From the return of the Babylonian exiles, towards the end of the sixth century c.e., and for hundreds of years after, Jerusalem was subject to the rule of foreign peoples. At first, of course, the Persians, who had taken control when they conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 c.e., ruled the land of Israel. In 333 B.C.E, however, Alexander the Great of Greece defeated the Persian army and took control of the entire Middle East. After Alexander's death, his vast empire was divided. The Ptolemaic Dynasty (or simply, the Ptolemies) ruled Egypt. The Seleucid Dynasty ruled Syria and adjacent regions. The land of Israel, located between Egypt and Syria, was originally ruled by the Ptolemies but was later conquered by the Seleucids.<ýP> During this time, the Jews of Judea enjoyed autonomy over their internal affairs. They were not permitted to conduct foreign policy; they had no army; and they were heavily taxed by foreigners, but there was no interference with dealings among the Jews themselves, and they were permitted to conduct their society in accordance with the laws of the Torah and operate the Temple as they saw fit. The High Priest, who was in charge of the Temple and its service, also supervised matters not directly connected to ritual, such as repair of the city walls and improvement of the aqueducts bringing water to Jerusalem. This, then, was the state of affairs when Judea came under the fateful influence of Hellenism.
From the time of Alexander the Great's conquest, all the countries of the Middle East came under the influence of Hellenistic that is to say Greek culture, (Hellas is Greek for Greece). The people of the Middle East tried to imitate the culture of their Greek overlords. Some of these peoples assimilated completely and disappeared as distinct national entities. Greek culture was quite different from the culture of the Jews. The differences were manifest in intellectual fields such as philosophy and literature; in the culture of the body, such as sports and the art of war; and in material culture, such as art, pottery, and architecture.
In Judea, as well, there were those who wished to be part of the Hellenistic culture dominating the entire region. In particular, Jerusalem's upper classes, the wealthy and the priests, who came into close contact with the rulers and were familiar with their customs, began to imitate Greek culture. They began to speak Greek, adopt Greek names, and visit the gymnasium, where the young naked atheletes participated in wrestling, foot races, and other sports.
Greek culture was idolatrous and contained many elements that were not only foreign but antithetical to the spirit of Jewish tradition. Most of the Jews remained faithful to the Jewish religion and its customs, and strenuously opposed the foreign culture and the Jews who adopted it.
We can imagine what the conservative Jewish farmers from the small villages of Judea must have thought when they came to Jerusalem and heard, and perhaps even saw how the High Priest upon completing his service in the Temple would remove his priestly vestments and go to watch athletic contests in the gymnasium.
(See also: The monolog of Mattathias, extract of "Journeys", an activity book by Steve Israel.)
Those who observed Jewish law saw the Hellenizers as infidels and traitors to all that the nation held holy. The Hellenizers, on the other hand, saw themselves as progressive, as following the spirit of the time; and perceived those who observed Jewish law as fanatics who stood in the way of progress.
Antiochus IV was a Seleucid monarch who ruled over Syria and the land of Israel; his reign began in the year 175 b.c.e. His policy was different from that of his Hellenistic and Persian predecessors. Until then, the various rulers of the land of Israel had not intervened in religious matters. Antiochus IV, however, wished to consolidate all the peoples under his rule into one homogeneous nation. He therefore prohibited observance of the Jewish commandments and tried by force to compel the Jews to observe Greek customs.
Historical sources describe Antiochus's oppressive measures and the reactions of those who remained faithful to Jewish law.
Moreover, the King sent agents with written orders to Jerusalem and the towns of Judea. Ways and customs foreign to the country were to be introduced. Burnt- offerings, sacrifices, and libations in the Temple were forbidden; Sabbaths and feast-days were to be profaned. Altars, idols, and sacred precincts were to be established; swine and other unclean beasts to be offered in sacrifice. They must leave their sons uncircumcised; they must make themselves in every way abominable, unclean, and profane, and so forget the law and change all their statutes. The penalty for disobedience was death.
(I Maccabees 1:44-50)
Some people bowed to Antiochus' decrees, as they had already been influenced by the ways of the Greeks. Many, however, resisted, and there were those willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children in order to keep the commandments of the Torah. The Book of Maccabees tells of women cruelly put to death because they would not agree to leave their sons uncircumcised (I Maccabees 1:59). Particularly well known is the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who were all killed by the Greeks, because they refused to worship idols.
According to one of the stories describing those difficult days, Antiochus appointed a governor for Jerusalem named Philipus, and ordered him to require all Jews to bow before an idol of the King (the King himself was also frequently considered a god) and to participate in the sacrifice of a pig. Philipus thought that if he could convince one of the Jewish elders, this would influence the simple people as well. He, therefore, summoned Elazar, one of the more important priests, and told him to fulfill the king's decree. But Elazar did not agree. Philipus said to him:
"You know that I respect you, and that I wish to make it easy for you. Let us take meat of a kosher animal slaughtered according to your own laws. You will eat before the people, so that they will thing that you are eating pork. If you do not agree, I will not be able to violate the King's decree, and I will be compelled to have you put to death.
