Hanukkah: A Brief Primer
In the Fourth Century BCE, Alexander the Great and his Greek armies conquered the Near East, including Israel. Over time, the Seleucid dynasty under the king of Syria became rulers of that area. Hanukkah's history begins in the year 167 BC -- approximately 2,187 years ago -- when King Antiochus began removing the freedom to practice Judaism.
He told the Jews they were no longer allowed to follow certain traditions, such as circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, as they created a clear distinction between the Greek culture and ours. What began with our religion, Judaism, becoming illegal and individual Jews quickly conforming soon progressed to the Greeks forcing us to actively turn against our faith.
The Babylonians had destroyed the first Holy Temple a couple centuries prior; at the time of the Hanukkah story, the second Holy Temple we'd built was standing. Our Holy Temple is not simply a dedicated place for worship. It is a physical place that is also the foundation of our relationship with God. This was during a time when prophecy still existed and miracles were performed daily. There is a Hebrew word for the presence there: “Shechina,” which refers to the condensed presence of God in an area. While God is everywhere, in that place the awareness of his presence is nearly tangible.
Yet the Greeks seized our Temple and used it for idol worship. Antiochus completely replaced our holy environment with acts such as sacrificing pigs to false gods. While many Jews quickly turned to Greek culture and began to focus on their physiques and strength (spending a lot of time in gymnasiums), others refused to betray their faith. Those who publicly studied Torah and fulfilled its commandments were killed by a Greek without hesitation. The dreidel became popularized as Jews secretly taught and studied with their children -- when a Greek soldier approached, they would pretend to just be playing with a spinning top.
One day, still in Israel, the Greeks built an altar in the town of Modi'in. All Jews were to show support to the new Greek world by sacrificing a pig on that altar. That was the final push that motivated Mattathias to do something for his people. He and his five sons began to kill the Greeks in small, strategic attacks. When Mattathias died of old age, his son Yehuda (Judah in English) became the leader of their small group. They were called the Maccabees, meaning “hammers,” and used shields adorned with the Star of David -- this usage began the association of the symbol with the Jewish people. After approximately seven years of fighting for religious rights, they overtook King Antiochus, regained the Holy Temple, and compromised for their freedom to keep the Torah with Lysias, the next ruler of Syria.