Centuries ago, the Second Temple of Jerusalem was rededicated and purified, an event that would ripple across time and affect much of Jewish culture. Hanukkah commemorates this victorious event in Jewish history and is celebrated by Jews all over the world. The historical events that lead to the rededication, however, are interesting to analyze in their own right. Dr. Henry Abramson, our scholar in residence who discussed French Jewish heritage with us on our kosher touring of Provence, recently conducted a lecture on this subject. The Maccabean Revolt, along with the various historical factors surrounding it, is a fascinating event indeed.
Around 100 BCE, Judea was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic remnant of Alexander the Great’s territory, which was divided into several different spheres of power after his death. Most Jews in Judea continued practicing their traditional faith and culture, yet the influence of Hellenistic norms and traditions were beginning to influence a good number of Jews. The aggressive campaigns of Antiochus III and his son Antiochus IV Epiphanes (A lofty title, meaning “The Illustrious or, more arrogantly, “G-d manifest”) to Hellenize their empire’s populace caused further friction, creating a rift between the traditional and Hellenized Jews. The suppression of Jewish laws and customs was enforced throughout Judea until it came to the town of Modi’in, where Matthias, its kohen, refused to sacrifice a non-kosher animal for the supposed goodwill of foreign gods. He killed two people, the Jew who would have committed the offering, and the Greek officer who enforced it, then fled into the wilderness with his sons. They would then be called the Maccabees, or “the Hammer.” They rallied the disgruntled Jewish populace that did not wish to be Hellenized and amassed an army that, despite being outnumbered, used its superior knowledge of the Judean wilderness to effectively strike and defeat the Seleucid forces and their Syrian allies. After several years of conflict, the Maccabees were victorious, driving out the Seleucids from Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple of its pagan countenance. The rededication of the Temple was celebrated for eight days, with the lighting of the candles that would be the defining characteristic of Hanukkah to this day.
A Complicated Affair
While the Maccabean Revolt was no doubt a political and religious victory against foreign influence, scholars have suggested that it was also the product of internal conflict, one that was exacerbated but not initiated by outside forces. The hellenistic influence was somewhat antithetical to traditional Jewish values, which caused conflicts between Jews, and the complex internal politicking might have initiated the groundwork for rebellion; Jason, a Hellenistic priest in Judea, was outbid from a higher position by another priest named Menelaus. When Antiochus, whom Jason was trying to please, was busy in a military campaign in Egypt, he took control of the city from Menelaus. These internal issues might have emboldened the disappointed Antiochus (for he was sent back home by Rome, crushing his dreams of conquest) to bring his army against the “rebelling” subjects. Dr. Abramson discussed these complications in a recent lecture, along with other details concerning people of Judea under the Seleucids.
The Maccabean Revolt was brought about by many factors, both internal and external. While the complex nature of its history has made scholars view it with more scrutiny, the effects of its conclusion, namely the independence of Jews in Judea and the cleansing of the Temple, are undisputedly positive. Hanukkah is a celebration of this cleansing, and also commemorates this Jewish victory in antiquity. Our future kosher cruises will explore the historical heritage of other Jewish groups in the world, such as the Sephardic legacy in the Iberian Peninsula.