Words by Amira Herz
From Sunday 28th November, the Jewish community will begin to celebrate the festival of Chanukah from sundown. This festival takes place across an eight-day period, celebrating a festival of lights through menorah lighting, special prayers and fried food. Despite being considered one of the most commonly recognised Jewish festivals, the history of Chanukah is often unknown across the wider population.
Around 2000 years ago, the indigenous Jewish homeland (The Kingdom of Israel) was dominated by Syrian rulers across the Syrian-Greek Empire. At the time, Israel was being fought over for possession by the King of Syria (Antiochus III) and King Ptolemy of Egypt. The former was successful, and Israel was annexed into his Empire. Despite being in favour of the Jewish population at the beginning of his rule, Antiochus developed hatred and grief towards the community; once dead, his son further began to oppress the Jews, threatening the livelihood of the Jewish community once again.
From a wider perspective, the developing hatred towards Jews was not only coming from Antiochus, but also the growing influence of the Greek Hellenists. The Hellenists promoted and significantly accepted idol-worship – something exceedingly prohibited within the Jewish religion, this in turn raised tensions across the greater Syria area.
After the death of Antiochus’s III son, Antiochus IV began to reign over Syria. Historically labelled as a ‘madman’, Antiochus IV held a strong aspiration to unify his kingdom, pursuing the notion of a common religion and culture. In order to do this, the king began to suppress Jewish law, removing high ranking Jewish officials and replacing religious leaders. During this time, Antiochus was heavily engaged in war with Egypt and rumour spread about his death stemming from Jerusalem. This rumour was untrue and due to it originating from Jerusalem, the King held the Jews accountable. Consequently, he ordered his army to attack the Jewish community, witnessing the death of over a thousand Jews. However, this was only the beginning of a long series of attacks upon the Jewish community.
Jewish worship, law and celebration were forbidden. There were also those who actively sought to rebel, notably the story of Mattiyahu and the theme of sacrifice remains fundamental to the Chanukah celebration. One such rebellion caused a community of Jews to flee to the hills of Judea; In this community, the Maccabees (translating to Who is like You, O G-d) were formed. This group was committed to waging warfare against Antiochus. An army of over 40,000 men began to invade Judea, despite being desperately outnumbered, the Maccabees won and returned to liberate Jerusalem.
Throughout this liberation, a key aim was to restore the Holy Temple. The Maccabees constructed a menorah, yet when wanting to light it, only a small amount of oil was available – so little to only last a day. Yet, as the story goes, by miracle it continued to burn for eight days. Jews have understood this to mean the protection of G-d of his people. To this day, Jews light the menorah for eight days to remember the destruction of the temple and further Jewish community.