Hanukkah: History and Context

Hanukkah: History and Context

An Overview of Hanukkah

Although some refer to Ḥanukkah and Purim as minor festivals because the laws regarding the prohibition of labor on festivals do not apply, both are significant in their own right and both have won a special place in the hearts of the Jewish people.

Others might find it strange to refer to Ḥanukkah as a “minor” festival, given that it is probably one of the best-known of all the Jewish holidays.

But the fact is that Ḥanukkah has fared well in contemporary times for reasons unrelated to its traditional place in the pecking order of Jewish festivals.

For Jews in the Diaspora, Ḥanukkah has benefited from its proximity to Christmas. In Israel, Ḥanukkah has benefited (far more reasonably) from the resonance its themes of national pride and identity have with the core values of the modern State of Israel.

Hanukkah’s Historical Overview

The historical narrative that forms the background for Ḥanukkah is found in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, works preserved as part of the extra-canonical library known as the Apocrypha, as well as in some other ancient works, including the final sections of the Book of Daniel.

Modern scholars debate the actual sequence of events that led to the Maccabean revolt, the success of which led to the institution of Ḥanukkah as a festival.

However, the basic picture is clear enough. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Jewish homeland passed back and forth between the Seleucid Empire (based in Syria) and the Ptolemaic Empire (based in Egypt) until the land was firmly part of the Syrian empire named for Seleucus I (c. 358–281 B.C.E.), its first emperor.

Some suggest that the Greeks grew impatient with Jewish resistance to Hellenization, and also with the slow spread of Greek culture, ideas, and spiritual and religious values in the wake of Alexander’s death and the dismemberment of his empire among his generals.

Seeking to speed up the process, then, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king, decreed that the Temple should incorporate sacrifices to Greek gods and that the law of Moses be rescinded as the law of the land.

Who were the leaders?

This development appealed to some assimilationist segments of the Jewish population, but dramatically less to the traditionalists among them, who rose up in a revolt led by one Matityahu (sometimes called Mattathias in English) and his sons, foremost among them the one history would eventually call Judah the Maccabee.

The names are a bit obscure. “Maccabee” is sometimes derived from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” thus making Judah the ancient Jewish equivalent of Charles Martel. The term “Hasmonean,” also of obscure meaning and etymology, is used to describe his family as well.

In the first war ever fought for religious freedom, Judah, his brothers, and their followers drove the Hellenizers from the Temple, if not entirely from Jerusalem, and then managed to reestablish Jewish sovereignty.

Who was in conflict, really?

Other scholars, utilizing the same historical data, describe the revolt against the Seleucids as far more of a civil war between Jews enamored of the Hellenistic ideal and the so-called “community of the pious,” whose members were more zealous for the preservation and maintenance of Jewish law.

When these two sides could not reconcile, Antiochus intervened on the side of the Hellenizers. The exact details of the conflict may never be known with certainty, but all scholars agree that, once the fuse was lit, an armed struggle ensued and the eventual result was the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Temple and throughout the Land of Israel.

What about the rededication of the Temple?

Among the first acts of the newly victorious traditionalists was the rededication of the Temple. When this was accomplished, a festival was proclaimed to commemorate the event.

The First Book of Maccabees (4:52–59) describes the inauguration of the festival in these terms:

“Now on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is called the month of Kisleiv … they rose up in the morning and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the very season and on the very day that the gentiles had profaned it, it was now rededicated with song…. And so they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days…. Moreover, Judah and his brothers, with the whole congregation of Israel, ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with mirth and gladness in that same season from year to year for eight days, starting on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kisleiv.”

Hanukkah in the Talmud

In the Talmudic era, the rabbis understood this event not so much as the historical victory of the Hasmoneans over the Seleucids, but as a miraculous triumph of God’s might in defense of the Jewish people.

The Talmudic discussion of these events (at BT Shabbat 21b) describes the Maccabees and their followers entering the Temple that had been defiled by the supporters of the Seleucids. Finding only enough consecrated oil to relight the Temple candelabrum, the menorah, for one day and knowing that it would take a full week to produce new supplies of oil, they kindled the lights of the menorah anyway, despite the obvious futility of such an act.

However, a miracle occurred, similar to the one that Scripture describes in the story of the destitute prophet’s widow told in 2 Kings 4, and oil continued to flow out of the lone jug they had found for eight days, thus buying the faithful enough time to prepare new supplies and keep the menorah burning.

Hanukkah in Modernity

As mentioned briefly above, Ḥanukkah is a holiday that has been embraced in modern times by many different kinds of Jews for many different reasons.

Modern Israel has embraced the menorah as its national symbol, and Ḥanukkah has come to be seen as a festival of Jewish rebirth in defiance of overwhelming odds.

Modern diaspora Jews identify Ḥanukkah with their own ongoing struggle against assimilation and, indeed, the menorah shines brightly in many nonreligious Jewish homes as a badge of honor and identity.

The real challenge for Jews of all types, secular and religious, inside and outside Israel, is to identify with and affirm Ḥanukkah’s authentic message of optimism and faith.

As is stated in the haftarah read in synagogue on the Shabbat of Ḥanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Eternal One of Hosts!” (Zechariah 4:6).

Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.

(Hanukkah has many spellings and is also spelled Chanukah or Hanuka.)


  • The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews distills a century of thoughtful inquiry into the most profound of all Jewish questions: how to suffuse life with timeless values, how to remain loyal to the covenant that binds the Jewish people and the God of Israel, and how to embrace the law while retaining an abiding sense of fidelity to one’s own moral path in life. Written in a multiplicity of voices inspired by a common vision, the authors of The Observant Life explain what it means in the ultimate sense to live a Jewish life, and to live it honestly, morally, and purposefully. The work is a comprehensive guide to life in the 21st Century. Chapters on Jewish rituals including prayer, holiday, life cycle events and Jewish ethics such as citizenship, slander, taxes, wills, the courts, the work place and so much more.

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