Channukah: Anti-Colonialism vs. Assimilation

Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, so that from ca. 400 BCE going forward, Greek culture and worship influenced Hebrews living in Israel. The affluent Hebrews were willig to accept Greek culture and assimilate. The lower classes/peasants were not. Maybe the poor resist change easily because they have less to lose and/or to gain – ? In any case, the Hebraic conflict with Hellenism was thus both anti-colonial and anti-assimilation.

Cast of Characters

The Pharisees’ approach to what would become Judaism began roughly 200-150 BCE. They were the forerunners of today’s rabbis. Their focus on ritual purity, prayer, biblical study, and legal scholarship tended to separate them from the illiterate masses. Like today’s academics, they didn’t have great economic status or power. Their influence was democratizing in the sense that the people didn’t need the priests to talk to God; they could do it themselves directly.

The Sadducees were the priests and aristocrats, the wealthy elites who dominated Temple worship. They were members of the Sanhedrin (the court of the Second Temple period) and outnumbered the Pharisees.

The Pietists, a hardcore group of Hebrews willing to die as religious martyrs, wanted to end pagan worship. They supported the actions of the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmoneans were a tribe of priests that included the Maccabees.


Under the rule of Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Hebraic observance was banned ca. 167 BCE. The Hebrews were not allowed to keep the laws of kashrut, to observe the sabbath, or to circumcise their sons. The Temple was annexed and used to worship Greek and Roman gods. Zeus ended up on the altar. Hebrews who resisted these changes were tortured and murdered. Antiochus may have been assisted by a priest named Menelaus (the successor of Jason, who’d established two Greek educational institutions and named a Greek city in Jerusalem “Antioch at Jerusalem.”) Menelaus supported Hellenization. Some of the Hebrews were sympathetic to Greek culture, wanted assimilation, and helped it along. A priest called Mattathias of the Hasmoneans, and his five sons (the Maccabees, aka “hammers”) organized a rebellion against the Syrian army. They also targeted Hellenized Hebrews, of whom they did not approve.

The Guerilla War

As the legend goes, the Syrian/Green army demands that the Hebrews sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. Mattathias kills a Hebrew who complies. He then calls for others to stand with him for God’s Law and the Covenant. This launches a guerilla war, which according to various sources may have lasted between three and twenty-five years along the coastal area which is now Tel Aviv. The Maccabees retake Jerusalem and reclaim the Temple. They purify it and rededicate it. They rebuild the altar with new stones.


The story of the Maccabees was preserved by Hellenized Jews and rejected by the Pharisees. The Hasmoneans were not really anti-Greek, as they didn’t uphold the goals of the Pietists once they gained power. Around 37 BCE, Pompeii annexed Judea under the authority of Rome, which put an end to Hasmonean rule and led to Herod’s installation as ruler of the Hebrews by the Romans. Some say the Hasmonean leader allowed the Romans to gain control of Judea, due to having asked for their political protection. Active prosyletizing by the Hasmoneans ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

After the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees became the carriers of tradition in the form of the Mishnah and Talmud. They considered themselves to be the direct inheritors of the teachings of Moses. Before the destruction of the Second Temple, nobody was called “Rabbi” (which comes from the Aramaic word for “my master”) – including Hillel and Shammai. Early leaders included Rabbi Gamliel, who taught the apostle Paul (aka Saul); Rabbi Yochanan ben Kakkai, the founder of the academy at Yavneh; and Rabbi Akiva, a significant contributor to the Mishnah.

Interestingly, Channukah is not mentioned at all in the Mishnah, but only in the Gemara. There the rabbis discuss the rules for lighting sabbath candles. One asks if the same rules apply to Channukah candles. Another asks what Channukah is. They say the lamentation for the dead and the fasting that occur on the 25th of Kislev are prohibited because the Greeks defiled the Temple and the oils in it. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. The vessel contained only enough oil for one day’s lighting, but a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. The next year they commemorated that event as a festival of thanksgiving for their victory. That’s about all it says about Channukah in the Gemara.

