Chanukah has a unique quality of being a popular Jewish holiday even among the most tenuously affiliated Jews. It’s ironic that contained in its message is the exhortation to strengthen one’s affiliation with Jewish things. Let us try to understand Chanukah in the context of its place in history.
The Greeks (heretofore referred to as Yavanim) of that time period (approx. 300 B.C.E) descend from Yefes, one of the sons of Noach (See Genesis, chapter 6). The word Yefes is derived from the word Yafeh, beautiful. Noach blessed Yefes saying “and he may dwell in the tents of Shem”, his brother (Genesis 9:27). During the dominion of the Yavanim over the Jews, the Torah was translated into Greek based on this passage. The Torah can be written in the language of Yavan. The beauty of Yefes can also become a vehicle through which G-d can be served. Yefes’s son, Yavan, and the nation descending from him, inherited that quality from their father which can be seen in its culture and philosophy.
Alexander the Great, a descendant of Yavan, was a world conqueror who brought his nation to the pinnacle of its power and dominion. He revered the Jewish sages of his time, and their wisdom. He ruled beneficently over the Jews for all of his days. In Alexander’s time, the intelligentsia of Yavan appreciated the Torah, and even allowed the Jews their pride in being its chosen followers. That only lasted during Alexander’s lifetime. His successors did not view Jewish pride in the same way. To them it was a form of rebellion. Even though the Jews were physical subjects of their kingdom, their attitudes were noticeably different.
After Alexander died, Athens remained the center of the culture of Yavan, but the dominion shifted to the Syrian Greek rulers. They put great pressure on the Jews to conform, and indeed many did. The Yavanim blamed the Torah for preventing the vast majority of Jews from conforming, and targeted Torah observance. Laws were made outlawing Sabbath Observance, Circumcision, and Rosh Chodesh, the designation of the beginning of the new lunar month. The Yavanim identified these three commandments as forces which made the Jews unique, and kept them from conforming. Why were these three in particular the ones the Yavanim chose?
Sabbath observance is a statement that there is a Creator Who rested on the seventh day from His creative activity. By resting on The Sabbath we show our belief in His existence, and our subjugation to His will. The Yavanim did not see a place for subjugation to anyone but them.
Circumcision is a stamp on the flesh. It states that the body and not just the soul are meant to work toward spiritual goals. This did not sit well with the Yavanim who believed that the body rules in its world, and the soul in its world. The soul may ascend to spiritual heights, while the body may follow its dictates to the fullest. Neither dominates the other. One may have the soul of an angel, and the body of an animal.
The Jewish calendar in those days was verbally established each month by the Jewish Sages through the first sightings of the waxing moon. All of the Jewish Festivals and the observances tied to them depend on the beginning of the months being established. Jewish life is inexorably tied in with the correct observance of the Festivals in their proper time. The Jew is nurtured from childhood by the spiritual messages and life lessons of the Festivals. The Yavanim reasoned that they can affect the collective character of the Jews by uprooting their calendar and establishing new observances in its place.
At first the Yavanim tried to influence the more stubborn portion of the Jews through their brothers who had already taken on the new way of life. When they saw they were failing, they used force. Many continued to perform commandments in hiding.
Woman went out of hiding and publicly circumcised their children at the expense of their lives. Their message to their husbands was “go out and fight, for if you continue to hide and even observe Torah clandestinely, soon you’ll have no wives and children, and you’ll all perish. We will not hide, but we will keep our holy commandments publicly. If you want to save us, go out and fight. May G-d be with you!” That is when Mattisyahu and his sons established armed forces, and they fought bitter and bloody battles. In the end, the weak and the few prevailed over the strong and the many.
Our holidays are not meant to be empty memorials of historical events. Our attitude is that we are living in the days that the miracles happened, albeit many years hence. We are also fighting the battle against prevailing influences, and we are trying to maintain our idealism in the face of new ideas and philosophies which we are constantly exposed to.
The Yavanim had conquered stronger nations before turning their attention to the Jews. They rose to the highest heights only to be humbled by a nation militarily inferior to them. They sought to extinguish the light of Torah, and not only did they fail, but through them a new holiday was established. Chanukah commemorates our tenacious, eternal hold to Torah.
We should end with the words of King David (Psalms 21:8-10). “Some rely upon chariots, and some upon horses, but we call upon the name of Hashem our G-d. They have bowed down and fallen, but we have risen, and stand firm. Hashem deliver (us); the King will answer on the day we call.”