Antiochus IV – the Antiochus of Chanukah

In 3586, Antiochus assumed the Seleucid throne. This monarch saw as his life's mission spreading Greek culture and religion throughout his empire. While his visions of grandeur caused him to take the title "Ephiphanes" (The Great), behind his back his subjects called him "Epimanes" (The Mad) for his undignified behavior at court. Regardless of his behavior, the Hellenist Jews were delighted with Antiochus, seeing a great opportunity to usurp the office of Kohen Gadol, which they previously had not controlled.

Chonyo, Jason and Menelaus

At this time the Kohen Gadol was a righteous man named Chonyo, a nickname for Jochanan. His Hellenized brother Jason, the Greek version of Joshua, bribed Antiochus with vast sums of money to be appointed in Chonyo's place. Once installed as Kohen Gadol, Jason built a gymnasium close to the Temple Mount. Sadly, many of the Kohanim and Jewish youth flocked to the hedonistic entertainments provided by Jason, complete with offering sacrifices to the Greek gods. However, these activities were not enough for the more extreme Hellenists, who wanted to uproot Judaism entirely. Jason's associate Menelaus, who may not even have been a Kohen, bribed Antiochus with even greater amounts of money to depose Jason and appoint Menelaus himself as Kohen Gadol. Once in power, Menelaus stole the holy vessels of the Bais Hamikdash to raise the vast sums he needed to pay his bribe. When Chonyo protested this brazen behavior, Menelaus had him murdered. The Sanhedrin then sent a delegation to Antiochus accusing Menelaus of great excesses, but Menelaus bribed the king's advisors and had the sages executed.

Events that Sparked the Hasmonean Revolt

While Antiochus was abroad fighting the Egyptians, a rumor spread among the Jews that he had died in battle. Jason, taking advantage of this report, attacked Jerusalem, massacred many Jews, and drove Menelaus from power. However, Antiochus returned to Jerusalem, incensed at Jason's affront to his authority. The king massacred some 40,000 Jews, restored Menelaus to power, and despoiled the Bais Hamikdash of all remaining holy vessels, including the Golden Table and Menorah. Encouraged by the Hellenists, Antiochus also instituted harsh decrees aimed at destroying the Jewish religion, effectively plunging the Jewish people into a terrible spiritual exile in their own country. Indeed, the three years (3594-3597) of Antiochus' evil decrees are among the blackest in Jewish history, despite the fact that the Jews dwelled in their land and the Bais Hamikdash was still standing.

Antiochus’ Evil Decrees

After plundering the Bais Hamikdash, Antiochus turned it into a pagan temple. The Divine service was abolished, and statues of Greek idols were set up. On 25 Kislev 3594, hogs were offered on the Altar to Greek gods. Possession of the Scriptures was forbidden, and any Jew found studying them was cruelly executed. Observance of the Sabbath, Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision was punishable by torture and death. Why did the Greeks object so greatly to these three mitzvahs? Clearly, Sabbath, new moons, and circumcision represented the ultimate challenge to the Greek worldview that man is the center of the universe and solely determines right and wrong. Cessation of work on Sabbath is a reminder that G‑d is in control of nature. Proclaiming Rosh Chodesh, upon which the festivals, times of Divine closeness, are based, shows that time is not merely a mundane procession of moments, but is instead infused with holiness through the authority granted by the Torah to the Sanhedrin. And circumcision teaches that the purpose of the human body is to serve G‑d, and not to be indulged and glorified for its own sake – ideas in direct contrast to Greek philosophy. As a final insult, in order to attack the sanctity of the Jewish family the Greeks decreed that prior to her wedding a bride must be violated by the local Greek official – in some ways the single most abhorrent edict of all.

Many Jews died resisting these terrible decrees. Women caught circumcising their children were executed in gruesome fashion, along with their innocent infants and entire families. An elderly rabbi, Elazar, was killed for refusing to eat pork – indeed, for refusing to eat kosher meat and pretend it was pig's flesh. A woman, Chanah, allowed her seven sons to die horribly in her presence rather than submit to idol worship. The distraught mother then hurled herself off a roof. Stories such as these fired the Jewish people, giving them the fortitude to withstand the terrible persecutions and to revolt.


