You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.
A RESOURCE FROM JEWISH CURRENTS’ SCHAPPES CENTER FOR CULTURAL JEWISH LIFE
(Sponsored, in part, by the Kurz Family Foundation. Illustration [above] from Richard Codor and Lawrence Bush’s Babushkin’s Catalogue of Jewish Inventions.)
KHANIKE (that’s the YIVO-style transliteration of the Yiddish pronunciation for Hanukkah, which we use to honor Yiddish culture) is one of the only holidays in the Jewish calendar that marks an actual, documented historical event: the successful uprising of Jews in ancient Israel against their Syrian Greek rulers, which raged for seven years until 160 BCE. The uprising was a civil war, too, between “Hellenistic” Jews (Jews strongly influenced by the Greek culture) and less assimilated, traditional, nationalistic Jews.
Here’s a brief history of the uprising and its historical context by Yankl Stillman. (Stillman’s full article, first published in 2009, also provides a fascinating look at the role played by religious leaders and taxation polices in the Khanike uprising, and can be read by clicking here.)
IT ALL STARTED over 2,300 years ago. Alexander of Macedonia (aka Alexander the Great) conquered an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. When he died at age 32, the empire was divided into three major parts, each headed by a general: Ptolemy in Egypt; Lysimachus in Macedonia, Thrace, Hellas and other parts of Greece; Seleucus in Mesopotamia, Parthia and the eastern territory of the former Persian Empire.
The area where the Jews lived lay within Seleucus’s territory. The Jews were, in general, semi-autonomous, ruled by the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. Much of this area is part of Israel today, but it was then called Judah by its inhabitants.
Antiochus IV, a particularly aggressive general, came to head the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) empire around 175 BCE. Wanting to be certain that his rear would be militarily secure as he warred with his neighbors, he sought to have the Jews homogenized with the rest of his empire’s population. Antiochus’ Jewish Hellenistic advisers recommended that Jews be forced to give up their special customs. Accordingly, in 167 BCE Antiochus transformed the Temple in Jerusalem to a site dedicated to worshiping Zeus Olympus, and decreed, on penalty of death, that the Jews, including all those in Judah, must cease following the Torah’s commandments, including circumcision and Sabbath observance, and follow an imposed polytheistic cult. These decrees provoked rebellion.
The Jewish priests who conducted services in the temple were the richest group in the country and had kept tight control on the reins of government. They were backed by their Seleucid rulers and adopted many Hellenistic beliefs and practices. This priestly aristocracy would eventually coalesce into the Saducees. Not all priests had access to the Temple service and the power it brought, however. Those excluded from performing Temple services were poor and became sofrim (scribes). They studied the old holy scriptures, which had, by then been translated into other languages. They lived among the people and tried to enlighten them about how the rich priests interpreted the Torah to serve their own class interests. These scribes eventually became known as the Pharisees.
Matthathias, an aged patriarch of the Hasmoneans -- a minor clan of priests that had fled from Jerusalem to the small town of Modein (which still exists in Israel, about halfway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean) -- proclaimed that God would surely permit Jews to fight Antiochus’s commands. Accordingly, he removed to the nearby mountains with his five sons -- Judah, Jonathan, John, Simon, and Eleazar -- and led a revolt. It began as an insurrection against the Temple priests and their Hellenized Jewish allies, whom the Hasmoneans considered to be traitors to both God and the Jews, but it soon grew into a war for independence from the Seleucids.
When Mattathias died in 165 BCE, his son Judah, known as Ha-Maccabee, the hammer, took command of the war. The next year, with Jerusalem in Jewish hands, Judah entered the Temple and began to clean it up. Following biblical precedents, he prolonged the celebration of the dedication of the new sacrificial altar (and its new candelabrum, incense altar, and table) to eight days. Shortly after, it was decided to make the observation of the eight-day celebration an annual event under the name of “Feast of Dedication” — namely Khanike.
The war raged on for several years, however, and Judah Maccabee was killed in battle in 160 BCE.
