Twenty-two centuries ago, the land of Israel was part of the Hellenist Syrian Empire,
dominated by the rulers of the Seleucid dynasty.
Antiochus III, who reigned from 222 to 186 BCE, had waged war with King Ptolemy of Egypt
over the possession of the Land of Israel. Antiochus III was victorious and the Land of Israel
was annexed to his empire. At the beginning of his reign he was favorably disposed toward the
Jews and accorded them some privileges. Later on, however, when he was defeated by the Romans
and compelled to pay heavy taxes, the burden fell upon the various peoples of his empire who
were forced to furnish the gold that was required of him by the Romans. When Antiochus
died, his son Seleucus IV took over, and further oppressed the Jews.
Added to the troubles from the outside were the grave perils that threatened Judaism from
within. The influence of the Hellenists was increasing. Yochanan, the Kohen Gadol
("high priest"), foresaw the danger to Judaism from the penetration of
paganism, and opposed the attempts on the part of the Jewish Hellenists
to introduce Greek and Syrian customs into the land. The Hellenists hated him. One of them
told the King's commissioner that in the treasury of the Temple there was a great deal of wealth.
The wealth in the treasury consisted of the contributions of "half a shekel" made by all adult
Jews annually. That was given for the purpose of the sacrifices on the altar, as well as for
maintaining and improving the Temple building. Another part of the treasury consisted of orphans'
funds which were deposited for them until they became of age. Seleucus needed money in order to
pay the Romans. He sent his minister Helyodros to take the money from the treasury of the Temple.
In vain did Yochanan beg him not to do it. Helyodros entered the gate of the Temple. But suddenly,
he became pale with fright. The next moment he fainted and fell to the ground. After Helyodros came to,
he did not dare enter again.
A short time later, Seleucus was killed and his brother Antiochus IV began his reign over Syria
(174 BCE). He was a tyrant of a rash and impetuous nature, contemptuous of religion and of the
feelings of others. He was called "Epiphanes," meaning "the gods' beloved." Several of the Syrian
rulers received similar titles. But a historian of his time, Polebius, gave him the epithet Epimanes
("madman"), a title more suitable to the character of this harsh and cruel king.
Desiring to unify his kingdom through the medium of a common religion and culture, Antiochus
tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing all the Jewish Laws. He removed
the righteous High Priest, Yochanan, from the Temple in Jerusalem, and in his place installed
Yochanan's brother Joshua, who preferred to call himself by the Greek name of Jason. For he was
a member of the Hellenist party, and he used his high office to spread more and more of the Greek
customs among the priesthood.
Joshua or Jason was later replaced by another man, Menelaus, who had promised the king that
he would bring in more money than Jason did. When Yochanan, the former High Priest, protested
against the spread of the Hellenists' influence in the Holy Temple, the ruling High Priest
hired murderers to assassinate him.
Antiochus was at that time engaged in a successful war against Egypt. But messengers from
Rome arrived and commanded him to stop the war, and he had to yield. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem,
a rumor spread that a serious accident had befallen Antiochus. Thinking that he was dead,
the people rebelled against Menelaus. The treacherous High Priest fled together with his friends.
Antiochus returned from Egypt enraged by Roman interference with his ambitions. When he heard
what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to fall upon the Jews. Thousands of Jews
were killed. Antiochus then enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. Jewish worship
was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision
and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. One of the respected elders of that
generation, Rabbi Eliezer, a man of 90, was ordered by the servants of Antiochus to eat pork so
that others would do the same. When he refused, they suggested to him that he pick up the meat
to his lips to appear to be eating. But Rabbi Eliezer refused to do even that and was put to
There were thousands of others who likewise sacrificed their lives. The famous story of Hannah
and her seven children happened at that time.
Antiochus's men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants
to worship pagan gods. Only one refuge area remained and that was the hills of Judea,
where faithful Jews hid in caves. But even there did the Syrians pursue the faithful Jews, and many
died a martyr's death.
One day, the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modin where Yochanan's son, the old preist Mattityahu, lived with his five sons -- Simon, Elazar, Judah, Yochanan, and Jonathan.
The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu
offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, "I, my sons and my brothers are determined to
remain loyal to the covenant which our G-d made with our ancestors!"
Thereupon, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword
and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them
and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar.
Mattityahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened. He would certainly send an expedition to punish him and his followers. Mattityahu, therefore, left the village of Modin and fled together with his sons and friends to the hills of Judea.
Many loyal and courageous Jews joined them, rallying under Mattityahu's
battle cry, "All who faithful to G-d, follow me!" They formed legions and
from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments
and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus.
Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue
to fight in defense of G-d's Torah. He asked them to follow the counsel of their brother,
Simon the Wise. In waging warfare, he said, their leader should be Judah the Strong.
Judah was called "Maccabee," a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words
inscribed on his banner, Mi Kamocha Ba'eilim Hashem, "Who is like unto Thee amongst
the mighty, O G-d."
Antiochus sent his general Apolonius to wipe out Judah and his followers, the Maccabees.
Though greater in number and equipment than their adversaries, the Syrians were defeated
by the Maccabees. Antiochus sent out another expedition which also was defeated. He realized
that only by sending a powerful army could he hope to defeat Judah and his brave fighting men.
An army consisting of more than 40,000 men swept the land under the leadership of two commanders,
Nicanor and Gorgiash. When Judah and his brothers heard of that, they exclaimed: "Let us fight unto
death in defense of our souls and our Temple!" The people assembled in Mitzpah, where Samuel,
the prophet of old, had offered prayers to G-d. After a series of battles the war was won.
Now the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared
it of the idols placed there by the Syrian invaders. Judah and his followers built a new altar,
which he dedicated on the 25th of the month of Kislev, in the year
3622 from creation (139 BCE).
The golden Menorah had been stolen by the Syrians. Lacking the means to
replace it, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. But there was no
pure, sacred olive oil to light it with, for everything had been defiled by the
enemy. Finally, they found a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the
seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to light only for one day.
By a miracle of G-d, it continued to burn for eight days, until new oil could be obtained,
demonstrating to all that G-d had again taken
His people under His protection. In commemoration, our sages established these
eight days as the annual festival of lights, Chanukah.