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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Ariel Tal

Sovereignty & Channukah: The Significance of the Hasmonean Dynasty

The Chanukah story is famous in Jewish communities all around the world. The narrative usually is that the Greeks led by Antiochus fought the Jews in Israel and defiled the Temple, which led to the miraculous revolt from the Hasmonean Family, led by Judah Maccabbee and as a result the Temple was inaugurated again, and a dynasty that lasted for close to 100 years was created. The highlight of the Chanukah story is centred around the Menorah and the miracle of having the oil lasting 8 days instead of 1. That’s the story that many children learn. I want to take a deeper look into the story, and explore how this historic holiday defined Jewish history with its unprecedented historical events that have a ripple effect felt until this very day.

Maimonides (Rambam) opens his laws of Chanukah with historical context to this Rabbinic Holiday.

In the Second Temple period [167 BCE] the Greek kings decreed evil decrees on Israel: they abolished their religion, prevented them from studying Torah and doing mitzvot, stretched out their hands to take their money and their daughters, entered the inner sanctum of the Temple, violated its restrictions and defiled its purities. Israel was terribly distressed because of them and the Greeks oppressed them very greatly. Then the God of our ancestors felt mercy for all Israel, saved them from their hands and rescued them. The Hasmonean priests, killed the Greeks and saved Israel from their hands and then established a monarchy led by their priestly descendants – [not by King David’s tribe of Judah] – and restored sovereignty to Israel for over 200 years until the destruction of the Second Temple [70 CE].

And when Israel overcame its enemies and wiped them out – it was the 25th of the month of Kislev [164 BCE], - then they entered the inner sanctum of the Temple. They were unable to find pure oil in the Temple except for one cruse of oil that could last one day only. They lit from it the Temple candles for eight days while in the meantime they were pressing olives and extracting pure oil.

(Mishne Torah, Book of Festivals, Laws of Hanukkah Chapter 3: 1-2)

One of the main points that Maimonides makes is that “...and restored sovereignty to Israel for over 200 years until the destruction of the Second Temple”. Historically, this is accurate in terms of sovereignty over the Temple functions itself, but the actual sovereignty for the Hasmonean Dynasty lasted just shy of 100 years over the Central Area of Israel, which included Jerusalem.

According to Maimonides, the celebration of Chanukah is primarily because of the Hasmonean leadership in abolishing the Greeks in battle, removing the religious decrees from Israel and establishing political sovereignty in Israel for the first time since Biblical times! The Babylonians, Persians and Greeks had sovereignty until the Hasmoneans reclaimed the Temple and Central Israel and established a string of monarchy until the Early Roman Period in Israel.

Why was removing religious decrees and establishing sovereignty a catalyst for creating a Holiday in the Jewish calendar that existed for over two thousand years? In year 168 BCE, Antiochus the IV, who was the Hellenistic (Greek) King of the Seleucid Empire, and reigned from Syria to the Greek Province of Israel, fought in Egypt against the Parsians. According to the authors of the Books of the Maccabees, while Antiochus was busy in Egypt, a rumor spread that he had been killed. In Judea, the deposedHigh Priest Jasongathered a force of 1000 soldiers and made a surprise attack on the city of Jerusalem.[13] Menelaus, the High Priest appointed by Antiochus, was forced to flee Jerusalem during a riot (Josephus, The Jewish War1:1:1–2). King Antiochus returned from Egypt in 168 BC, enraged by his defeat; he attacked Jerusalem and restored Menelaus, then executed many Jews. The unprecedented decree by Antiochus was making religious decrees agains the Jews. All kingdoms imposed sanctions, taxes and restrictions on their subjects and nations that were under their rule, and even fought battles for religious reasons, but no king or emperor made religious decrees that were punishable by prison or death until Antiochus IV and the Jews. Antiochus started a historical trend. For the next two thousand years other empires followed suit in imposing religious sanctions on the Jewish people - The Romans in Hadrians’ Rule, The Spanish Inquisition, The Crusaders, The Russian Czars, Communist Russia and the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The Hasmoneans fought valiantly and successfully in defense of the Jewish people and Antiochus’ sanctions despite being a more limited and significantly smaller army. Using their deep understanding of the terrain and utilizing their speed and agility, the Hasmonean army pulled a “David”, defeating the “Goliath” - the Greek Army, that was the gold standard of armies of their era.

In the book of I Maccabees, after Antiochus IVissued his decrees forbidding Jewish religious practice, a rural Jewish priest from Modiin, Mattityahu the Hasmonean, sparked the revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods. Mattityahu killed a Hellenistic Jew who had stepped forward to take Mattathias' place in sacrificing to an idol as well as the Greek officer who was sent to enforce the sacrifice. Afterwards, he and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judah. After Matityahu’s' death about one year later in 166 BCE, his son Judah Maccabee led an army of Jewish dissidents to victory over the Seleucid dynasty in guerrilla warfare, which at first was directed against Hellenized Jews, of whom there were many. The Maccabees destroyed pagan altars in the villages, circumcised boys and forced Hellenized Jews into outlawry. Judah's nickname "Maccabbeus," now used in popular culture to describe the Jewish partisans as a whole, is taken from the Hebrew word for "hammer".

