The WORD – 12/2/10. We always begin the story of Hanukkah with the evil king conquering the Land of Israel and issuing oppressive edicts. But, why did the Syrian Greek King Antiochus decide to desecrate our Temple and outlaw all forms of Jewish worship and study? What led up to these events?
The truth is that it started with a split among our people.
On the one hand, we had the Hellenists – those who sought to incorporate the best of Greek culture into their Jewish lives. They enjoyed Greek philosophy, athletics, theatre and art. Included among them, were some members of the Priestly class. On the other hand we had the Hasideans (or Hasidim) – those who sought to come closer to God through study of Torah and saw all of Greek culture as little more than a distraction from the Truth of Judaism.
The Hasidim were not necessarily pleased with priests who were Hellenists, but from reading their Bible, they knew that one had to be born a priest in order to be a priest. So, they paid their taxes and held their tongues.
Then, one day, a young priest named Jason got Antiochus to help him unseat the current High Priest at the time. Antiochus got money and influence over the new High Priest. Jason got the High Priesthood. It was a pretty good deal for both of them.
Soon, though, Jason renamed Jerusalem “Antiochia” and established a priestly “gymnasium” — where young priests would train athletically instead of studying Torah. Next, another priest named Menelaus tried to pay Antiochus to unseat Jason, which Antiochus was happy to do.
It was making a farce of the priesthood, which was too much for the Hasidim to handle. A civil war broke out between the Hasidim and the Hellenists. Antiochus now had a civil war brewing in his territory, which was bad for tax collecting, so he sent in the troops to quash it, which they did.
It was at this point that he issued the edicts with which we are familiar: no Torah study; no gathering for prayer; Jewish people must eat pork publicly, etc. And only then, could the Maccabees – who were a Priestly family, but not Hellenists – come and lead the charge against the Syrian Greeks.
Why does this typically get left out?
This was probably omitted because we don’t like to think about Jews not getting along with other Jews. It doesn’t seem right. We have an image in our minds of the priests being holy and apolitical — which does not jibe with this story. Furthermore, we would hate to think that the desecration of the Temple could be the result of our own internal struggles. Lastly, the Story of Hanukkah is a much better story without it.
Yet, it is as much a part of the Festival as Judah Maccabee or the jug of oil. Was it any less of a miracle that despite this rift among Jews, God still gave us the ability and strength to overcome our common foe? Indeed, I think that it is an even greater miracle.
So, as we light the Hanukkah candles this year, let’s enjoy the exchange of gifts and the expressions on the faces of the children. However, let’s also focus on ways to promote unity among our people so that we are never again vulnerable to outside forces.
Best wishes for a wonderful Hanukkah,