The Rabbis didn’t like the Maccabees, as the Maccabees made themselves and their children kings (the Hasmonean Dynasty.) Priests and kings were supposed to come from separate tribes. As previously mentioned, the Hasmoneans allowed the Romans to provide them with protection, and thus handed them the power to take over the kingdom entirely. The Hasmoneans sided with the Sadducees instead of the Pharisees. Trying to run a nation under Judaic principles, such as love, fairness, and forgiveness, tends not to work out so well.

What’s the Festival of Lights About?

Because the Rabbis were not big fans of the meaning or outcome of the Maccabean revolt, they focused their attention on the light. They said it symbolized God’s help, and the infinite. God created the world in seven days. The eighth day represents infinity. The celebration coincides with the solstice. Just as the birth of Jesus supplanted pagan solstice practices, so did Channukah for the Jews. Channukah is actually a late Sukkot (fall harvest/pilgrimage.) The First and Second Temples had been dedicated at Sukkot. The sons of Mattathias, led by Judah ha Maccabee, go to light the Eternal Flame in the Temple, but discover that only one vessel of purified oil remains. Miraculously, the oil continues to burn for 8 days, giving them the time they need to prepare additional oil. They must ritually purify themselves after battle before they can make new oil. War requires soldiers to be in the presence of the dead. To be with a dead body makes one ritually impure.

This year we light our first candle on Wednesday at nightfall. A menorah is a candelabra of any type, while the term channukiah specifies the 9-candle holder used during Channukah. Candles are placed from right to left, as we read in Hebrew, but lit from left to right. Hillel and Shammai debated whether light should increase or decrease over the course of the festival. Shammai wanted the candles to represent the days still to come, possibly because the Temple sacrifices during Sukkot were reduced by one bull per day. Hillel wanted the candles to represent the days that had already passed, so that the light would symbolize an increase in holiness; the purpose of ritual is to make us better people. Hillel won the argument.

The channukiah goes in the window unless there is a risk of attack by non-Jews. Then it can be on a table, as preserving life and safety is more important than ritual. We light the candles as soon as possible after the stars come out, and they burn for half an hour. Blessings are said after the shamash (servant candle) is lit but before the nightly candles are lit. Only the shamash may be used for a utilitarian purpose such as lighting or re-lighting the others. We read Psalms 113 to 118 every morning of the eight days, in which we learn God sees everything, lifts us up, gives us hope and purpose. Psalm 115 reads, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but cannot speak….” Daily readings from Numbers 7-8 describe offerings brought to the Tent of Meeting, and 8:1-4 talks about lighting the menorah. In Zechariah 2:14-4:7, an angel speaks for God, saying “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” The “miracle” is not a military victory, but an increase in spirituality.

Lesser-Known Detail:

The Fast of Tevet 10th comes shortly after Channukah to commemorate the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar during which prophet/king Zedekiah was captured and his sons killed.


One response to “Channukah: Anti-Colonialism vs. Assimilation

  1. I am really enjoying this blog and I learn alot from it. I have a comment on the following quote:

    ” …The celebration coincides with the solstice. Just as the birth of Jesus supplanted pagan solstice practices, so did Channukah for the Jews…”

    The implication here is that the Winter Solstice is exclusively pagan (paganism defined as a form of polytheism… see definitions). To me, celebrating the beauty and rhythms of nature is a very spiritual thing that need not be thought of as Pagan. Honoring nature is actually very Jewish, i.e. we have celebrations relating to the harvest (Sukkot ) and to trees (Tu B’Shevat). I can’t think of anything more beautiful and appropriate than a “festival of lights” i.e. Channukah occurring on or near some of the darkest days of the year, the Winter Solstice. I love the overlap of these two celebrations and consider it to be not coincidence.

    robin h.

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