Follow us on

The violent story behind Hanukkah

by Aisyah Shah Idil
07 December 2018
BEING;
HUMAN;
RELIGION

Before there were candles and doughnuts, there was a Greek king and some very pissed off Jews. 
 
Right now, Jews all around the world are observing Hanukkah. It began on the 2nd of December and will last until the 10th. 
 
Even though it’s nicknamed “The Festival of Lights” for its distinctive candles, Hanukkah is also a nod to military rebellion. Here’s how the story goes.
 
It’s the second century BCE. The Greek Selucid Empire is in power and Antiochus, the king, wants the Jewish community to finally abandon their traditions and fully embrace wider Greek culture. 
 
Some Jews have already done this. But for Antiochus to have total control over the empire, the pocket of devout ones need to as well. Since they’re not giving up without a fight, he decides imperial force is necessary. 
 
Antiochus vandalises their most sacred temple and bans Jews from praying or performing ritual sacrifice there. An altar to Zeus is propped up, pigs are sacrificed on it, Sabbath is forbidden and circumcision is banned. Dissenters are killed. Judaism is outlawed by the state.  

 



Predictably, there is large scale revolt. The Maccabees, a Jewish warrior family, violently seize the temple back. Once they and their allies purify it to their standards and replace the pagan icons with their own, they finally light the menorah, the sacred lampstand in the temple. 
 
There’s only just enough oil to light the candles for one day. But according to legend, these candles miraculously stayed lit for eight entire days, marking them as a victorious time of “joy and honour”. 
 
This is why on Hanukkah, Jews traditionally eat festive foods fried in oil and light their own lamps. Potato fritters called latkes and jelly doughnuts called soufjanyiot are eaten daily, special songs are sung, dreidel games are played, and prayers are recited. People give presents and money, and kids get chocolate coins. It’s an eight-day feast of leisure.
 
But it wasn’t always like that. Some rabbis have understandably been uncomfortable with Hanukkah’s military undertones. Others have pointed out that celebrating the conflict between Jewish secularism and fundamentalism is a little odd. 
 
But with the advent of Zionism and the state of Israel, Hanukkah has taken on new life. From a minor holiday that emphasised the miracle of the oil, Hanukkah today is seen as a symbol of resistance against injustice and oppression. 
 
It’s now three or four generations from the Holocaust. There is a menorah in Midtown Manhattan dedicated to the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting. There is another in front of Brandenburg Gate where the Nazi flags once hung. 
 
Amid rising concern over anti-Semitism, illiberalism in Israel, and contradictions of ‘Jewish Christmas’, maybe it’s the historical struggle at the heart of Hanukkah that is the most Jewish thing of all. 

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.