Tightening the Hellenistic Screws: A History of Chanukah, Part I
By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
In our long history, few individuals have threatened the spiritual survival
of the Jewish people as did Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ascended to the
Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) throne in 175 BCE. In an effort to solidify his
empire and fashion his own everlasting legacy, Antiochus IV worked
diligently to hellenize all of the peoples living under his control.
However, no nation felt the effects of this effort more than the Jews living
in the small province of Judah.
Early on in his tenure, Antiochus, with the help of his personally appointed
high priest Jason, had a gymnasium erected in Jerusalem, within direct sight
of the Temple. This gymnasium would serve as a center of hellenistic
education and athletics, where nudity and immoral behavior was the norm.
Pagan statues and altars were present as well; sacrifices were offered to
Greek gods prior to the commencement of sporting events.
These changes attracted many Jews, particularly Jewish youth. Many priests
were also influenced by this new culture, neglecting their sacrificial
duties in favor of these new centers of diversion.
(Jason) gladly built a gymnasium under the Temple itself, and brought
the chief young men under his subjection…The priests had no more courage to
serve at the altar, but scorning the Temple, and neglecting the sacrifices,
rushed to partake of the unlawful behavior in the gymnasium. (II Maccabees
Most of the Jewish population, however, was stunned by the introduction of
immoral Greek culture into their holy city and refused to embrace it in any
At approximately the mid-point of his reign, Antiochus intensified his
efforts at hellenization. He outlawed such core Jewish practices as
sacrifices, Sabbath observance, circumcision, and the study of Torah, at the
pain of death. Simultaneously, he introduced pagan activities and worship
amongst the Jewish populace.
The king sent agents with written orders to Jerusalem and the towns
of Judea, introducing ways and customs foreign to the country.
Burnt-offerings, sacrifices, and libations in the Temple were forbidden;
Sabbaths and feast-days were to be profaned. Altars, idols, and sacred
precincts were to be established. Swine and other unclean animals were to be
offered as sacrifices. They must leave their sons uncircumcised; they must
make themselves in every way abominable, unclean, and profane, and so forget
the law and change all their statutes. The penalty for disobedience was
death. (I Maccabees 1:44–50)
When his edicts were violated, Antiochus responded with intense cruelty. On
one occasion, he had two mothers arrested after circumcisions were performed
on their sons. They were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, with
their sons clinging to them. All four were then thrown down to their deaths
from the city’s walls.
The Seleucid-Greeks also took aim at defiling the purity of the Jewish home.
The Greeks declared that all women must first be brought to the local
governing officer, who would first violate her. The profanity of this decree
caused some Jews to marry on a day of the week when the Greeks were less
vigilant. Others who were unable to circumvent the meddling officers
abstained from marriage altogether, or did so in secret.
Most significantly, the Temple in Jerusalem was polluted. On 15 Kislev, 168
BCE, an idol was erected in the Temple. Ten days later, exactly three years
before the Chanuka miracle, swine was offered as a pagan sacrifice upon the
altar. The House of G-d was sacrilegiously converted to a House of Zeus.
What is most compelling here is the fact that paganism is has always been a
tolerant, inclusive religious system. Polytheism by its very nature accepts
that presence of other religious ideas and forces. Upon no other group did
Antiochus impose such religious limitations. Clearly, he perceived that most
Jews would continue to stubbornly resist any attempts at hellenization.
And indeed many Jews complied with the king’s commands, either
voluntarily, or out of fear of the penalty that was announced. But the best
and noblest men did not pay him attention… every day they underwent great
miseries and bitter torments; for they were whipped with rods, and their
bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified…. They also strangled those
women and their sons whom they had circumcised… And if there were any sacred
book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those with whom they were found
sorrowfully perished as well. (Josephus, Antiquities 12:255–6)
Throughout, the Jews responded with a tremendous resilience and strength of
spirit, despite the threat of painful torture and death that hung over them.
They resisted passively, preferring martyrdom to revolution.
Numerous instances of passive Jewish resistance are recorded. They include
the story of Elazar, an elderly priest and leading sage, who refused to eat
pork, despite the torturous death that awaited him. (Under normal conditions
Jewish law permits, even demands, consuming non-kosher food when the
alternative is death. However, these were far from normal conditions.)
They also include a Hellenistic Jew named Yoseph Meshisa, who was brutally
murdered for refusing to enter the Temple at the behest of Greek soldiers.
Of course, no story better depicts the spirit of Jewish martyrdom than the
account of Chana and her seven sons, which pits the demands of a maniacal
tyrant against a noble, defenseless woman and her family.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is President of Impactful Coaching & and Consulting
(ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.