How Hanukkah began
I want to tell you the story of what happened to our people around about two hundred years or so ago. Israel had been invaded by Alexander the Great and was under Greek rule. At first nothing much changed - the money was different and you saw Greek soldiers strutting around - but everyone still spoke the same language, still lived our lives in our own way and Emperor Alexander did not want to interfere with our religion. He respected our God and our Temple and let things carry on just as they had always done.
But gradually things changed. It became fashionable to use Greek phrases in speech, more and more the children were taught in Greek at school. In Jerusalem they built gymnasiums and Greek sports became all the rage. I'm told that one of my great uncles as a young man started wearing Greek clothes, became keen on Greek sports and he was just not interested in being Jewish any more - even changed his name from Joshua to Jason! It happened in every family. Those who really honoured God felt they were fighting a losing battle.
In the end it was bound to focus on the Temple. "Why have this old fashioned religion when we could have the more contemporary Greek gods?" We had some good priests who held firm but others were happy to go along with it. The situation could not go on indefinitely.
Then a new ruler - Antiochus Epiphanes - took over. He really had it in for Judaism. He forbade the keeping of the Sabbath, keeping Kosher and many other Jewish laws - even circumcision. He wanted our Temple for his own gods. The 25 Kislev was a big midwinter festival to some Greek god or other and on that day, Antiochus had his soldiers swarm up onto the Temple mount.
They marched right passed the barriers forbidding gentiles to go any further and cleared the Temple of anyone other than the priests who were willing to collaborate. They erected a huge statue of Zeus in the inner courts and deliberately sacrificed a pig on the Altar - can you imagine it - a pig! Then Antiochus himself walked right into the Holy Place and pulled back the curtain of the Holy of Holies. He laughed that it seemed so empty and poured out the foul pigs blood in that holiest place on earth.
These were terrible days for Jewish people. The Greek soldiers travelled around the country, making priest offer unclean sacrifices and making the ordinary people eat unclean food - to refuse meant certain death. There was a lady called Hannah, who had seven sons. The eldest was asked to bow down to an idol and eat forbidden pork. He refused and paid for it with his life. Then the second son was brought forward, then the third. Finally, Hannah had seen all her sons murdered before her eyes and she too was told to worship the Greek idol. Hannah died a brave and proud woman to be with her sons in the world to come.
Eventually the soldiers came to the town of Modi'in. Here there was a famous priest called Mattathias. He was an old man now but had been quite outspoken against the Greek influences and warned of their dangers. What would happen - would he give in to save his life - or would he die for his faith. He was asked to sacrifice first and refused. No one was surprised. But another priest was frightened - what if the whole town was slaughtered because of this? Before anyone laid hands on Mattathias he rushed forward - "I'll make the sacrifice" he said.
The Greeks were startled and a little pleased - Mattathias was not the only voice in the town then.
Mattathias saw his moment. How he came by it I do not know - but he had a sword!! He may have been old but he was a fit man - he plunged his sword into the heart of the turncoat priest and then turned and lunged at the Greek officer, killing him as well. There was a moment of silence as people took in what had happened. Then Mattathias called out: `Follow me all of you who are zealous for the law and stand by God's holy covenant!' The crowd erupted:
So most of Modi'in took to the hills - even the women and the children - the men did not want to leave them. They all looked to Mattathias - finally we were going to fight back. Mattathias was an old man though and he knew it. He had five strong sons: John, Simeon, Judah who they called Maccabee, Eleazar and Jonathan. He appointed Simeon as overall leader - he was a wise man. But Judah was made head of the army - he knew how to fight. Some say they called him Maccabee because he was like a hammer. Others say it was an acrostic - a summary his battle cry: Mi Kamoha Ba'alim Adonai' (Who is like you among the gods, O Lord).
So began the revolt against the Greeks. Judah did not train his men to fight on the plain in a battle. That was the Greek way of doing things he said. He trained them to fight in the hills. They broke into small forces and moved quickly, striking somewhere at night and then coming away fast before the Greeks could retaliate. It took three years to wear the Greeks down but gradually they pushed them back. Eventually even Jerusalem was in their sights. They fought all that autumn:
They did not even stop for the High Holy Days - just fasting in the hills for Yom Kippur. Little by little they pushed forward until eventually Jerusalem fell into their hands.
