Hanukkah, the holiday of light, is narrated in the four Books of the Maccabees, the Scroll of Antiochus and Josephus’s “The Wars of the Jews.” The Greek Empire was divided among the four generals of Alexander the Great, who held Judaism in high esteem, following his death (323 BCE). In 175 BCE, the Seleucid/Syrian Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies claimed the Land of Israel and suspected that the Jews were allies of his Ptolemaic/Egyptian enemy. Therefore, he aimed to exterminate Judaism and convert Jews to Hellenism. In 169 BCE he devastated Jerusalem, massacred the Jews and prohibited the practice of Judaism.
A 166/7 BCE rebellion was led by members of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family, which included Mattityahu, the priest, and his five sons, Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan and Eleazar, who established Jewish independence until 37 BCE.
The Maccabees’ battlefield successes were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors; Jews were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome and other global and regional powers.
When ordered by Emperor Antiochus to end the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer and Akron, Shimon the Maccabee responded: “We have not occupied a foreign land. … We have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.”
Hanukkah according to David Ben-Gurion
Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, a modern-day Maccabee, called the struggle of the Maccabees “one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history, not merely a political-military struggle against foreign oppression.
Unlike many peoples, he said, “the meager Jewish people did not assimilate. The Jewish people prevailed, won, sustained and enhanced their independence and unique civilization. … It was the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment, which enabled the Hasmoneans to overcome one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history.”
Hanukkah and the Land of Israel
The mountain ridges of Judea and Southern Samaria (especially the Land of Benjamin) were the platforms of critical Maccabees’ military battles. Hanukkah is the only ancient Jewish holiday that commemorates a national liberation struggle in the Land of Israel, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot and Shavuot (the Exodus in the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia).
The optimism of Hanukkah
The first of the eight candles of Hanukkah is always lit when the daylight hours begin to increase, symbolizing optimism. Hanukkah’s nine-branched candelabrum, including a “helper/shamash” candle, highlights spiritual and physical liberation against formidable odds, energized by faith, value-driven tenacity, patriotism, optimism and adherence to historical, cultural and religious roots in defiance of convenient political correctness.
Hanukkah commemorates the victory of light (Maccabees) over darkness and remembrance over forgetfulness. (Interestingly, the Hebrew words for darkness and forgetfulness are composed of the same letters.)
Hebrew significance of ‘Maccabee’
The word “Maccabee” is thought to be a derivative of the Hebrew word for “sledgehammer,” perhaps describing the Maccabees’ tenacious and overwhelming fighting capabilities. It may be a derivative of the Hebrew word for “extinguishing”—the fate of most of the Maccabees’ adversaries. It is also a Hebrew acronym of the Maccabees’ battle cry: “Who could resemble you among Gods, O Lord.”
The four Books of the Maccabees were written in Latin, in which sometimes “C” is pronounced like “TZ.” Therefore, the origin of “Maccabee” could actually be the Hebrew word matzbee: “commander.’
The first of Hanukkah’s eight days is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev, the Jewish month of miracles (e.g., Noah’s Rainbow appeared in Kislev). Moses completed the construction of the Holy Ark on the 25th of Kislev, and this was also the date of the laying the foundation of the Second Temple by Nehemiah. Moreover, the 25th stop of the People of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt to the Land of Israel was Hashmona (which shares the same Hebrew root as Hasmoneans). Also, the 25th word in Genesis is “light,” which is a Hebrew metaphor for the Torah.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.
This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.