleucids. At first, the Seleucids granted the Jews permission to continue to “live according to their ancestral customs,” but that decree was revoked in 175 b.c., when Judea was invaded by King Antiochus IV, who was determined to put it under direct Seleucid control. He captured Jerusalem, banned Judaism, and dedicated the Jewish Temple to Zeus. This is where the story of Hanukah begins.
The profanation of the Temple took place in 167 b.c.; this is evidently what pushed the Jews over the edge. The five sons of a Judean priest named Mattathias recruited an army and launched an enormous revolt — nicknamed the “Hammer Rebellion,” for the Jews’ crushing surprise guerrilla attacks.
The war lasted seven years. Against extremely long odds, the Jews won, and Judea became a wholly independent state for the first time in 400 years. This was the last independent Jewish state in the land of Israel until 1948.
#share#The first Hanukah was a festival of thanksgiving to God for victory and independence, like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. The name Hanukah is actually a play on words — it means “dedication,” as in the Jewish rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, but, because Judeans wrote numbers with Hebrew letters rather than Arabic or Roman numerals, it also means “They rested on the 25th,” which refers to the 25th day of the lunar month Kislev, 160 b.c. — the first day of peace after the war had been won.
Unfortunately, the Hanukah holiday collided with Jewish religious law: Jews are forbidden to celebrate war or death. You may be familiar with the famous rabbinic commentary on the Book of Exodus, which says that when the angels celebrated the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, God admonished them: “How can you sing when my children are drowning?”
The story of a numerically inferior Jewish army winning its independence from a mighty empire was, naturally, popular among America’s Founding Fathers.
There is a Jewish saying, which began with the medieval Rabbi Ibn Ezra: “The wise man will know.” It means, we understand that certain biblical and religious stories are not literal fact; they are parables. (No one tell Richard Dawkins.) The traditional story of Hanukah says that, when the Jewish Temple was recaptured, only one day’s worth of untainted oil could be found for the Temple’s candelabra; nonetheless, the candles burned for eight days, long enough for a new supply of olive oil to be pressed and refined. “The wise man knows” that this is a story designed to show that the right thing to celebrate wasn’t killing Greeks, but being free to live according to one’s own beliefs.
Why eight days? Because during the war, the Jews were unable to celebrate the holiday Succot, eight days of thanksgiving for having been freed from slavery in Egypt. Thematically, it fit well with victory over the Greeks, so it was celebrated when peace broke out. The eight days stuck.
As for the U.S.: The story of a numerically inferior Jewish army winning its independence from a mighty empire was, naturally, popular among America’s Founding Fathers. They saw wars of independence as a fundamental part of Jewish, and therefore Christian, history. The Hammer Rebellion was just one of many Jewish wars of independence — as time went on, there were four major uprisings against Rome, one against Persia, and one against Byzantium, none of which was successful. The idea of an indomitable rebellious spirit resounded at the Continental Congress — so much so that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin proposed making the Great Seal of the United States an image of the Jews crossing the Red Sea (Franklin’s choice) or marching into Israel (Jefferson’s), accompanied by the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.”