The Chanukah holiday, which begins Tuesday, December 12, and continues for eight days, commemorates the Jews’ victory over their Greek oppressors in the year 165 B.C.E. We kindle the menorah these eight days to remember the miracle that occurred when the Jews rededicated the Temple after reconquering Jerusalem: the oil for the Temple menorah that should have lasted only one night burned for eight nights until more pure oil could be prepared.
It’s interesting to note that the Maccabees, the Jews leading the charge against the Greeks, had regained control only of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas at the time the Chanukah miracle occurred. The battles between the Syrian–Greeks and the army of Yehuda, the leader of the Maccabees, continued for years. It was only 15 years later that the Land of Israel was totally free of Greek rule. Yet the Sages didn’t proclaim the Independence Day as a holiday; rather, they picked the day of the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil to celebrate for eternity. Why did they choose the miracle of the oil as the cause for celebration?
The Rabbis explain that unlike the story of Purim, when the Jews were all sentenced to death and destruction, the main threat to the Jews under Greek rule wasn’t physical. The Greeks allowed the Jews to live as long as they conformed to Greek norms. However, the Jewish religion and culture were under attack, both by the Greeks themselves and by the Hellenists, who openly embraced Greek culture and terrorized their brethren who didn’t.
Greek culture prides itself on physical might and strength; they don’t believe in spirituality or any form of afterlife. It can be said that the Greeks embodied the saying “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die”.
The Torah’s viewpoint is the absolute antithesis of this concept. We are placed in a physical world not for physical pleasures per se, but to use them as a means of achieving spirituality. The five commandments that Antiochus, the Greek king, outlawed – Shabbat observance, Bris Mila (circumcision), Kashrut observance, the laws of family purity and proclaiming Rosh Chodesh, the onset of the new lunar month – underscore this distinction:
- The Shabbat proclaims the Jews’ belief that there is a spiritual dimension to Creation: the Creator, a Divine being, created the world and He still controls all that takes place on Earth.
- Bris Mila symbolizes that the physical makeup of a person can be used for spiritual purposes.
- Kashrus, the Jewish dietary laws, and the laws of family purity signify that one can achieve spirituality even while indulging in physical pleasures.
- Rosh Chodesh (the new month) is significant in the Jewish calendar for when the Temple stood the new month started only when the Beth Din (the main rabbinical court) proclaimed it to be so based upon the testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon. (The Judaic calendar is primarily based upon the lunar cycle.) Thus, the Jewish courts effectively determined when the holidays would begin, for they are all tied to a specific day of the month. This power of the Rabbinical courts to set the Jewish time and seasons was antithetical to the Greek notion that the calendar was to be left completely to the laws of nature. It was unfathomable to them that a human court could enjoy mastery over time.
The victory over the Greeks is thus commemorated by the rededication of the Temple, for that event truly epitomized the Jewish victory over the Greek culture. The miracle of the oil represents a complete overturning of the very rules of nature that the Greeks worshipped. The oil’s “supernatural” ability to last for eight days showed the Jews that they were in the hands of a more powerful force, the Creator, who can defy the rules of nature to bring peace and prosperity to those who faithfully follow in His ways, as did Mattisyahu and his sons.
The lessons of the Chanukah holiday are very relevant to our times. We live in a country that is the predominant power in Western civilization, which traces its roots to Greek philosophy and culture. While we must appreciate the religious liberties and opportunity this wonderful country affords us to live the “American Dream,” we should utilize these freedoms to adhere proudly to our own ancient traditions by studying the Torah and adhering to its commandments so we can all live spiritually enriched lives.