For eight days during the year we celebrate the holiday of Chanukah. The events leading up to the initiation of this festive occasion date back to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.
With the death of Alexander, the Greek empire that had spread throughout the world began to disintegrate. The Hellenistic world, subsequently, became divided into three parts. One part, the Seleucid kingdom, reigned over the Land of Israel.
The Seleucids were ambitious for power. They constantly engaged in battles for conquest and were actively involved in Hellenizing those whom they conquered. They called themselves epiphanies, which means “god manifest,” and suppressing the religion of their victims was their primary method of Hellenization.
In the process of Hellenization, the Seleucids plundered the Holy Temple (Bet HaMikdash) in Jerusalem of its treasures, gold and silver, sacred vessels and tribute for maintenance and repairs of the Bet HaMikdash and for the upkeep of the priests (kohanim) who served it. In addition, Seleucids persecuted Jews whom they found observing the tenets of the Jewish faith, and murdered pious Jews to the glory of Zeus in the very court of the Bet HaMikdash.
Finally, the actions of the eighth ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, Antiochus IV, provoked a revolution. In the Apocryphal books of Maccabees, we are informed of how Antiochus provoked the Jews by, among other things, sacrificing pigs on heathen altars which he had set up in the court of the Bet HaMikdash. Concerning one case in particular, we read in Maccabees of a kohen (priest), advanced in age, by the name of Eliezer who was brought before Antiochus to be tortured for clinging to the Jewish religion. When Eliezer was brought before the king, Antiochus offered to save his life if he would eat pig’s meat and, thereby, sever his allegiance to Judaism and leave himself open to Antiochus’ mockery. After eloquently refusing to yield to the king’s attempts to break his religious ties, Eliezer was dragged, his arms bound, and cast into the fire to be burnt to death.
Antiochus’ cruel actions finally provoked a series of uprisings begun by an elderly kohen, Matityahu (Mattathias) the Hasmonean, and led by his five mighty, brave and militant sons, Yochanan (Jochanan), Shimon (Simeon), Yehuda (Judah), Eliezer and Yonatan (Jonathan).
After the Jews finally overcame their enemies, the Seleucids, on the 25th day of Kislev, and, thereby, regained sovereignty, Maimonides relates: “The Jews then entered the Sanctuary and found no more pure, undefiled oil in the Temple than a single jar. It contained enough oil to burn only for one day, but they lit lamps from it for eight days until they were able to crush fresh olives and extract pure oil therefrom. On this account, the sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, beginning with the 25th of Kislev, should be celebrated with rejoicing and praise. Every evening, for all eight days, candles are lit…to remind us of, and to publicize, the miracle” (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Chanukah 3:2-3).
In addition to the lighting of the Chanukah candles and the recitation of Hallel (a general expression of praise to G-d), we recite Al Hanisim, in which we thank G-d for his hand in helping us overcome Antiochus and his troops and regain our glory.
The days of Chanukah and the customs attached to it serve, therefore, to assist us in recognizing and appreciating our being saved from the tyrannical hand of the Seleucid government and the concurrent and eventual spiritual starvation that threatened our people and our present freedom to control our spiritual destiny.
We must at this time of Chanukah, in the spirit of Matityahu and his sons, resolve to intensify our resolve against those who threaten our spiritual and physical well-being to this very day. Only then can we ensure our survival as a people, as a nation and as Jews.