Hanukkah (Nov. 28–Dec. 6, 2021) is the only Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient national liberation struggle in the Land of Israel. The national liberation holidays of Passover, Sukkot/Tabernacles and Shavuot/Pentecost commemorate the Exodus from slavery in Egypt to liberation in the land of Israel, and Purim commemorates liberation from a Persian attempt to annihilate the Jewish people.
In 323 BCE, the Greek Empire was split into three independent and rival mini-empires (Greece-Seleucid/Syria-Ptolemaic/Egypt), following the death of Alexander the Great (Alexander III), who held Judaism in high esteem.
In 175 BCE, the Seleucid/Syrian Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes claimed the Land of Israel and suspected that the Jews were allies of his Ptolemaic/Egyptian enemy. The Seleucid emperor was known for eccentric behavior, hence his name, Epiphanes, which means “divine manifestation.” He aimed to exterminate Judaism and convert Jews to Hellenism. In 169 BCE he devastated Jerusalem, attempted to massacre the Jewish population, and outlawed the practice of Judaism.
In 166/7 BCE, a Jewish rebellion was led by members of the non-establishment Hasmonean (Maccabee) family—from the rural town of Modi’in, halfway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean—headed by Matityahu, the priest, and his five sons, Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan and Eleazar. They fought the Seleucid occupier and established Jewish independence. The Hasmonean dynasty was replete with external and internal wars, lasting until 37 BCE when Herod the Great (a proxy of Rome) defeated Antigonus II Mattathias.
The success of the Maccabees on the battlefield was consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Carthage, Rome and other global and regional powers.
When ordered by Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid region to end the Jewish “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” (Book of Maccabees A: 15:33).
Hanukkah and the Land of Israel
Hanukkah highlights the centrality of the Land of Israel in the formation of Jewish history, religion and culture. The mountain ridges of Judea and southern Samaria (the West Bank) were the platform for the Maccabean military battles: Mitzpah (the burial site of the Prophet Samuel, overlooking Jerusalem); Beth El (the site of the Ark of the Covenant and Judah the Maccabee’s initial headquarters); Beth Horon (Judah’s victory over Seron); Hadashah (Judah’s victory over Nicanor); Beth Zur (Judah’s victory over Lysias); Ma’aleh Levona (Judah’s victory over Apollonius); Adora’yim (a Maccabean fortress); Eleazar (named after Matityahu’s youngest Maccabee son); Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat); Ba’al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed); Teqoa, Mikhmash and Gophnah (bases of Shimon and Yonatan); the Judean desert, etc.
The significance of Hanukkah
Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabean-led national liberation with the lighting of candles for eight days, which commemorate the re-inauguration of Jerusalem’s Jewish Temple and its Menorah (candelabra) on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, as was prophesied by the Prophet Haggai in 520 BCE. The Hebrew spellings of Hanukkah, and “inauguration,” possess the same root.
Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which is the month of miracles, such as the post-flood appearance of Noah’s rainbow, the completion of the construction of the Holy Ark by Moses (on the 25th day of Kislev), the laying of the foundations of the Second Temple by Nehemiah, etc.
In 1777, Hanukkah was celebrated during the most critical battle at Valley Forge, which solidified the victory of George Washington’s Continental Army over the British monarchy.
The 25th Hebrew word in Genesis is “light,” and the 25th stop during the Exodus was Hashmona (the same Hebrew spelling as Hasmonean-Maccabees).
The first day of Hanukkah is celebrated when daylight hours are equal to the hours of darkness—and when moonlight is hardly noticed—ushering in brighter days: optimism.
Hanukkah monumentalizes the critical role played by education in the vitality and survival of individuals and nations (the Hebrew words for Hanukkah and education share a similar spelling); the victory of light and faith over darkness (the Hebrew spelling of “darkness” consists of the same letters as “forgetfulness”); and the triumph of reality-driven optimism over wishful-thinking and pessimism, defiance of odds over political correctness/assimilation, and liberty over despotism.
Hanukkah according to U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, December 1915:
“Chanukah, the Feast of the Maccabees … celebrates a victory of the spirit over things material … a victory also over [external, but also] more dangerous internal enemies, the Sadducees [the upper social and economic echelon]; a victory over the ease-loving, safety-playing, privileged, powerful few, who in their pliancy would have betrayed the best interests of the people; a victory of democracy over aristocracy. … The struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal worldwide interest. … It is a struggle in which all Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews … are vitally affected.”
Hanukkah according to Israel’s Founding Father, David Ben-Gurion, a modern-day Maccabee:
“The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history, not merely a political-military struggle against foreign oppression. … Unlike many peoples, 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 … ” (“Uniqueness and Destiny,” pp. 20-22, David Ben-Gurion, IDF Publishing, 1953).
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.