The commonly told story of Hanukkah is a tale of triumph of good over evil, literally of light winning out over darkness.
In that story, the victorious Maccabees had just defeated their Seleucid overlords and reclaimed their sacred temple. In order to make their victory legit, they needed to light the eternal flame. Unfortunately, the Seleucids had left behind one final nasty surprise: they had destroyed all the oil needed to light the menorah.
The Maccabees, proving both their military prowess and their ability to rifle through junk, found a tiny bit of oil tucked away in the temple, just enough to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, long enough for the Maccabees to manufacture more oil and keep the sacred flame lit.
Presto bammo, the miracle of Hanukkah.
Of course, as with all miracles, the real story is a lot more complicated. And, in our opinion, a lot more interesting.
The true story of Hanukkah isn’t just about those eight days of light; it’s a thrilling tale of resistance, civil war, and, as always, a bit of revisionist history, that goes back years before the Maccabees relit that sacred flame.
Here’s the real hackstory of Hanukkah.
That’s Mine Now!
Way back in 200 BC, the Seleucid empire annexed Judea as part of their plan to conquer the world.
The Seleucid empire was founded by a dude named Seleucus, who got his start as one of Alexander the Great’s military officers. After Alexander the Great died, Seleucus refused to hang up his spear and decided to continue in his former boss’ footsteps. Under his rule, the Seleucids began expanding throughout the region.
It was actually Seleucus’ descendent, Antiochus III (or, as he preferred to be known, Antiochus the Great) who conquered Judea. Like his great-great-great-grandfather, Antiochus III was all about taking shit that wasn’t his, and marched his way through Syria, Palestine, and Judea, annexing territory left and right.
For a bloodthirsty conqueror, though, Antiochus III wasn’t half bad. He basically let Judea rule itself, so for most Jewish people, life continued on like it had before the Seleucids arrived, except for the fact that they now had a lot of statues of Antiochus III littering public places.
Eventually, however, Antiochus III died (turns out he wasn’t a god like he had claimed) and his son Antiochus IV ascended the throne.
Now, Antiochus IV was a much harsher overlord than his dearly departed father. He firmly believed in the superiority of the Hellenistic people and decided to take away the freedoms that the Jewish people had.
Antiochus IV’s program of Hellenization was hella annoying and also hella pretentious. In addition to having to worship the Greek gods, Jewish people now had to do things like “gain worldly knowledge and learn to appreciate physical beauty.” As if they didn’t already know how to do that.
From Frenemies To Enemies
Despite Antiochus IV’s ridiculous Hellenization program, most Jewish people just kind of shrugged their shoulders and went along with it at first.
After all, Antiochus IV was really far away and Greek influences had already been around for a long time. Many Jews were already wearing Greek togas and went to schools that were taught in the Greek tradition.
And even though Antiochus was super snooty and kind of a dick, he did things like promise to pay for and build a gymnasium in Jerusalem. People living there basically were like, “Cool, we wanted to work on our fitness anyways. And now we don’t have to pay for it ourselves!”
Some Jewish people, like the high priest Menelaus, looked at Antiochus’ changes and saw dollar signs. They began to more loudly promote Hellenistic ideals, hoping to gain favor from the Seleucids, much to the annoyance of the more pious Jews,
Everything continued along fine for a few years, until eventually, the changes became too much to bear.
In addition to making the Jews go to ridiculous classes and exercise in the nude, Antiochus’ allies began pushing practices that were fundamentally against the Jewish ways of life. For instance, Menelaus began prohibiting circumcision and forcing Jews to slaughter pigs. And remember, Menelaus was the Jewish high priest, so he had a lot of influence in the community.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Menelaus decided to build a temple to Zeus right on top of the altar to Yahweh, as if there wasn’t anywhere else he could put it.
The Jews in Judea basically divided into two camps. One camp, which included Menelaus and his lackeys, was cool with the changes made by the Seleucids or at least apathetic enough to not really do anything about it.
The other camp was full of Jewish people who refused to accept Hellenistic influences in Judea any longer and decided they needed to take up arms to do something about it.
The Hammer Falls
Beginning in 167 BC, a group of brothers, known as the Hasmoneans, led a guerilla war against the Seleucids and their sympathetic Jewish allies.
The Hasmoneans were basically war savants. They won a ton of battles, earning them the nickname “the Maccabees,” which comes from the ancient Hebrew word for hammer.
The Maccabees had the support of Jewish people in the countryside, but a lot of Jews who lived in Jerusalem itself refused to fight against the Seleucids or even took up arms against their own people (that gym must’ve been really, really nice).
The fighting went on for a number of years. Eventually, the Seleucids, facing trouble in other parts of their empire, tried to make peace by installing a new Jewish high priest who wasn’t as much of a greedy social climber as Menelaus. The move didn’t work, however, and the Maccabees continued their quest to reclaim their homeland.
In 164 BC, the Maccabees took back the city of Jerusalem. They tore down the altar to Zeus and restored their temple.
Judah the Maccabee ordered an eight-day festival to celebrate reclaiming the temple, which was the same length of time that King Solomon had celebrated the consecration of the very first Jewish temple.
And so, the holiday of Hanukkah was born.
But What About The Oil?
But what about the miracle of the oil?
Well, it turns out that the whole “miracle-of-the-oil” thing didn’t exactly happen the way it’s always told. In fact, the oil isn’t even mentioned in Jewish writings until centuries later, between the third and fifth centuries AD.
So why did oil enter into the story of Hanukkah at all?
Basically, rabbis at the time were a little bit uncomfortable with the real story of Hanukkah. They didn’t want to talk about the Jewish people who betrayed their religion in favor of the comforts of Hellenistic life and they weren’t super down with the Maccabees’ penchant for military action. They wanted to create a Hanukkah story that was truly something to celebrate, rather than a sad tale about people backstabbing each other and dying.
Enter the oil. By turning the focus of Hanukkah onto the marvel of the menorah, the rabbis created a holiday they could comfortably celebrate.
And so, Hanukkah became the festival of lights, not the festival of that time we killed a lot of people to take back what was ours.
Put your Hanukkah knowledge to the ultimate test with #HanukkahHack Trivia! We’ve partnered with @thejewishmuseum to test your Hanukkah knowledge, and give away a cool prize from @thejewishmuseumshop. Join the trivia over on our Instagram, starting December 12, 2017!