Under Syrian Rule
It was in the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, nearly twenty-two centuries ago, that the events took place which we commemorate each year at Chanukah time.
The Jewish people had returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian Exile, and had rebuilt the Holy Temple. But they remained subject to the domination of imperial powers, first, the Persian Empire, then later, the conquering armies of Alexander the Great.
Upon the death of Alexander, his vast kingdom was divided among his generals. After a power struggle which engulfed all the nations of the Middle East, Israel found itself under the sway of the Seleucid Dynasty, Greek kings who reigned from Syria.
Alexander Bows to the High Priest
The Talmud relates that when Alexander the Great and his conquering legions advanced upon Jerusalem, they were met by a delegation of elders, led by the high Priest Shimon HaTzaddik. When Alexander saw Shimon approaching, he dismounted and prostrated himself before the Jewish Sage.
To his astonished men, Alexander explained that each time he went into battle, he would see a vision in the likeness of this High Priest leading his troops to victory.
In gratitude, and out of profound respect for the spiritual power of the Jews, Alexander was a kind and generous ruler. He canceled the Jewish taxes during Sabbatical years, and even offered animals to be sacrificed on his behalf in the Temple.
Unfortunately, history would show that Alexander's heirs failed to sustain his benevolence.
Over the years of Greek domination, many Jews had begun to embrace the Greek culture and its hedonistic, pagan way of life. These Jewish Hellenists became willing pawns in Antiochus's scheme to obliterate every trace of the Jewish religion. The Holy Temple was invaded, desecrated, and looted of all its treasures. Vast numbers of innocent people were massacred, and the survivors were heavily taxed.
Antiochus placed an idol of Zeus on the holy altar, and forced the Jews to bow before it under penalty of death. And he forbade the Jewish people to observe their most sacred traditions, such as the Sabbath and the rite of circumcision.
Antiochus went so far as to proclaim himself a god, taking the name "Antiochus Epiphanies" - the Divine. But even his own followers mocked him as "Antiochus Epimanes" - the madman.
Jason and Menelaus
His Hebrew name was Joshua. But he changed his name, as did many among the Hellenists, to Jason. And he offered King Antiochus a generous bribe to depose the High Priest and appoint him to the coveted position. It was the beginning of the end to the integrity of the Temple Priesthood.
The "High Priest" Jason erected a gymnasium near the Temple, and proceeded to corrupt his fellow Jews with pagan customs and licentious behavior. But before long, another Hellenized Jew, Menelaus, beat Jason at his own game and bought the High Priesthood with an even bigger bribe, financed with the golden vessels pilfered from the Temple.
Jason then amassed an army and attacked Menelaus in the Holy City, massacring many of his own countrymen. Antiochus interpreted this civil squabble as a revolt against his throne, and sent his armies into Jerusalem, plundering the Temple and murdering tens of thousands of Jews. It was neither the first time, nor the last, that assimilation and strife brought calamity upon the Jewish people.
The Turning Point
In every city and town, altars were erected with statues of the Greek gods and goddesses. Soldiers rounded up the Jews and forcibly compelled them to make offerings, and to engage in other immoral acts customary to the Greeks. As Antiochus's troops tightened their grip on the nation, the Jews seemed incapable of resistance.
It was in the small village of Modin, a few miles east of Jerusalem, that a single act of heroism turned the tide of Israel's struggle, and altered her destiny for all time.
Mattityahu, patriarch of the priestly Hasmonean clan, stepped forward to challenge the Greek soldiers and those who acquiesced to their demands. Backed by his five sons, he attacked the troops, slew the idolaters, and destroyed the idols. With a cry of "All who are with G-d, follow me!" he and a courageous circle of partisans retreated to the hills, where they gathered forces to overthrow the oppression of Antiochus and his collaborators.
The army of Mattityahu, now under the command of his son Yehuda Maccabee, grew daily in numbers and in strength.
With the Biblical slogan, "Who is like You among the mighty ones, O G-d?" emblazoned on their shields, they would swoop down upon the Syrian troops under cover of darkness and scatter the oppressors, then return to their encampments in the hills. Only six thousand strong, they defeated a heavily armed battalion of forty-seven thousand Syrians.
Though at first, the rule of the Seleucids was rather benign, there soon arose a new king, Antiochus IV, who was to wage a bloody war upon the Jews, a war which would threaten not just their physical lives, but also their very spiritual existence.
Enraged, Antiochus sent an even larger army against them, and in the miraculous, decisive battle at Bet Tzur, the Jewish forces emerged victorious. From there, they proceeded on to Jerusalem, where they liberated the city and reclaimed the Holy Temple. They cleared the Sanctuary of the idols, rebuilt the altar, and prepared to resume the Divine Service.
A central part of the daily service in the Temple was the kindling of the brilliant lights of the menorah. Now, with the Temple about to be re-dedicated, only one small cruse of the pure, sacred olive oil was found. It was only one day's supply, and they knew it would take more than a week for the special process required to prepare more oil.
Undaunted, in joy and thanksgiving, the Maccabees lit the lamps of the menorah with the small amount of oil, and dedicated the Holy Temple anew. And miraculously, as if in confirmation of the power of their faith, the oil did not burn out, and the flames shone brightly for eight full days.
The following year, our Sages officially proclaimed the festival of Chanukah as a celebration lasting eight days, in perpetual commemoration of this victory over religious persecution.