The History of Chanukah

The history of Chanukah celebrates both an historical event and a miraculous story found in the Talmud, a set of commentary written by rabbinic sages. It is also a celebration of Jewish survival against the odds. It is considered a minor holiday, with regular daily activities allowed, and no special synagogue worship required. Chanukah, which lasts eight days, is mostly celebrated in the home, with candle lighting, special holiday foods, songs and playing dreidel.


The history of Chanukah in short. In 165 BCE, a small group of Jews successfully rebelled against the Seleucid King Antiochus. Antiochus had prohibited central practices of Judaism, and he profaned the Jews' holy Temple by placing Greek statues in and introducing foreign worship practices to the Temple. A band of rebels, led by the family of Mattathias, defeated Antiochus and his powerful army, cleaned the defiled Temple and rededicated it to Jewish practice. They celebrated their victory by observing an eight-day festival that had been missed during the fighting, called Sukkot.

The Talmud adds to Chanukah history. One small vial of purified oil was used for lighting the Temple Menorah, which is a seven-branched candelabra used to mark the days until the Sabbath. The vial of oil was the only one found during the Temple cleanup, and it was not considered sufficient to last more than one day, yet it would be eight days until more could be obtained. In a demonstration of faith, they lit the Menorah anyway, and the oil miraculously burned for the necessary eight days. Chanukah celebrates both these miracles.

The events leading up to the rebellion that gave rise to Chanukah go back nearly two hundred years earlier. In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Judea and introduced Greek culture to the society. He didn't force anyone to participate in that culture, but he lowered the taxes for any group willing to accept this way of life. Greek culture appealed to many, including Jews, for the love of knowledge, art and fitness were popular at the time.

Alexander died, and two groups, the Seleucid kingdom and the Ptolemaic kingdom, fought for political control of Judea, the location of the Jews' holy Temple. It didn't matter to the Jews of Judea which group would gain control. They were free to worship and live as Jews, and their High Priest governed the country. Wealthier Jews even managed to get Jerusalem recognized by the Greeks as a polis, a major political center of Greek life. Many Jews adopted aspects of Greek culture, including dress and cultural interests, and they changed their names.

But other Jews thought that adopting Greek culture meant rejecting Jewish practices, and, in some cases, people were choosing to abandon Jewish practices for Greek. The religious Jews took issue with the Hellenized Jews, and the two groups of Jews were in disagreement.

In 169 BCE King Antiochus IV attacked the Ptolemies and lost. False reports of Antiochus' death reached Jerusalem. A former High Priest, Jason, started a revolution in Jerusalem, intending to seize power. Antiochus, however, was still alive. Furious, he retaliated by killing a large number of Jews, declared key practices of Judaism capital crimes, specifically Shabbat and circumcision, and took over the Temple for Greek worship. Some Hellenized Jews supported Antiochus.

The Maccabees

When a Seleucid ordered Mattathias, a Hasmonean Jew from Modi'in, to participate in a sacrifice of a pig (a non-kosher animal), he refused and killed a Jew who came forward to obey the command. Mattathias, a religious Jew who opposed Hellenization, slayed a Greek officer and fled to the hills with a small group of followers.

Mattathias had five sons. One of them was Judah, called Maccabee, the Hammer. By using guerrilla fighting strategies against Antiochus' army, the Maccabees, led by Judah, were victorious in the historic battle celebrated during Chanukah.

Cleaning and Rededication of the Temple

Cleaning the defiled Temple took almost a year. They rededicated the Temple and began by celebrating Sukkot on the 25th of Kislev, the date of Chanukah.

Happily Ever After?

Things were not peaceful afterward, however. Hasmonean rule was not widely accepted, and civil war resulted for many years to follow. Reports of corruption were widespread. The Rabbis of the Talmud did not want to make the holiday of Chanukah about the victory of the Maccabees because they did not want to honor them in the face of these events.

The story of the miracle of the oil was written in the Talmud, 700 years following the actual event, to make a God-given miracle the focus of Chanukah.

Regardless of which miracle story is emphasized, the miracle of a small band of Jewish rebels preserving Jewish practice against the huge army that tried to stop them, or the miracle of a flask of oil lasting eight times its expected burning time, Chanukah remains a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience in the face of adversity.

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