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  • 6. December, 2015BlogComments are off

    The Fabulous Miracles Of Chanukah and why the Jewish people not only survived but defeated the most powerful army in the world!

    In today’s Jewish world we basically think of Chanukah as an eight day holiday where Jewish kids light candles, sing some songs about the Maccabees victory over the Assyrian Greek army, play dreidle, eat chocolate candy in the shape of coins, eat tons of fried potato pancakes with sour cream, apple sauce, or both and wait excitedly for presents; one for each day of our holiday. We Jews certainly know how to celebrate.

    This year, our happy and gift filled holiday will come “early” this year. It will fall out between the sixth of December and the fourteenth of December, or Kislev twenty-four through Tevet two in the Jewish calendar.

    There is a long and well-written article in the online newsletter, JewishHistory.org, which I believe, accurately describes the story of Chanukah which was told by Mr. Berel Wein, and which was adapted by Yaakov Astor. These gentlemen added some new twists and turns to the story which I found particularly interesting and so I decided to post it on my website. I took the liberty of greatly editing their article with the hope that I didn’t change their intent of educating people as to the true story about Chanukah. I would highly recommend the website, JewishHistory.org if you want to read a more sophisticated version of my edited article. Go to JewishHistory.org, Crash Course and you will find the article in its entirety.

    Chanukah was a fantastic and miraculous military victory, but a tiny jar of oil may just have proven more miraculous and lasting in the memory of the Jewish people than the military victory. However, there are those that believe that the true miracle is that a small rag tag army of know more than ten thousand men, with virtually no weapons were able to defeat the world’s most powerful army and retake Jerusalem and the rest of what was then, Israel. The story begins after Alexander the Great has just about defeated all the armies of the world and now stands outside of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.

    The Jewish people sent a delegation to meet with Alexander and plead their cause for him not to destroy their capital and kill everyone. They promised to pay heavy taxes to him and also promised to name every male child born that year, Alexander. To their surprise, he agreed to their proposal and withdrew his troops.

    In the wake of Alexander the Great’s appearance just outside of Jerusalem and then his departure, relations between the Jewish people and the Greeks became so good that an exchange of cultures actually took place. Each influenced the other. For the Jewish minority, however, what began as a small amount of assimilation (the way assimilation is used here means to blend in or become part of)— such as giving children Greek names and speaking the Greek language and celebrating Greek holidays. These changes in the Jewish way of life became a surprisingly powerful way of threatening to drag the caught-off-guard Jews into becoming completely assimilated and becoming totally Greek. Question: Does situation during the Greek era sound like the way we are acting today in our country? In other words, back in that time, we as a people would have disappeared if we had become Greeks in every way. Do you think that the Jewish people in the United States will disappear if we keep on taking the Christian holidays as our own? This didn’t happen in Israel during the reign of the Assyrian Greeks, however, the Jewish people and Judaism could have completely disappeared. It didn’t happen because a very special group of people, the five Maccabee brothers, with their father, Mattathias, (who were also known as the Hasmoneans), became warriors and created a small, but effective Jewish army. They defeated the Assyrian Greek army, which was the most powerful army in the world at that time.

    On the other hand, Jews who decided to become part of the Greek culture became known as Hellenists. A Hellenist is a person that wants to basically convert from being Jewish to being just like the other Greeks living around him. Question: How do you feel when you hear that someone Jewish converted to another religion? Some historians believe that as many as a third or more of the Jewish population converted and became Hellenist, including those who stopped circumcising their sons, ate pork, bowed to idols and even sided with the enemies of Israel. Hellenism threatened to annihilate the Jewish world through assimilation in ways that general, kings and Pharaohs tried but could not do by force. But the Maccabees and their army were going to try and stop them. This was the first time in the history of the world that a group of people that was defeated in war, rose up to fight because of their religious beliefs. Ours was and is a monotheistic (one God) religion, while the Greeks had many, many gods. We were fighting to have the right to worship the way we want and the Jewish people during that time (two thirds of them) were willing to die for that right. Question: Are you willing to fight for your right to be a Jew?

