My favorite time of year is the December holiday season. The music, the movies, the general sense of good cheer in the air, it’s just a fun time to be alive. I’m Jewish so I celebrate Chanukah (or Hanukkah), but I’ve also seen every single Santa Clause movie. This means I’ve gotten to experience the holiday spirit in general.
Although I love the holiday season as a whole, I’ve always felt a special connection to Chanukah and the story of the Maccabees. This is because it represents a continuation of an ever-evolving story of Jewish perseverance. A story of survival, and of the possibility of miracles when it seems that all hope has been lost.
The story is more complicated than what was taught to me in Hebrew school. It centers around a time when Israel, as a society was occupied, by the Syrian-Greek empire known as the Seleucids. Prior to the actual story of Channukah, the king of the Syrian-Greek Empire, Antiochus II was at war with the King of Egypt, Ptolemy, over possession of the land of Israel.
Antiochus was eventually successful, and he annexed the land of Israel to his kingdom. At the beginning of his time as a ruler, he was favorable towards the people of Israel and allowed them to practice in peace. Eventually however, due to his financial indebtedness towards the Romans, this would change, and the narrative against the Israelites would shift. This was especially true as there was a changing in the monarchy, and new Greek kings, significantly less well-disposed towards the people of Israel would take over.
Antiochus IV banned all Jewish tradition throughout his empire, including the sabbath, ritual circumcision, and eating kosher food. People who refused to observe these edicts were tortured and killed, and many rebelled against this.
Idols were set up in the temple, desecration ran rampant, and the Jewish people found themselves in their own country, banned from worship and practice, forced to observe pagan Greek tradition, including idolatry.
A man, the high priest of the temple, named Matthias led a large scale revolt against Antiochus IV, together with his five sons. This group was referred to as the Maccabees, Maccabee meaning hammer in ancient Hebrew. His five sons were named Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah, Judah would late be referred to as Judah the Maccabee, as he became the leader of the group of rebels.
They were eventually successful in driving the Greeks out of Israel but still had to deal with the after-effects of the occupation, including the desecration of the Holy Temple, and the oil needed to light the menorah, which had been made impure and unusable, was down to a minimal supply of a single day. It would take eight days to gather oil from the source and return which would leave the menorah in the temple unlit because there was only enough oil remaining to last a single day. Judah, who became the high priest, decided to light the menorah anyway and somehow the menorah continued to burn for eight days until enough oil could be retrieved.
The traditions that surround this holiday are ones of remembrance and celebration, that span both the pain and suffering and perseverance during the time where all the horror of the edicts against the Jewish people were the law, as well as the actual overcoming and eventual overthrow of the Greeks themselves.
There’s a point to all this. The holiday season, which itself as a whole represents a joyful time, and a time for goodwill in society, is also a story in itself of gratitude. So is the story of Chanukah itself. Gratitude towards the overthrow of an egregious oppressor, gratitude towards the miracles that represent those that span Jewish history, and gratitude to the martyrs, who refused to give up their devotion, regardless of the punishment and torture inflicted on them.
This is the story of the Jewish people, and it fits well into the story of the Holiday season. Because as we remember what makes us unique and give gratitude that we survived. We are able to sing songs of remembrance, eat delicious food, and spend time with family, because although we remember a time of true sadness and near-genocide, we also remember the miracles that allowed us to persevere through that time. Being grateful for all of the blessings, and miracles, and survival, is in the true holiday spirit.
Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays for all.