The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is held yearly on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar (November or December) and lasting 8 days. The holiday traces its traditions back several centuries. The holiday itself which brings together Jewish families every year owes its ancient origins to the Maccabean Revolt over 2,000 years ago in the Seleucid Empire. What follows is a brief overview of this important event and the traditions it inspired.
The Seleucid Empire
A successor state of Alexander The Great’s vast Macedonian Empire The Seleucid Empire was a Greek (Hellenistic) empire founded by one of Alexander’s generals Seleucus I Nicator. At the height of its power the descendants of Seleucus ruled a kingdom that stretched from Turkey, across Persia. and as far east as Northwest India. Ruling a diverse population of several different cultures and religions at times the Greek ruling class could be quite tolerant. However, this level of tolerance depended on the will of the Emperor and it was a change in this that lead to the Maccabean Revolt.
Judea (modern day Israel) became a part of The Seleucid Empire in 200 BCE. The Emperor at the time Antiochus III the Great despite being a Greek Polytheist saw so no need to interfere in religious matters. He allowed the Jewish people of Judah to continue their religious practices as they had been. However, conditions would greatly deteriorate under one of his successors Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The resulting events have lead to two differing viewpoints on why they occurred.
The Traditional View
Antiochus IV Epiphanes made the practice of Judaism illegal and ordered the residents of Judah to worship the Greek gods. In 168 BCE he ordered the capture of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Upon capturing the temple the Emperor had an altar to Zeus constructed within and performed animal sacrifices within its halls. In response to this the people of Judah revolted against the empire. Lead by Jewish Priest Mattathias the uprising would later come under the command of his son Judah Maccabee (The Hammer) following Mattathias death. By making keen use of guerilla warfare the Seleucids were driven out of Juda in just two years.
Judah Maccabee then ordered the Second Temple to be purified, its altar rebuilt, and the menorah to be lit. Tradition states the menorah’s flames burned for eight days despite only having enough fuel for one day. Many Jewish historians feel that the ongoing festival at the time may have been a late celebration of the traditional Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Due to an ongoing war this highly important festival had not been properly observed during the Maccabean Revolt.
Different Historical Interpretations
The traditional view is that the uprising against Antiochus IV was a direct response to his oppressive actions against the residents of Judah. However, some modern historians claim his actions were due to intervention in an ongoing Jewish civil war that had started to spread outward into neighboring Syria. The two sides were traditionalist Jews versus those who had assimilated into Hellenistic culture and behaviors. Siding with the Hellenized Jewish people Antiochus IV’s actions were meant to weaken the traditionalist side. No matter what the root cause of his actions were in the end Judah broke off from the Seleucid Empire and became an independent nation for over a century.
The Maccabean Revolt was an important turning point in Jewish history leading to an independent Jewish nation freeing themselves from Seleucid rule. The lighting of the menorah and the eight day celebration after the revolt would lay the foundation for Chanukah traditions.