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by Yankl Stillman
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. It might have been even bigger had he not died in Babylonia in 323 BCE, at the age of 32.
When you have an empire that size and you die, there are all sorts of people interested in how to dispose of it. In this case, 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, right near the border with Ptolemy’s empire, where Asia and Africa meet. 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.
Most of the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) rulers were ambitious, aggressive, and involved in frequent conflicts with their neighbors. Since the Jews lived in an area that was a geographical bridge between two empires, they were frequently involved in the imperial conflicts. Antiochus IV, a particularly aggressive general, came to head the Seleucid 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 worshipping 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, free of the tendencies likely to turn the Jews into rebels. These decrees provoked rebellion within a population that already deeply resented the variety of taxes with which they were burdened.
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. It is thought that they originated as a faction in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, i.e., in the 5th century BCE, during which the time the first part of the Bible (the “Five Books of Moses”) are believed to have been redacted and canonized. The Pharisees were well-organized and had an important influence on city dwellers, artisans, poor priests, some of the small shopkeepers, and even some of the peasants.
None of the writings of the Temple priests or Saducees have survived the centuries, and what we know of them comes mostly from their Pharisee critics and the Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, Josephus Flavius. Among Saducee doctrines, we can glean, were a denial of the immortality of the soul; more liberal treatment of women in matters of inheritance and, perhaps, ritual law; and disregard for the Oral Law (that is, authoritative interpretations of the written Torah).
In religious matters, they were clearly bent on preserving their privileges and powers — and they benefited from taxes imposed by the Seleucid empire. The head tax, for example, brought the priests a growing source of revenue, and not just because of the birth rate: There had also been a large number of forced conversions to Judaism as Jewish kings occupied more and more lands with non-Jewish populations. In addition to a head tax, there was a tax on salt and a tax on first-borns, both human and animal. Redeeming (or ransoming) a first-born boy (pidyen haben, a long-standing Jewish commandment) was another source of priestly revenue.
Animals had to be given to them for sacrificial purposes. Animals were classified as clean (kosher) and unclean (treyf). Clean animals could be used for sacrifices; the unused parts of the animal were distributed to the people as food, but, as time wore on, more and more of each animal was kept by the priests. Unclean animals (asses, camels, horses, and the like) could not be used for sacrifice, but a fee nevertheless had to be paid for them at birth.
MATTATHIAS, 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 internecine 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 story of Mattathias’s uprising is told in Maccabees I. Maccabees I is included only in the Apochrypha, scriptural texts not included in the Bible. One reason given for the exclusion is that the description does not mention God. Another reason is that by the 2nd century CE, when the third section of the Bible (Kethuvim, or “Writings,” including Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, etc.) were canonized, the rabbinic sages, who had seen the obliteration of their land and many of their people by Rome after two Jewish uprisings, did not wish to celebrate a rebellious Jewish war.
The first night of Khanike this year [2009/5770] is December 12th. We celebrate this event with latkes, donuts, Khanike gelt, dreydlekh, playing cards, and other fun things — a happy Jewish holiday. So much for the wishes of the rabbinic sages!
Yankl Stillman was a longtime member of our editorial board and a Yiddish translator whose works included writings by Mendele Mokher Sforim in Volume One of The Three Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature. In May 2011, he was celebrated as “Man of the Year” by New Jersey Peace Action.