Saturday, December 5, 2015


In 175 BCE, when Antiochus Epiphanes IV became king in Damascus, the capital of Greek-Syria, he displayed great ambitions for his empire by attempting to conquer Egypt and other surrounding countries. He even gave himself the surname “Epiphanes” (meaning “the visible god”) and started to interfere in the politics of Judah. This did not sit well with many Jewish leaders, many of whom facetiously called the king “Epimanes” (meaning “the madman”). The king appointed Jason (for Joshua) (175–171 BCE) as High Priest instead of his brother Onias III. However, under the influence of the wealthy Tobias family, Antiochus replaced Jason with Menelaus (for Onias) (171–167 BCE), in exchange for a large sum of money (II Mac. 4: 24), even though Menelaus was not a member of the High Priestly family.

In 169–168 BCE, Antiochus IV set out to conquer Egypt. While he was fighting there, Jason, the deposed High Priest, left the Ammonites with whom he had taken refuge, and attacked Menelaus in order to regain the High Priesthood. A civil war broke out between Jason and Menelaus, and Jason successfully entered the city of Jerusalem. King Antiochus was furious. On his way back from Egypt, Antiochus attacked Jerusalem, imposed restrictions on Judea, and eventually desecrated the Temple. 

On the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev, in 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greeks erected “a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering” (I Mac. 1: 54). Though the meaning of this expression is not altogether clear, it probably meant a pagan altar or statue. That was too much for many pious Jews. A priest by the name of Mattathias of the Hasmonean family from the town of Modein, not far from Jerusalem, along with his five sons decided to rebel. Some of their followers refused to fight on the Sabbath, and as a result many were massacred on this holy day. Mattathias and his sons thought otherwise. They said that the Sabbath was given to Israel to live and not to die. So, they urged their compatriots to carry weapons even on the Sabbath. Eventually, many of the Jews joined the Hasmoneans in their fight for freedom. 

The Hasmonean revolt continued after the death of Mattathias, with considerable success. Under the leadership of his son, Judah (called the Maccabee), the Jewish armies defeated the Syrians in 166 BCE. As a result of these military victories, parts of Judea were liberated and the Temple cleaned. After two years of defilement, the Temple was purified and rededicated to the worship of the one invisible God. This dedication (literally hanukah in Hebrew) took place on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, 165 BCE. The festival of Hanukah celebrates this major achievement.

Hanukah is now celebrated during a period of eight days. It is customary to light a candle each night on a candelabrum ("Hanukah Menorah") with eight branches, plus a helper called shammash. In the past, this was a minor holyday, but, because of its proximity in time to Christmas, it has become a major one, with gift giving, special foods, and family gathering.
This year, the first candle is lit on Sunday night, Dec. 6. 

Happy Hanukah! 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2015