Elazar replied: "Today, I am ninety years old. If I do as you request, all those younger than I will say, 'Even ninety-year-old Elazar sought to save his life by eating pork. So what do they expect of us?' I would rather die to set an example for my people. Both life and death are in the hands of God, and you must do as you see fit."
When Philipus saw Elazar's stubborn courage, he commanded his men to beat him to death.(Josippon 14)
How the Jewish rebellion against the Greeks broke out is chronicled in the Book of Maccabees. When a detachment of Greek soldiers arrived at the town of Modi'in to compel its residents to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods, the officers turned first to Mattathias, scion of the priestly Hasmonean family:
The King's officers who were enforcing apostasy came to the town of Modi'in to see that sacrifice was offered, and many Israelites went over to them. Mattathias and his sons stood in a group. The King's officers spoke to Mattathias: "You are a leader here," they said, "a man of mark and influence in this town, with your sons and brothers at your back. You be the first now to come forward and carry out the King's order. All the nations have done so, as well as the leading men in Judea and the people left in Jerusalem. Then you and your sons will be enrolled among the King's friends; you will all receive high honors, rich rewards of silver and gold, and many further benefits."
To this Mattathias replied in a ringing voice: "Though all the nations within the king's dominions obey him and forsake their ancestral worship, though they have chosen to submit to his commands, yet I and my sons and brothers will follow the Covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid we should ever abandon the law and its statutes. We will not obey the command of the king, nor will we deviate from our forms of worship."
As soon as he had finished, a Jew stepped forward in full view of all, to offer a sacrifice on the pagan altar at Modi'in, in obedience to the royal decree. The sight stirred Mattathias to indignation; he shook with passion, and in a fury of righteous anger rushed forward and slaughtered the traitor on the very altar. At the same time, he killed the officer sent by the King to enforce sacrifice, and pulled the pagan altar down. . . . "Follow me," he shouted through the town, "every one of you who is zealous for the law and strives to maintain the Covenant!" He and his sons took to the hills, leaving all their belongings behind in the town. (I Maccabees 2:15-28)
Legend, however, has a different account of the rebellion's outbreak, based on the theme of "droit de seigneur."
As part of their campaign to break the spirit of the Jews, the Greeks decreed that every maiden must spend her wedding night in the bed of the regional governor, and that only afterward would she be permitted to her husband. As a result of this decree, the Jews stopped marrying. For three years and three months, no wedding was held in Judea. Then it came time for Hannah, daughter of Mattityahu the Hasmonean to marry. In spite of the decree, Mattityahu held a great celebration, inviting the leaders of the nation, for Mattathias' family was extremely prominent. The bride sat, as was customary, at the head table, but suddenly stood up, clapped her hands together, and tore her expensive wedding dress, exposing herself. Everyone looked away in embarrassment, and her brothers ran to fall upon her and kill her for shaming herself and her family.
But Hannah said to them, "Why, when I shame myself before my relatives and friends are you so filled with embarrassment and anger that you wish to kill me, but you agree to surrender me this night so the heathen governor can lie with me? Why do you not learn from Simon and Levy, sons of our forefather Jacob, who avenged the rape of their sister Dinah (in Genesis, chapter 34)?"
Everyone realized that Hannah was right; her brothers discussed the matter and came to a decision. They dressed their sister in the finest garments and brought her with great ceremony, at the head of a large procession, to the King. Hannah's brother's declared, "We are the sons of the High Priest, and it is not fitting that our sister be given to the governor. Our sister is fit only for the King himself!" The brothers' words found favor in the King's eyes.
The brothers accompanied Hannah to the royal bed chamber, and thereupon, seized the King and killed him. Afterward, they stormed out killing ministers, guards, and servants, who were in the palace. So began the Hasmonean revolt.(M. Y. Ben Gurion, miMekor Yisrael 1; Y. D. Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim: Hannukah)
The Jewish rebels, known also as the Maccabees, were led by Mattathias' son Judah. Antiochus sent out various commanders, to defeat the rebels, but it was not an easy war, as the Jews were able to hide in the desert and in mountainous areas with difficult access for a regular army. Sometimes, the Greek forces managed to defeat the rebels; in many cases, though, it was the Jews who defeated the Greeks in small battles waged in territory difficult for an army's passage and which the Jews knew much better than the foreign forces.