The revolt itself involved many battles, in which the Maccabean forces gained notoriety for their use of guerrilla tactics and their speed and mobility, in contrast to the slow and bulky Seleucid army. After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there and installing Jonathan Apphus, Judah's youngest brother, as high priest. A large Seleucid army was sent to quash the revolt, but returned to Syria on the death of Antiochus IV. Beforehand, Judas Maccabbeus made an agreement with Rome and became allied, tying the hands of the weaker Seleucid Empire. Its commander Lysias, preoccupied with internal Seleucid affairs, agreed to a political compromise that restored religious freedom.

The war lasted over seven years, and during the third year the Temple was rededicated and the Chanukah miracle occured of the Menorah’s light lasting for eight days with only one day’s worth of olive oil. The end result of the Maccabean revolt was Israel regaining sovereignty over the Temple and over the Jewish Kingdom of the time in Israel for close to 100 years! The measure of sovereignty is taxes - until the Hasmonean revolt the Jews paid taxes to the Greeks and from the time of the Hasmonean Kingdom the Jews paid taxes to the Hasmoneans.

Why is the Hasmonean Dynasty significant from a religous perspective?

Think of modern day Israel. The State of Israel was established in 1948 and will be 72 years this coming April. There have been 5 major wars, dozens of battles and significant growth for Israel as a state over that period of time. Israel is now a major player in the Start Up and Investor markets throughout the world, is a major news hub, is the only active democracy in the Middle East, has a growth rate more than most European countries, a stable economy and is still the spiritual epi-centre (Jerusalem, in particular) for the three major Monotheistic Faiths - Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

The Hasmonean Dynasty reigned for close to 100 years. It was the only time that the Jewish people had sovereignty over their own country from the end of the First Temple Era until the current establishment of the State of Israel. The Jewish people had been in exile for 2000 years since the Roman Period, and even more if we go back to the Babylonian Era, and yet in that glimpse of time there was this window of opportunity for Israel to self-rule during the Greek Empire, into the Early Roman Period. Even when Ezra the Scribe built the Second Temple - the Jews paid taxes to the Persian Empire and although they had autonomy over all Temple activities, were not an independent State. All of that changed during the Hasmonean Dynasty - symbolized by Chanukah and the Miracle of the Oil. Independence Day in Israel is an event celebrated throughout the Jewish world, and is significant on many accounts:

The Jewish people have a Homeland. Any Jew, matrilineal or patrilineal, are welcome to become Israeli citizens without special visa. That is a new historical phenomenon since the Roman Empire conquered Israel. The IDF can protect Jews around the world! The Antibes’ Mission is the one that stands out, and the IDF has sent missions to Thailand, Haiti and other countries that have been in crisis, even when it didn’t directly affect the Jewish population in those areas. Jews can feel safe around the world knowing they have a homeland and that the IDF have their backs, so to speak, if antisemitism rises. Israel has international clout in world politics. There are Israeli embassies around the world, including New Zealand, and many international investors have bet on Israeli start ups. In fact, there was a 17% increase of Start Up investment in 2018 as opposed to 2017, totalling a whopping $6.47 Billion USD in investments! Israel has returned to its proper place in the Jewish world as the international Torah learning centre, and has replaced Babylon, Spain, France, North Africa, Germany and Poland, which were Torah centers in their respective eras since the First Temple destruction.

The story of Chanukah is more than just a miracle of oil. The miracle symbolizes a light in a place of darkness, a glimmer of hope for Israeli and Jewish independence in a sea of oppression. Jewish independence is significant not just for political reasons or for national safety, it opens up a new level of spirituality, Torah connection and advancement of the Jewish people as a nation.

Rabbi Avraham Itzchak HaKohen Kook z”l, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, in his many writings speaks about the idealism from a Torah perspective about Israel returning to its land, and the establishment of a Jewish State in Israel. Rav Kook continues the line of Rabbi Judah HaLevi in his work “The Kuzari” that there is an innate spiritual connection between the Torah, the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel. That is the Jewish triangle - the three prong rope that shall not be broken.

Chanukah is more than a miracle over a jug of oil, it is about Jewish sovereignty and the inherent connection between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. The Menorah by design, and not by coincidence, is the official State Symbol of Israel today. Chanukah reminds us that Israel binds the Jewish people together wherever they may be in the world. Antiochus IV tried to uproot the Jewish connection, and the Hasmoneans responded by not only revolting against the religious oppression, but also by regaining independence in Israel, the Jewish Promised Land and establishing their own religious and political freedom.

This Chanukah let’s celebrate our connection to Israel and Judaism - and the inseparable bond between the Jewish People, the Torah and the Land of Israel. That is what the Maccabees fought for, and the tradition we preserve every year on Chanukah.

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