The festival of Hanukkah – or dedication – commemorates the rededication of the Temple on of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 165 BCE. The Temple was rededicated following the victory of the Maccabees against the might of the Syrian-Greek Empire against overwhelming odds.
Israel had become part of the Syrian-Greek Empire ruled by the Seleucid dynasty. Antiochus III (222-186 B.C.E.) was victorious in battle against the Egyptian King Ptolemy and gained control of the land of Israel in 198 B.C.E. Antiochus III had been favourable towards the Jews, but this changed following his defeat by the Romans who compelled him to raise heavy taxes from the people of his empire.
Antiochus’ son Seleucus IV succeeded Antiochus after his death. His attempts to raise taxes for the Romans by appropriating Temple funds failed.
Seleucus was murdered and replaced by his brother Antiochus IV, a ruthless tyrant. He sought to unite his empire through enforcing a common religion that involved the worship of idols. A failed rebellion resulted in a number of harsh decrees against the Jews and the practice of Judaism was outlawed. Jews were forced to worship pagan Greek gods.
Many of the Jews at the time complied with the Syrian-Greek laws. They chose survival under foreign law against death. To these, the Maccabees were fanatics endangering the lives of the entire community.
In 167 B.C.E. Antiochus IV dedicated the Temple to the worship of the Greek god Zeus. The Temple was defiled.
The high priest Mattityahu was asked to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods on the newly built pagan altar. Mattityahu refused and killed a Jew that offered the sacrifice. He fled with his sons to the Judean hills. Many faithful Jews followed. They formed a guerrilla army and launched attacks on Antiochus’ army units and destroyed pagan altars. Mattityahu appointed his son Judah, known as the “Maccabee,” to lead the force and to continue fighting for Torah law after his death.
One attack after another by Antiochus failed to defeat the Maccabees. Antiochus sent in a force of over 40,000 men led by Nicanor and Gorgiash.
Judah decided to fight to the death “in defence of our souls and our Temple!”
Following a series of battles, the might of the Syrian-Greek army was defeated against all odds. Jerusalem and the holy Temple were liberated.
The Temple had been defiled and filled with idols. The golden menorah that played host to the eternal flame was missing. The Temple had been used to worship of the Greek god Zeus.
The Temple was cleaned and cleared of idols and unholy animals and a new menorah was made. The Maccabees were eager to rededicate the Temple. This required the lighting of the menorah. The Maccabees searched extensively but only one container of pure consecrated olive-oil – enough oil for one day – was found.
Nevertheless, the menorah was lit to rededicate the Temple on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. It would take eight days to prepare fresh consecrated oil. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.
The focus of Hanukkah has always been on the miracle of the oil rather than on the miraculous victory against an overwhelming force. The eight day festival of Hanukkah was instituted as a permanent feature of Jewish life.