    Had the Greeks simply left the Jewish people alone they might have won the battle by allowing the Jewish people to choose the Greek way of way over the Jewish way of life. The Jewish way of life had and still has that some find tough to follow. Then there are laws and customs about how we should treat each other, to be honest and to thank God for their good lives. The Greek culture was much easier to follow. They had many gods that fought with each other and often acted in ways that were not respectful to others.

    The War With The Greeks

    At the beginning of the year 190 BCE, the situation between two great post-Alexandrian empires, the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic, deteriorated badly. The Seleucids mounted an invasion that took their army through the Land of Israel, which was sandwiched in-between.

    Whenever a foreign army comes into a country it changes the view of the populace. Instead of an attractive culture, the Greeks were now an occupying enemy. Instead of something to be imitated, now they became something to be resisted.

    The Jewish people are very stubborn. The same person who is so stubborn that he will not observe the Torah in freedom will observe it with passion if forbidden from observing it. He becomes stubborn the other way.

    A good case could be made that if the Communists in Russia would have left the Jews alone they would have completely assimilated. However, once told that they could not be Jewish a certain percentage of Jews decided to be Jewish at great risk. That happened with the Greeks as well.

    More And More Unbearable Laws

    The Greek army applied a very heavy hand against the Jews (In other words, the Greek army made life even more unbearable. First, they forced Jews to finance their war through collection of taxes. Then they forced them to quarter their soldiers in Jewish homes. Finally, the Greeks were determined to crush the Jewish religion.

    First, they took the statue of Zeus and mounted it in the courtyard of the Temple. Next, the Greeks banned the observance of the Sabbath on the pain of death. Then, the Talmud (Kesubos 3b) records, there was a period of time which lasted a number of decades when the Greek officer in town had the right to “live” with a woman on her wedding night before her husband-to-be.
    The Greeks also banned circumcision. Whoever circumcised his child was put to death; both child and father were killed. Then the Greeks demanded that altars to the Greek idols be established and that sacrifices be offered on a regular basis in every Jewish town. Finally, the Jewish educational system was entirely interrupted.

    The Jewish Rebels

    About the year 166 BCE, a group finally stood up to the Greeks: Matisyahu (Mattathias) and his family, known as the Hasmoneans. We do not know much about them except that they were of noble descent from the priestly class (Kohanim), including those who had served as High Priests. They lived in a small town called Modin, which was about 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. (The town exists today, and is about 20 miles west of modern Jerusalem.) One day, a Greek contingent marched in, set up an altar, gathered all the Jews and forced them to sacrifice a pig to Zeus. They then asked for a Jewish volunteer to perform the sacrifice. One stepped forward. As he approached the altar Matisyahu stabbed him to death. Chaos broke out. The Greek army attempted to subdue the crowd, but the Jews were armed and slaughtered the entire Greek patrol. There was no turning back now.

    The Fighting Maccabees

    Matisyahu had five sons, all of whom were people of great organizational leadership as well as pious, committed Jews: Johanan (Yochanan), Simon (Shimon), Jonathan (Yonason), Judah (Yehudah) and Eleazar. They ran to the caves and organized an army – not to fight an open war, but a guerilla war. Originally they organized of force of about 3,000 men. Eventually it grew to 6,000 and never reached more than 12,000 men. The General of the Army was the great Judah, known to the world as Judah the Maccabee (or Judas Maccabaeus as he was called in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost). “Maccabaeus” is the Greek word for hammer, but the Jews took it, as Jews are wont to do, and made it Jewish by declaring that “Maccabee” stood for the first four letters in Exodus 15:11, meaning, “Who is like You, God?” — which was said by Moses and the people after the miraculous drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds.