The Jews were well aware of their ultimate objective: Jerusalem and the Temple. They were mourning for both, destroyed by the Greeks:
Jerusalem lay deserted like a wilderness; none of her children went in or out. Her holy place was trampled down; aliens and heathen lodged in her citadel. Joy had been banished from the people of Israel; and the flute and the harp were silent. (I Maccabees 3:45)
In place of the joy that had always prevailed at the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavu'ot, and Sukkot, when masses of people went up to Jerusalem, there were now only painful memories. But Judah, Mattathias's son appointed to command the fighters, did not despair. He encouraged the people to fight until they would be able to return to Jerusalem as victors. Before each battle, Judah aroused his soldiers with a short but inspiring message, like his talk before the battle of Emmaus, where, commanding a force of three thousand untrained Jewish fighters without suitable weapons, he defeated five thousand trained, well-armed Greek soldiers:
. . . .Judah thus addressed them: "Prepare for action and show yourselves men. Be ready at dawn to fight these heathens who are massed against us to destroy us and our holy place. Better to die fighting than to look on while calamity overwhelms our people and the holy place. And in any case whatever Heaven will, is what will come to pass. (I Maccabees 3:58-60)
In spite of their inferiority in numbers and armament, after extremely difficult battles throughout Judea, Judah and his men succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. The Jewish victory over the Greeks was a historic instance of the spirit of the fighters being every bit as important as military might. The Book of Maccabees tells of the emotion-filled moment when the Jews returned to Jerusalem as victors, in the year 164 B.C.E., some three years after the rebellion began:
And Judah and his brothers said: "Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to Jerusalem to cleanse the Temple and rededicate it." So the whole army was assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they found the Temple laid waste, the altar profaned, the gates burnt down, the courts overgrown like a thicket or wooded hill- side, and the priests' rooms in ruin. They tore their garments in mourning, wailed loudly, put ashes on their heads, and fell on their faces.(I Maccabees 4:36-39)
Judah and his men began cleaning the grounds and restoring the structure. One of their first acts was to erect a new altar in place of the altar that had been desecrated and destroyed by the Greeks.
Legend tells that after Judah and his men built the altar and arranged wood on it for a fire, they prepared an animal for sacrifice, laying it upon the altar they had so recently completed. But the holy fire that burned on the altar from the days of Moses and remained miraculously alive in a secret hiding place for the seventy years of Babylonian exile no longer existed, and it was forbidden to use "strange fire." The Maccabees prayed, and in response, fire issued from the stones of the altar and ignited the wood. This same fire continued to burn on the altar until the Temple was finally destroyed by the Romans over two hundredyears later.
The altar was dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month of Kislev, three years after it had been desecrated and defiled by the Greeks. To this day, Jews celebrate the twenty-fifth of Kislev as the first night of Hannukah. (Josippon 18)
In the Temple, there stood a seven branched candelabrum known in Hebrew as the Menorah, which burned day and night without interruption. The lights of the Menorah were fueled by olive oil of the finest quality, whose ritual purity was zealously guarded during entire process of its production. The oil designated for the Menorah was stored in special vessels bearing the seal of the High Priest.
An ancient tradition tells:
When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the containers of oil, and when the Hasmonean family and their followers prevailed, defeating the Greeks, they searched and found only one container still sealed with the seal of the High Priest. It held enough oil for only one day, but a miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days.
The next year they declared the eight days of the miracle to be a holiday for praise and thanksgiving. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Hanukkah, the eight days of praise and thanksgiving established over two thousand years ago, continues to be celebrated by Jews the world over to this very day.
By tradition, each night after lighting the Hanukkah candles, we sing the song "Rock of Ages." The words were written by a Jew in thirteenth century Germany whose identity remains unknown. The author did leave us a kind of signature, though. Taken together, the opening letters of the Hebrew verses spell out what appears to be the author's first name, Mordekhai.
The song describes various moments in history when the Jews were miraculously saved from their oppressors. The second verse, for instance, describes the Exodus from Egypt; the third verse describes the return from Babylonian exile; the fourth the Jews' rescue in the time of Mordekhai and Esther, which gave us the Purim festival; and the fifth tells of the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks:
Greeks gathered to attack me in the Hasmonean days; they demolished my towers and polluted all the oils; from the last remaining flask, a miracle was wrought for Israel. Men of wisdom then decreed eight days for hymns of praise.
During the the Hasmonean rule, Jerusalem grew significantly, and many new buildings were erected new residential neighborhoods as well as opulent palaces for members of the upper classes. The Hasmonean rulers themselves lived in a palace near the Temple. New sections were added to the city wall in order to incorporate the new areas that had been built. In the vicinity of the city, outside the wall, wealthy families prepared monumental burial sites, some of which can be seen today. One the most famous of these is known today as Yad Avshalom or Absalom's tomb; it is named for King David's son Absalom (who lived nearly a millenium earlier). Archaeological excavations in and around Jerusalem have unearthed many remains from the days when the Hasmoneans ruled Jerusalem.