Blog  The TRUE Story of Hanukkah

The TRUE Story of Hanukkah

Written by Nolan Siegel

Taught to Nolan by Danny Stein, a teacher from Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and Rabbi Ed Harwitz, Head of School at the Weber School

“What can I rhyme with Hanukkah?” Adam Sandler (probably) thought while writing his smash hit “The Hanukkah Song.”  While certainly a complex question at first glance, the answer Sandler came up with is actually quite simple: “funukah!”

Everyone loves the Festival of Lights.  Dreidels and gelt, chanukkiot and candles, latkes and sufganiyot, wrapping paper and the thrill of giving and receiving gifts never cease to bring joy to Jews around the world.  Every year, we retell the story of the heroic Maccabees and the miracle of the oil:

“when the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean Dynasty [the Maccabees] overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest [of the Temple], but there was within [only enough] to light [the Menorah for] a single day.  A miracle occurred, and they lit from it for eight days,” (the Talmud–Mosechet Shabbat 21b).

As you read the Talmud excerpt above, you may have recalled the times your bubbe told you the story of the Maccabees.  “And then, darling, the oil lasted for eight days.  Miracle!”  Not to call out your bubbe, but that’s not actually what happened.

Our story starts almost 200 years before the Maccabees.  Around 332 BCE, Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire conquered the Persian Empire.  The land and people of Israel were now part of the Macedonian Empire.  The common modern-day Hanukkah story is incorrect in that we never lived under Greek rule: just Macedonian rule.  That myth of the story probably came about because the Macedonians practiced Hellenism, the same religion as the Greeks, a religion vastly different from Judaism.

Hellenism Judaism
Bodies = holy Minds and souls = holy
Flaunting one’s physical beauty is important We should be modest about our bodies’ beauty because our bodies are gifts from G-d
LOVE sports because they are a chance to show off strength (a type of physical beauty) Hahahaha sports (wait does a bagel eating contest count as a sport)
Circumcisions lessen physical beauty and are therefore terrible crimes Britot (plural of “bris”) are super important because they are a symbol of our covenant with Hashem
Sex is a recreational activity for any time Sex is holy and should only be done with people we love after a ceremony to recognize our mutual love (aka, a wedding!)
Heroes are strong, beautiful, brave, and god-like Heroes are humble, flawed (physically handicapped like Moses, etc.), and follow G-d but aren’t like Him
Questions asked are science-based with the purpose of understanding the world Questions asked are practical and applicable, such as “How can I live a moral and fulfilling life?”

Alexander the Great thought Hellenism was so fantastic, everyone would want to convert without him having to push it onto us, so there was very little pressure put on us to leave Judaism.  As it turned out, Alexander was quite wrong: few of us converted to Hellenism.

Once Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his empire was split up.

Egypt became part of the Ptolemaic Empire, and the Seleucid Empire came to control Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Israel (which was renamed Judea).  We sure did not like being under the control of the Hellenistic Seleucids!

As a way to try and ensure our loyalty, the Seleucid Empire told us we could become a “polis” and have benefits (such as tax-free status) if we built a:

  • Forum- place for discussions and intellectual development
  • Gymnasium- gym and baths; a place for entertainment
  • Temple to a Greek god

Antiochus IV, the seventh ruler of the Seleucid Empire, came to control Judea in 175 BCE.  The Hanukkah story you know may be clicking into place right about know; that’s right… we’re talking about the evil King Antiochus!

Due to the many differences between Hellenism and Judaism and the fact that we wanted to be in control of ourselves, we were not at all loyal to Antiochus, and we never planned on supporting him.  However, because we were in between his Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt, Antiochus desperately wanted our loyalty because he feared we would let soldiers from the hostile Kingdom of Ptolemy travel through Judea to attack his empire.

Antiochus thought the best way get our loyalty was to convert us to his religion (Hellenism), but he wasn’t exactly sure how.  We hadn’t converted under everyone-will-convert-without-pressure-because-Hellenism-is-awesome Alexander the Great nor Antiochus’ previous kings who believed we’d become Hellenistic because of the benefits of being a polis.  Antiochus knew forceful action was needed.

Because it would have been impossible to make us convert to Hellenism all at once, Antiochus began passing decrees to slowly outlaw aspects of Judaism and make us more like the Hellenists.  These decrees came to be known as the “Evil Decrees,” outlawing circumcision, observing Shabbat, and Torah study (which led to the dreidel!).  Quite possibly the worst thing Antiochus did as part of the Evil Decrees was sending his men town-to-town to force us to sacrifice a pig (and kill us if we refused).  Why a pig?  Because they aren’t even Kosher animals, there was no way we’d be able to consider a pig sacrifice for G-d, the being who told us to stay away from pigs.  In fact, Judaism commands us to die before we commit murder, commit a sexual sin, or publicly desecrate Judaism (for example, by sacrificing a pig).  Uh oh!

When Antiochus’ men demanded those of us in the village of Modi’in (near Jerusalem) sacrifice a pig, a man named Matityahu wouldn’t stand for it.  “Anyone who is for G-d,” he shouted, “come with me!”  Then, he–and the people still dedicated to Judaism–ran off into the forest.  Shortly after, Matityahu passed away, and his son Judah became the new leader of the group dedicated to free us from Antiochus’ rule through guerilla warfare.  That’s right, Matityahu was the head of the Maccabee family, and his son Judah was Judah Maccabee!