Judah Maccabee rode into Jerusalem and the crowds cheered and cheered.
They grabbed palm branches and threw them onto the ground in front of him - just as they had done to King Solomon when he rededicated the Temple at the feast of Tabernacles.
Judah rode up to the Temple and then dismounted and climbed up to the Temple mount. It was a terrible sight. The whole Temple had been desecrated and as the Greeks had left they had smashed anything that they had been able to.
Sadly Judah went into the Inner court - his family were priests - he had a right to be there. He peered into the Holy Place and saw the beautiful seven branched menorah over turned but still unbroken.
"Have we oil to light the Menorah?" He said. The soldiers with him, many of them priests, looked around and eventually found a single jar still bearing the High Priest's seal. This was enough to fuel the Menorah for one day. They gently lifted the beautiful candlestick upright again and poured the oil into the seven containers. It would take eight days to purify more oil but they would light it on this day to symbolise the new hope they had.
The next day they returned to the Temple and the Menorah was still alight! They took down the altar and buried the defiled altar stones, then they sent out stone masons to cut and build a new altar. They went into the Holy of Holies and cleansed it. Over eight days they put things to rights and cleaned the Temple. Every day they expected the Menorah to go out, and each day when they returned it was still alight - it was a miracle. Eventually after eight days the new oil was ready. It was poured into the cups of the Menorah and from then on they added new oil every day.
It was coming up to the 25th of Kislev the date when the Temple was first desecrated. We will have a re-dedication, Judah Maccabee declared.
Solomon had dedicated his Temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. They had been fighting that year at Tabernacles and had not celebrated it properly. Judah declared that they would celebrate Tabernacles now on the 25 Kislev. Lights were lit in the Temple precincts and palm branches were taken down and waved. They sang the Hallel psalms and kept the festival for eight days.
After that we always kept the 25th of Kislev as a feast of Dedication or Hanukkah as it is called in Hebrew. Torches are lit, as with Tabernacles and the miracle of the oil is remembered.
Most of all people remember the Maccabees and how they were able to fight back against the Greeks.
So that was what happened then all those years ago. Now we are under the Romans. In some ways things are not that different, we still speak mostly our own language, though most people know Greek as well. We live our lives in very much the same way. It seems that they have left our religion alone so far - but how long that will last, none of us can really know. Roman soldiers march the streets and there is a garrison in every Jewish town.
Most people would like the Romans out - well all people apart from the collaborators - people like tax collectors and even the priests seem to be doing very nicely out of it at the moment. But things can't go on as they are - we are not a free people. The Romans could walk into the Temple tomorrow and close it down.
What we need is another Judah Maccabee - someone who will fight for us. I hear people saying that the Messiah will come and that he will be like that. It is spoken of in the prophets they say. When he comes he will set us free and bring us peace. There's a man from Galilee - Jesus ben Joseph. People are beginning to whisper that he might be the Messiah. He sounds a bit like Mattathias: - when he came up to Jerusalem for Passover a couple of years ago, they say he took a whip and cleared the Temple courts of all the money changers and the stalls selling animals for sacrifice! Said that they had turned "his Fathers house into a Market" - His father, mind you. He said that even if they destroyed the Temple that he could rebuild it.
Sound like Mattathias - but he is young, like Judah Maccabee. We hope he might be the one.
He was at the Temple this year at Hanukkah - the feast of dedication. Even though it was winter he was here and not at home in Galilee.
Some of the Rabbis found him walking in Solomon's Colonnade. They gathered round and begged him not to keep them in suspense - "if you are the Messiah, tell us plainly" they said.
He said that he had told them already but they hadn't believed. Then he talked about all his miracles and about his followers recognising who he was. If he had called them to gather an army - they would have done it - they were itching to do so. But he didn't say that. He just seemed to miss the opportunity somehow. Talked instead about God and eternal life. Surely this is not the time to talk about the world to come. We have a problem here on earth to sort out?
Still, it may be that he was just stalling for time. Winter is not the best time to start a revolt. May be something will happen at Passover - they say he is always in Jerusalem then so maybe that's when he will make his move.
He seems dedicated enough to God - though I must admit, I am not entirely sure that I could see him being successful at leading an army…...