Many are familiar with the well-known tale of Hanukkah, wherein Greek forces sought to impose their religion and customs upon the Jewish people. In response, a courageous group of priests led by Matityahu and his five sons and their untrained followers took up arms to vehemently protest and fight for their survival—and emerged victorious.
Yet, a lesser-known chapter of the Hanukkah narrative unfolds 150 years before the Hasmonean priestly battles. During the reign of Alexander the Great, Greece’s influence stretched from the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean to the shores of India. As Alexander’s renowned army approached Jerusalem, the High Priest donned his sacred Temple garments for the High Holy Day and urged his fellow priests to attire themselves in white. Throughout the night, they carried torches and approached the formidable forces of Alexander on foot, completely unarmed. At dawn, the two parties finally converged, and to the astonishment of all present, Alexander descended from his chariot to bow before the High Priest. The profound encounter is vividly captured in the video below, shedding light on this intriguing and often overlooked episode in the history of Hanukkah.
In 175 BCE, during a period of division among Hellenic forces between the northern Syrian Greeks and the southern Greeks in Egypt, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the north faction, invaded Judea. The sons of Tobias, a Hellenizing Jewish faction in Jerusalem, prompted this invasion, as documented by Flavius Josephus.
The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months. — The Jewish War
The battles of Hanukkah are commemorated in the song Al hanissim – meaning “about the miracles.” – a prayer we say after lighting the menorah’s candles.
You delivered the mighty into the hands of the week, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to your Torah!
The victory, reminiscent of the miraculous parting of the sea in the Israelite exodus, amazed the ancient world. However, it was short-lived and not a decisive win for Israel. Despite gaining sovereignty, Hellenistic influence persisted. A century later, after King Herod’s death, the Roman Empire, inheriting the Greek Empire, regained control over Judea. Roman forces destroyed the Grand Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, leading to 2000 years of Jewish exile before sovereignty was restored. Some Rabbis considered ending Hanukkah after the Temple’s destruction, but others, including Rabbi Jonathon, insisted on preserving the holiday. *1
Regrettably, there has been a rise in misinformation and attacks on Jews worldwide in recent times. However, our most effective defence is to study the Torah and celebrate our holidays. These traditions teach us how to find joy and guide us to endure and thrive even in challenging times!
This acapella music video on Hanukkah encapsulates the sentiment perfectly.
*1 Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks delivered a keynote address on “The Hidden Story of Chanukah” at Bushey Synagogue on October 20, 2012. Gratitude is extended to Bushey Synagogue for providing the video used in this context.