The leader of a prominent priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, Matisyahu may have been a Kohen Gadol or a descendant of one. In addition to that aspect of his lineage, there are several possibilities for the origin of the name Hasmonean. It might come from the town Hashmon, where this family originated. It is similar to the Hebrew word Hashmanim (Psalms 68:32), meaning nobles. It was merely a family surname. As is well known, Matisyahu’s family also became known as Maccabees, which has several meanings. It is an acronym for the verse (Exodus 15:11) Mi Komocha Baelim Hashem, meaning "Who is like You among the heavenly powers, O G‑d." It represents the initial letters of the words Matisyahu Kohen Ben Yochanan. It is the Hebrew word for hammer — Makav. Regardless of the origin of the family’s given and acquired names, Matisyahu had five sons: Judah, Shimon, Jochanan, Jonathan, and Elazar. Hoping to escape Greek scrutiny in the large city of Jerusalem, they fled to the small hamlet of Modiin.

The Revolt

Clearly, the revolt against the Greeks was not for national independence. Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptian Ptolemies all controlled Eretz Israel, yet the Jews never attempted to overthrow their rule. Only when the Greeks made Torah observance virtually impossible did the Jews fight.

The revolt began when a Greek garrison arrived in Modiin. Gathering all the Jews to the town square, the Greeks ordered Matisyahu to offer a hog to the Greek deities. He refused, exhorting the townspeople to be steadfast against the forces antithetical to Torah. When a renegade Jew approached the pagan altar in order to offer the sacrifice himself, Matisyahu killed him and the surrounding Greek soldiers. Proclaiming "Mi Lashem Ayli" (Exodus 32:26), "Whoever is for G‑d join me!" with other loyal Jews Matisyahu ran to the hills and began a guerrilla campaign against the Greek oppressors. Shortly afterward, Matisyahu, who was aged, died, leaving the leadership of the small but determined Jewish forces to his son Judah. Eventually, the Jews gathered 6,000 ill-equipped troops and began attacking the Greeks and their Hellenist Jewish supporters.

Soon, the Greeks realized the threat to their rule and sent armies to crush the incipient uprising. Despite having inferior forces, at Shechem Judah defeated a Greek army under Appolonius. Another army led by Seron met the same fate at Bais Horon.

At this point, the enraged Antiochus sent an army of 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry, led by his best general, Lysias, against Judah. Camped at Emmaus, the vast force faced the 3,000 Jewish soldiers Judah mustered together. Facing suicidal odds of 1:16, where 3:1 odds are usually needed to avoid defeat, before going into battle at Mitzpah Judah and his men fasted and prayed to G‑d. That night the Greeks split their forces, one arm attempting a surprise raid on the Jewish camp. However, Judah anticipated such an attack and himself organized a surprise attack on the sleeping troops left in the Greek camp, killing them, and capturing their stores. Realizing that their supply base was destroyed, the remaining Greek soldiers fled the battlefield.

Lysias made one more attempt to destroy the Jewish army. A year later, he assembled a force of 60,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, and marched on Bais Tzur. There, Judah met him with a force of 10,000 men. With faith in G‑d, the Jews attacked first and killed 5,000 enemy soldiers. Seeing the grim determination of the Jews, who would never surrender, Lysias returned home to his capital, Antioch. Meanwhile, King Antiochus died in Persia of a horrible disease, regretting to the end that he had begun fighting the Jews.

The Miracle of Chanukah

A triumphant Judah entered Jerusalem and the Bais Hamikdash. He and his forces spent several weeks in the Holy Temple, removing the idols, making necessary repairs, and reconstructing the defiled altar. Finally, on 25 Kislev 3597 (164 BCE), three years to the day after hogs had been offered on the Altar, the Kohanim were ready to resume the sacrificial service. As the new golden Menorah was not yet ready, a Menorah of iron spikes was set up. However, they found but one jar of oil, sealed with the Kohen Gadol's stamp attesting to its purity, an amount sufficient for only one day's lighting. Nevertheless, the Kohanim lit the oil, and it miraculously burned for a full eight days until new oil could be processed. Overjoyed at this sign of Divine favor, the Jews celebrated spontaneously for eight days. A year later, the Sanhedrin ordained the eight-day festival of Chanukah to commemorate the great miracle of the oil for all time.

