“On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day [the 25th of Kislev] it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes and cymbals ... For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise.”
— 1 Maccabees 4:54,56
The fourth candle will be kindled this evening, and so continues the eight-day Jewish festival of lights (AKA the feast of dedication, feast of Maccabees, Hanukkah, and Chanukah) which commemorates the reconsecration of the Temple of Jerusalem (c. 165 B.C.) after being recaptured from the Syrian Greeks, or Seleucids.
The history revolves around the Joarib family of priests, and in particular Judah “the Maccabee” (d. 161 B.C.), glorified in G.F. Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” Following the lead of his father Mattathias, Judah and his four brothers spearheaded a revolt against the Seleucid dynasty, who waged several violent campaigns against the Jews.
The trouble began with the prohibition of local religions by the King Antiochus Epiphanes, who seized a remnant of Alexander the Great’s kingdom in 175 B.C. Circumcision, holocausts, sacrifices, libations, and other observances of the law were outlawed. Some Jews apostasized (“left the faith”), while others were forced into hiding.
“A man could not keep the shabbat [meaning ‘sabbath’] or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit that he was a Jew.”
— 2 Maccabees 6:6
In 168 B.C, King Antiochus sent an Athenian senator to Jerusalem to force the Jewish people to abandon their faith. The senator dedicated the Temple of Jerusalem to the “Olympian Zeus.” All were forced to partake in sacrifices to Greek and pagan gods or face the penalty of death. All the scrolls of the Jewish law that were found were torn then burnt.
When a Jew came forward to sacrifice to Zeus, fury overcame the priest Mattathias and he slew the apostate Jew at the altar, as well as the king’s messenger and enforcer of the sacrilege. Mattathias tore down the altar to Zeus, and then he and his sons fled to the mountains with others who wished to keep their faith.
Mattathias led a successful war against the Seleucids, and after his death his five sons continued an ultimately victorious guerrilla war against the supporters of the king. Before and during this time, many Jews died rather than forsake their traditions and their God.
“Thus, two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall. Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the shabbat in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all burned to death. In their respect for the holiness of that day, they had scruples about defending themselves.”
— 2 Maccabees 6:10-11
Scholars and rabbis differ on why Judah received his famous nickname, Maccabee, which has come to refer to the two Jewish books of this period and the heroes in them. The most popular explanation however translates Maccabee as “hammer” (in Hebrew “makkebet” or “makkaba”) in reference to his crushing victories. A variant theory argues that the name refers to the peculiar shape of his skull, a “makban” or hammerhead.
Others believe the name Maccabee is an acronym for the scripture verse “Mi kamokha ba’elim Hashem” (“Who is like unto thee among the mighty, O Lord!”), inspiring words that Judah may have carried into battle. The use of Hebrew acronyms as names came into use around the turn of the millennium.
“After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: ‘Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such astonishing things have happened to us. Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.’”
— 2 Maccabees 7:18-19
So why is Hanukkah also known as the festival of lights? The Jewish Talmud records that when the rededication of the Temple began no supply of pure olive oil could be found, except enough for one day’s burning. The person sent to purchase more oil wasn’t able to return until eight days later, and yet the oil lamps miraculously continued to burn.
Thus it was that the eight-branched Menorah candelabrum has become an appropriate symbol of the holiday, which really celebrates how the seeming impossible is truly possible with God. Shalom!