    An enormous Syrian-Greek army, numbering almost 50,000 men, marched into Judea. Judah the Maccabee marshaled his forces and with guile and courage outmaneuvered the far larger Greek army, forced it to divide and then destroyed its various components, killing many thousands and forcing the survivors to flee north to Syria. It took many years, but their hit-and-run tactics wore down three great Greek armies. However, the Jews paid a very heavy price in terms of blood. Matisyahu died in the early going. Judah Maccabee was killed in the third great battle. Eleazar died while attacking an elephant. Johanan and Jonathan were killed as well. The only Maccabee brother who survived was Simon.

    The Miracles

    The last famous battle was for the fortress of Antonius, which guarded the Temple. When Antonius fell, the Jews came back to the Temple. They shattered the statue of Zeus and cleaned the Temple to the extent that they could. Any priests who worked for the Greeks were sent away or executed. They only found one small flask of uncontaminated oil with the seal of the High Priest. By Torah law, the flame of the Menorah (Candelabrum) in the Temple could only be lit with specially prepared pure olive oil. The amount of oil remaining in the one uncontaminated flask was only enough to burn for one day, and it would take eight days to produce a new batch of pure oil.
    What could they do? They lit it — and it miraculously burned for eight days. That is why Chanukah lasts eight nights (the festival was established a year later by the Rabbis).

    What is Chanukah

    The Talmud does not say much about Chanukah, but other books do. There are perhaps forty lines spread out in different volumes, whereas almost all the other holidays have an entire Talmudic volume about them. In addition, the few words the Talmud has to say about Chanukah are cryptic. Perhaps that is why Chanukah has been subject to reinterpretation, as it has been in our time. People make whatever they want to make out of it. However, that is a mistake, a tragedy.

    In the Western world, it has the misfortune of falling out in December. Therefore, in the homes of many Jewish people it has sadly became the Jewish version of the December holidays, a mixture of commercialism and non-Jewish traditions and ideas.

    What the Talmud does say is that the important thing is to “advertise the miracle.” People have to recognize that a miracle took place. It is vital to keep the wonder in Chanukah. That is why the rabbis gave more emphasis to the miracle of the lights than the military victory. Wars come and go. Even the glow of miraculous victory can fade. Young people today do not think that Israel’s War for Independence in 1948 was such a miracle. In 1967, Jews expected a second Holocaust. Now people brush the miraculous Six Day War off as nothing special.

    History provides numerous examples of outnumbered forces defeating a superpower using guerilla tactics. Was the Maccabean victory so miraculous? That was the question Jews at the time must have asked themselves. However, when the small flask of pure oil that could only last one day lasted eight days it proved that there was a miracle that happened there. The little flask of oil shed light on the big military campaign. “Not by the army, not by power, but through My Spirit, says God” (Zechariah 4:6). Chanukah is about the little light that sheds a great light.

    There is an indefinable, spiritual, electric charge that binds the generations together that cannot be found in any book. It can only be had when parents and grandparents do things like sitting together with their children around the Chanukah lights celebrating, discussing and advertising the miracle; experientially getting in touch with the wonder of the past, the wonder of the present, the wonder of life.

    Whatever Happened to the Hellenists (The Greeks)?

    Chanukah is a very popular, emotional and beautiful holiday. However, the necessity for Chanukah begins with the story of the invasion of Greek culture and the weakness of the Jews in responding to it. It originates from the growth of an enormous sect of Hellenists within the Jews, who even supported the Greeks during the war. What happened to the Hellenists? Their influence all but collapsed in the wake of the defeat. They would never return again as Hellenists, because the war brought out their true colors as traitors and they lost whatever appeal they could have had to the Jewish people.

    Most of them retreated to the city of Caesarea, which remained a Greek city (and later would become a Roman city). They were just not part of the Jewish people any longer.

    Their demise punctuated the fact that more than a military victory, the miracle of the oil signified that Chanukah was a victory of the spirit of the Jewish people, a victory that granted them the right to observe the Torah. That is why its memory and the people who observe it have endured.

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