Despite the fact that all authorities agree to the fact of the Chanukah miracles, there are two opinions for the date and nature of the Chanukah victory. The first opinion holds that the Chanukah miracle occurred in 3597, while it took another 25 years of warfare until the Jews enjoyed total independence. The second opinion states that the miracle happened in 3622, at the end of all the battles, when the Jewish people became free of Syrian-Greek domination.

The Holiday of Chanukah

Incredibly, most of the Chanukah events are reported by secular sources. Midrashim mention the wars only in a very general way, focusing instead on the anti-Torah decrees and the heroism of the Jews who gave their lives to avoid transgression. The only Talmudic reference to the Chanukah story is a brief passage in Shabbos 21b, which asks "What is the reason for Chanukah?" Rashi explains that the Talmud is trying to identify the miracle on which the holiday is based. The Talmud continues: “When the Syrian-Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all the oil in the Temple. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, the Jews searched and found only one flask of oil with the Kohen Gadol's seal still intact. It contained only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. The following year, these eight days were established as holidays with respect to reciting Hallel and thanksgiving” (Al HaNissim). In the Talmud, therefore, no mention is made of the cataclysmic battles and political upheavals.

However, Josephus, Sefer HaMakkabim and Megillas Antiochus, the three secular sources upon which much of our knowledge of Chanukah is based, focuses on the battles and not on the miracle of the oil. Why is there such a major disagreement regarding the events’ historicity and importance? Perhaps the sages did not consider the details of the victory sufficiently important to record. To their way of thinking, while military prowess and independence are fine, Chanukah celebrates a spiritual victory, one exemplified by the miracle of the oil. Nevertheless, the miracles of "delivering the strong in the hands of the weak" are alluded to in a general sense when Jews offer thanks to G‑d in the Al HaNissim prayer.

The Wars Following the Chanukah Miracle

Although the Hasmoneans succeeded in reconstituting the Temple service and having the anti-Torah decrees rescinded, the Syrian-Greeks and their Hellenist allies remained very powerful. Another 25 years of fierce battles ensued until the land was totally free. During these wars, all of Matisyahu's sons, except for Shimon, lost their lives. First, Judah subdued the small, hostile border nations. However, apprehensive of the Jews' growing strength, Antiochus V Eupator, son of Antiochus Epiphanes, invaded Eretz Israel with a force of 100,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, and 32 battle-trained elephants, the tanks of those days, all commanded by his chief of staff Lysias. Elazar, seeing a decorated elephant, mistakenly thought it was bearing the king. He attacked it, but was killed when the elephant's mortally wounded body fell on top of him. At that point, with Jerusalem about to fall to the enemy, Divine providence intervened. Lysias, hearing of an insurrection against Antiochus back home in Antioch, urged him to conclude a peace treaty with the Jews and return to his capital to quell the coup attempt.

Antiochus, however, did not rule long afterward. His uncle Demetrius seized power and executed both Antiochus and Lysias. Renegade Jewish Hellenists, seeing an opportunity to crush Judah Maccabee, encouraged the new king to invade Eretz Israel.These Hellenists also murdered Jose ben Joezer, who along with Jose ben Jochanan were the Torah leaders of the Jewish people during the years of Greek oppression. A new Syrian-Greek general, Nicanor, invaded with 35,000 soldiers, and was opposed by only 3,000 Jewish defenders. Enraged by the resistance, Nicanor vowed to raze the Bais Hamikdash, but the Jews wiped out his army and killed him. Then, to demonstrate what happens to blasphemers against the House of G‑d, the Jews hung Nicanor’s head, fingers, and toes on the gates of Jerusalem. Ensuing battles were fought, but G‑d helped Judah hold off the vastly superior foreign and Hellenist forces.

Finally, political infighting within the Seleucid Empire caused the Syrian-Greeks to abandon their hope of subduing the Jewish people. Shimon, the last Maccabee survivor, eliminated the last Hellenist strongholds, bringing total independence to Eretz Israelin 3622.