The Very Beginning of the Hanukkah Story

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,



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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5 Responses to The Very Beginning of the Hanukkah Story

  1. Mark Schweber says:

    I am very glad to see you discuss the little known story behind the legend of Chanukah (though I note that on Patch you stuck much closer to the company line). Few Rabbis do this. I find the story of the the causes of the Hasmonean revolt fascinating and they resonate greatly with the internal “battles” we face today between various Jewish denominations. But also little discussed is the expansionist and almost fundamentalist strains within the Hasmonean rulers after the “victory”, some aspects of which I personally find very troubling (but which expanded the borders of the territory controlled by the Hasmonean substantially), followed by the decay caused by power and intrigue, which resulted in the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty and Judea becoming a Roman province.

  2. I knew this history, mostly, but it’s really great to hear it so eloquently stated by a rabbi. The more our kindred faith-communities, both Christian and Jewish, can recount our histories with such a combination of grace and candor, the better off we’ll all be. In my teaching as a parish priest, I always told both kids and adults that “without Hanukkah there would never have been a Christmas” — because if Israel had completely capitulated to Greek culture, Jesus wouldn’t have been who he was, etc. etc. Anyway, great blog, and good moral point made at the end! Happy Hanukkah to you and your family — and to all Israel.

    • As always, I appreciate your kind words. There’s that old teaching about those who forget their history… So, as much as I love the miraculous part of Hanukkah, it is important to preserve the historical component as well. Merry Christmas to Suzanne and you.

  3. Nancy Lapid says:

    Thanks, Rabbi. I learned about the Hellenists and Hasideans when I was in Hebrew school, but that was (many) decades ago, and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone talk about them since then. You’ve posted a great review.

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