Hanukka: A Brief History

By: Neil W. Levin


HANUKKA, THE POSTBIBLICAL FESTIVAL OF DEDICATION, (actually, rededication), is an annual eight-day celebration of the Hasmonean-Maccabean victories of the Jews in 168–165 B.C.E. against the tyranny of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire ruled by Athenian-born Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes), and of the people’s fifteen-year struggle against the prohibition of Judaism and against enforced paganism. It is also known as hag ha’urim, the Festival of Lights, in commemoration of the rekindling of the candelabrum at the rededication of the Temple in 165—and the legendary “miraculous” eight-day duration of the single day’s worth of undefiled illumination oil on hand after the Temple’s cleansing and purification. The historical basis of the festival’s eight-day duration, however, stems from its original connection to the “retroactively postponed” simultaneous celebration of the eight-day autumn pilgrimage Festival of Sukkot. This celebration was held belatedly as part of the Temple’s rededication: The people had been prohibited from its observance for three years, and public memory of having to forgo Sukkot was still acute, since its actual date occurred less than twelve weeks earlier. Hanukka commences on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of kislev, the date assigned historically to the rededication and also accepted as the date on which pagan worship of Greek gods had been instituted forcibly in the Temple three years earlier.

During the period of these struggles, ancient Judaea was under the domination of the pagan Greeks of the Syrian-based Seleucid Empire, which they attempted to “civilize” by imposing their version of Greek culture, especially within Judaea and its capital, Jerusalem, which Antiochus aimed to transform into a Greek-oriented city—architecturally, socially, and spiritually. That late Syrian phase of Seleucid-imposed Hellenism, however, was a much-decayed and diluted Greek culture, representing the residue and debris of the former glories of classical Greek civilization and those attributes most prized by the West since the Renaissance. That debased guise of Hellenism was not the Greek culture of philosophers, poets, or artists, but of expeditionary armies, camp followers, and slave traders. Nor, obviously, should Seleucid Hellenism be confused with the legacies of earlier Athenian democracy, nor with the worthy contributions that define ancient Greece at its zenith.

Our historical knowledge of the Hanukka episode is derived from a variety of chronicles, legends, and Talmudic references and commentary—including much taken from the two Books of the Maccabees, which are the last two books of the Apocrypha. In the initial years of the Hellenization effort, a portion of Judaea’s population was indeed attracted to things Greek—as perceived “progress”—and was ready to flirt with some of the enticements of introduced Greek values and mores. But in 168 the Seleucid effort entered a brutal phase, when—partly to unify Judaea as its southernmost provincial outpost in its fortification against Egypt as a rival power—the fusion of all peoples in the empire was ordered. Judaism was outlawed and its practices forbidden as capital crimes in many cases; pagan worship of Greeks gods was established and required in the Temple and elsewhere by imperial authority and force; and sacred venues and artifacts were defiled or destroyed.

In Judaism, idolatry has always been considered among the most hideous of offenses, even requiring martyrdom rather than submission. By attacking so viciously the Jews’ central system of sacred values at its core, Antiochus’s Hellenization campaign now sowed the seeds of its own backfire. The revolt was begun and led by Mattathias, an elderly priest of the House of Hasmon, and his five sons—of whom Judah (to whom was subsequently attached the sobriquet Maccabee, “hammer,”) became the supreme commander of the partisan forces. Joined by bands of followers, the Hasmoneans-Maccabees conducted a three-year virtual guerrilla war against the Greco-Syrians as well as against their pro-Hellenistic Jewish supporters, and this involved insurgent operations as well as pitched battles. These led eventually to a truce and partial surrender, followed by an imperial edict rescinding the anti-Jewish measures and restoring freedom of Jewish worship and observance. Judah was permitted to reenter Jerusalem with his followers and retake control of the Temple, which, under his leadership, was purified and rededicated with elaborate music and Psalm singing. Therefore, the reference to miracles in the Hanukka liturgy concerns the unlikely victories of untrained resistance fighters as well as the legend of the oil lasting for eight days.

Some historians see in the Hanukka episode the first instance of a successful war for religious liberty and minority religious rights. From a narrower Judaic perspective, apart from its other extended theological, ethnic, and national-political connotations, Hanukka is essentially about resistance to Hellenism. It thus commemorates the spiritual survival of Judaism, and its revival after a period that had threatened to bear witness to its total disintegration and assimilation.


This essay originally appeared in the liner notes to the CD, A Hanukka Celebration.

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