Twenty-five years later, his nephew John became both king and high priest in Jerusalem and openly crossed over to the Saducee camp. John’s adoption of the name “Hyrcanus” gave evidence of his own Hellenizing preferences. He embarked on a program of conquering neighboring territories and forcing their populations to convert to Judaism. When his son, Alexander Yannai, became king, he treated the Pharisees so harshly that eight thousand of them fled to Egypt. According to Josephus, during Yannai’s reign from 104 to 78 BCE, he had fifty thousand Jews killed. He was particularly cruel to principled revolutionaries, crucifying eight hundred of them in the Roman manner — and while they were dying, this high priest had their wives and children slaughtered before their eyes.
The Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel was by then a vassal state of the Roman Empire. It survived for a little more than a century before yielding to the Herodian Dynasty in 37 BCE.
The fact that the Khanike uprising ultimately yielded a Jewish dynasty that lived by the sword may be a key reason why the ancient rabbis of Judaism, those whose discussions across several centuries are recorded in the Talmud, barely mentioned Khanike, and why the books Maccabees I and II were not included in the Hebrew Biblical canon.
Khanike remained a minor Jewish festival, in fact, until the late 19th century, when Zionist and Bundist self-defense groups in Russia and Poland, organizing themselves to fight back against pogroms and antisemitism, took the Maccabees as their symbolic champions. At the same time, with the Jewish presence in America growing, by leaps and bounds after 1881, the ubiquity of Christmas prompted Jews to embrace their own Winter holiday, the Festival of Lights, as their Jewish version of Christmas. Khanike then grew in popularity until it became one of the two most widely observed Jewish holidays (Passover is the other).
Here’s a rather sardonic look at Khanike’s history by Lawrence Bush (originally published in 2011).
OY, WHAT A HOLIDAY! The Festival of Lights celebrates the uprising of the Jewish Taliban, the Maccabees, against the Hellenist assimilationists (that’s us, folks) in 167 BCE. Think of the Lubavitchers driving up in their Mitzvamobile, asking if you’re Jewish, inviting you to light sabbath candles, and when you say “No thanks,” they disembowel you at the curb -- that’s how the Maccabees came across to the Upper West Siders of their day.
The Jewish civil strife grew into a seven-year guerrilla war with the Syrian-Greek empire of Antiochus IV, ending in Maccabeean victory thanks in part to the backing of Rome, the Syrian-Greeks’ rival for world domination. Once the Maccabees took power in Afghanistan, whoops, I mean Palestine, and reconsecrated the Temple, they created a monarchy, the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted more than a century, expanded the country’s borders and forcibly converted enough people that by the time Rome made Palestine into a vassal state, between 5 and 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish!
Still want to celebrate? Well, it’s a rollicking holiday, with a dizzying array of symbols. Over the course of eight days, 36 candles are lit on the menorah (44 if you count the shammes, the servant candle). In my family, we like to dedicate each candle to a lamed vovnik, one of the 36 righteous people who, according to Jewish legend, keep the world from shaking itself apart. After recalling our favorites, we have the pleasure of sitting in the candlelight (everyone looks lovely in candlelight) during the darkest time of the year.
There are dreydl games galore, and comfort food by the ton, potato latkes among Ashkenazim, (Jews rooted in Eastern Europe), sufganiyot (donuts) among the Sephardim and Mizrakhi (Jews rooted in Spain and the Middle East, respectively), both deep-fried to heighten the income of Jewish cardiologists and to honor the miracle of the oil — the legend that, during the reconsecration of the Temple after the Maccabeean victory, one day’s worth of holy oil burned for eight full days. By adding a miraculous element to the tale, the Talmudic rabbis hoped to turn people’s admiring eyes from the heavily armed Judah Maccabee back to God.
The Festival of Lights was traditionally the season for paying the Jewish community’s teachers. It’s a great time for some focused, end-of-the-year tsedoke (making contributions in the name of justice). In my family, we pick a different holiday theme and direct our gelt (money) accordingly.
For secular or cultural Jews, Khanike can be an especially attractive holiday because it happens entirely at home, away from synagogue, and has so very many meanings and symbols attached to it that nearly everyone can find a connection. It is a festival of light at the darkest time of the year; a celebration of religious freedom and freedom of conscience; an affirmation of Jewish nationalism and self-defense; a time for gift-giving and the sharing of wealth; and much more.
Below, at left, find a variety of games to be played with the dreydl, the top traditionally spun during Khanike. At right, find a sketch of tsedoke activities, linked to Khanike themes, with which families can set themselves along the paths of Jewish generosity, social responsibility, and ethical thought.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.