The group slowly demoralized Antiochus’ army with small wins here and there, and with every win, more of us began to believe in them, so more of us began to join the group.  Finally, the fighters killed all of Antiochus’ cavalry in the Battle Emaus.  After that, it was easier for us to reconquer the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple–the Second, to be precise) and defeat the “Greeks” once and for all.  After 650 years of living under different empires, we were finally free!

The Seleucids had been using our Beit Hamikdash for Greek god worship and orgies, so it was in a terrible state when we got to it.  We had to purify and re-dedicate our Temple to G-d with an eight-day ceremony.

And there you have it: the story of Hanukkah, or to translate “Hanukkah” to English, “there you have it, the story of ‘dedication.’”  Woah… “dedication…” like what the Maccabees did after getting the Beit Hamikdash back from the “Greeks!”  That’s why the holiday is named “Hanukkah!”

“Hold on, Nolan.  Wait a second,” you may be thinking.  “What about the oil?  Everything you wrote correlates with what my bubbe told me, but where’s the oil in the Hanukkah story?”  Well, I hate to break it to you, but there was no oil.  That’s right, THE OIL IS A LIE.

The original version of the Talmud excerpt included above–describing the miracle of the oil–contains Eastern Aramaic, and Eastern Aramaic came to Israel from Babylonia some time between 300 CE and 500 CE, after the time of the Mishna (the first part of the Talmud).  However, there are some Mishnaic writings that actually do have Eastern Aramaic in them.  So does that mean the excerpt–one of few references to the Maccabees in Jewish texts–is one of the few texts from the Mishnaic rabbis containing Eastern Aramaic?  Possibly, but the more probable option is that the text was changed by later rabbis (once Eastern Aramaic had been established in Israel) who were referencing a Baraita (a text from  the Mishnaic rabbis that didn’t make it into the Talmud) and claimed that the whole text was from the Mishnaic rabbis.

After defeating the Greeks, the Maccabees put themselves on top of the Jewish nation by making themselves the ruling class and starting their own dynasty, the Hasmonean Dynasty.  The king, Chief of Army, and High Priest were all from the Maccabee family, so there weren’t really any checks and balances put in place.  Because of this, the Hasmoneans quickly became incredibly corrupt and weakened more and more over time.  In fact, the Hasmonean Dynasty became so weak, the Roman Empire was able to conquer us amidst a dispute between two brothers–a High Priest and a general–about which one would be the next king.

Back to the rabbis.  Why would they lie about the Hanukkah story?  Well, II Samuel 7:16 states, “Your [King David’s] throne shall be established forever [but only for your righteous descendants],” and Psalm 132:12 says, “If your [King David’s] children will keep My [G-d’s] covenant … their children shall also sit on your throne forever.”  G-d established King David’s line as the only rightful kings of the people of Israel.  Wait, what about the Maccabees?

Well, the Hasmonean Dynasty wasn’t descended from King David who was from the tribe of Judah; they were a priestly family from a different tribe, the tribe of Levi.  Therefore, the rabbis believed the Maccabees had no right to rule us, so they created the story of the oil lasting for eight days as a way to attribute a Hanukkah miracle to G-d only.  Had they written that the Maccabees defeating the “Greeks” was a miracle, the rabbis would have been endorsing the Hasmonean Dynasty’s rule by saying their military victory was enabled by G-d and that they were, in fact, fit to rule us.

The rabbis could have come up with any kind of supernatural miracle to achieve their goal, so why did they choose to say “[the Maccabees] lit from [the one cruse of oil] for eight days [instead of one like expected],” (the Talmud–Mosechet Shabbat 21b)?  My awesome Alexander Muss High School in Israel teacher, Danny Stein, shared his answer to the question, and I completely agree.  He told my class that he believes the oil is a symbol for the Jewish people.  After having both of our Temples destroyed and losing unity because of their destruction, after being ruled by countless empires, after being kicked out of our homeland many times, after being denied entrance back into Israel multiple times, after being forced to find ways to survive in hostile countries, after fighting too many wars to keep track of, and even after six thousand of us were killed in the heinous Shoah (Holocaust), we–the Jewish nation–are still around.  All the odds were against us, but we persevered, and here we are.  One might have expected us to “burn out” after one tragedy (or one day, if you will), but we’re still here after four thousand years of hardships (or eight days).  The oil is a symbol of our people’s strength, meant to teach us that if we push through troublesome times, we can and will light up the world with our presence.

To kick the “woah factor” up another notch, the full story of the Maccabees isn’t in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.  In fact, the complete story of the Hasmoneans isn’t included in any Jewish text; we have become familiar with the story of their revolt against the “Greeks” thanks to the inclusion of the four Books of the Maccabees in the Christian Bible (except Protestant Bibles because they doubt the historical origin and therefore accuracy of the Books of the Maccabees).

Although the Hanukkah story we grew up with isn’t completely true and the reason it even exists is nuts, Hanukkah is still a widely-adored Jewish holiday.  After all, who doesn’t love lighting candles and getting presents?  After all, it really is “[s]o much funukah/ [t]o celebrate Hanukkah!”

Happy Hanukkah!

*Some rabbis and scholars believe the Hanukkah story isn’t what I wrote; I simply wrote about a widely-accepted-as-truth Hanukkah story.  Also, people have come up with other rationales for the creation of another Hanukkah story and why the Maccabees aren’t in the Tanakh, but I chose to write only about what I was taught.  I am including links for further reading below, and one of the links discusses possible reasons for why the Maccabees aren’t in the Tanakh.

If you want to learn more about Hanukkah, here are some links I highly recommend: