THE BLOG
12/22/2011 10:10 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

Hanukkah and the Greeks' Grudge

The basic story behind the holiday of Hanukkah is fairly well-known. The Selucid (Syrian-Greek empire) oppressed the Jews. The Jews fought back under the leadership of the Maccabees (particularly Judah). The underdog Jews won and, in the process of rededicating the Temple, found only one flask of oil that miraculously lit the menorah for eight straight days. Great... enough said, let's go eat some latkes.

So what went wrong between the Greeks and the Jews. After all, in the initial conquest of Judea by the Greeks, Alexander the Great is viewed by the sages as a friend to the Jews. In fact, the Talmud (Yoma 69a) relates that when Alexander came to Judea, he refrained from attacking Jerusalem because he recognized Simeon the Just, the High Priest, from the dreams he had each night before a victorious battle (for more on this story, click here).

But the events of Hanukkah took place over a hundred years after Alexander's empire was divided into the Antigonid Empire in Greece, the Selucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia, the Ptolemaic Kingdom based in Egypt. By the time Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the villain of the Hanukkah story, assumed the throne of the Selucid empire in 175 BCE, Judea was under Selucid control.

The Greeks are looked upon by many historians as a unifying and civilizing force. The vast empire, even after it was divided into three, brought a shared culture to much of the "known world." Judea was not exempt from the enthrallment of its citizens with Grecian society. There was great divisiveness among the Jews over people accepting Hellenistic culture. But a core majority refused to embrace this foreign way of life. And while this probably frustrated the ruling Selucuds, it was not a cause for persecution.

Timing is everything, however. Just as Antiochus IV Epiphanes was backtracking after a bid to conquer Egypt was thwarted by threats from Rome, he learned that the Judeans had removed from office the man (Menalaus) he had appointed as High Priest (a position of political as well as religious power). According to The Second Book of Maccabees, Menelaus was from the tribe of Benjamin -- not a member of the priesthood, or even of the tribe of Levi (who were responsible for the Temple). The appointment of Menelaus was perceived as part of the Hellenizing campaign of the Selucids and those in Judea who wished to assimilate into the Hellenistic culture. From Antiochus' viewpoint, the problem with the Jewish people, the reason that they would dare to oust Menelaus from the position of High Priest, was their adherence to the Torah.

In retribution, Antiochus forbade the celebration of Rosh Chodesh (the new month), the observance of Shabbat, brit milah (circumcision), and the study of Torah. Why were these mitzvot noted in particular?

The very first commandment that the Jewish people received as a nation was "This month shall be yours as the first of months" (Exodus 12:1-2), which instructs the Jews to sanctify the beginning of each new month. In ancient times, when there was a Temple and a Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court), witnesses would come and declare that the new moon had been seen. The sages would then declare the month sanctified. This sanctification of the new moon was a declaration that God controls time. The Selucids felt threatened by the "revolutionary" Jewish concept of Divinely ordained time.

The Selucids were against the keeping of Shabbat, not because it sanctified time, but because it was a day of rest. "Six days shall you work and do all your labor, but the seventh day is Shabbat for the Lord your God. On it, you shall do no [creative] work" (Exodus 20:9-10). This contradicted to the creative essence of the Hellenistic culture. Through their creativity, the Selucids proclaimed their might over the world. The Jewish idea of taking one day off to demonstrate belief in God's control of the world, negated the Selucid belief in the ultimate power of the individual.

Of all the Jewish laws, however, the Selucids found circumcision to be the most abhorrent. Remember, the Selucids idealized the beauty of the physical form, particularly the male body. The idea that the Jews would willingly mar their bodies was outrageous to them. On a deeper level, however, circumcision represents the human being's ability to have control over one's physical self. The Selucids believed in fulfilling all of their passions, and found Judaism's devotion to self-discipline unacceptable.

Torah study was prohibited by the Selucids because it promoted all of these commandments and more. The Torah teaches humankind to strive to be God-like. In contrast, the Greeks created gods who acted with less dignity than many humans. Thus, Torah in-and-of-itself was a threat to their culture and philosophy.

Each of these outlawed mitzvot are actually represented by the festival of Hanukkah: Hanukkah lasts for eight days, the same number of days before a brit milah. Similarly, one cannot celebrate Hanukkah without observing at least one Shabbat (if not two). Additionally, since the holiday begins on the 25th of Kislev and lasts for eight days, the holiday always enters into the month of Tevet -- necessitating the celebration of the new month (Rosh Chodesh).

The fourth mitzvah, Torah study, is actually at the heart of Hanukkah's attraction for children. The word Hanukkah shares the same root as the Hebrew word chinuch, which means education. From the game of dreidel to the giving of gifts, many Hanukkah customs stem from the legacy of the educational zeal of the Jews.

Even after the Selucids banned the study of Torah, many Jews continued to practice their Judaism, even under threat of death. According to tradition, students would gather together in a cave to study Torah, leaving one man on guard standing by the entrance. When the lookout signaled that soldiers were coming, the books were quickly hidden and the students took out spinning tops, making it appear as if they were gambling (which was perfectly acceptable to the Selucids). We commemorate their ingenuity and willingness to risk their lives with the game of dreidel!

What about the gifts? The Talmud, in Shabbat 23b, teaches that one who is diligent in lighting Hanukkah candles will have children who are scholars. In fact, the desire for children to grow into scholars was one of the motivations for the custom of giving Hanukkah gelt (which, under modern influence, has been turned into Hanukkah presents). It became a custom to give a little money (gelt) to children as a reward for studying. Children who showed mastery of the laws and customs of the holiday, or who were diligent in their studies, were rewarded with a shiny coin. Over time, the simple giving of gelt (coins or presents) itself, became a Hanukkah custom.

While gifts and games appear to be offshoots of the holiday, they actually represent the essential spirit of Hanukkah. What is it that we are teaching our children on Hanukkah? What was the purpose of the battle of the Maccabees? That their children and their children's children would be able to be knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage and live a Jewish life.