Monday, December 10, 2007

Hanukkah - The Rest of the Story

What a great story. The evil Syrians (Greeks? Babylonians? North Koreans? who cares?) tried to assimilate us Hebrews. About 167BCE Mattathias and his five sons fought back and defeated the enemy. The Temple (the 2nd) was in rough shape. There was not enough oil to last the eight days until the rededication but - a miracle - it did. And today we light the eight candles and celebrate Hanukkah.

Funny thing, the rabbis hardly ever mentioned the Maccabees in the Talmud.

What gives?

As Paul Harvey says, here is ----- the rest of the story.

(I acknowledge taking nearly all of what follows, including the quotes, from Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. For a more complete description of the events from 167BCE to 135CE, read Chapters 64 to 80)

(There is so much in this history that is relevant to the present situation. I will simply lay out excerpts from the book but encourage you to post comments with your thoughts.)


Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria (175-163BCE) was a tyrant whose actions led to the successful revolt of the Maccabees.

Also known as Hasmoneans, they became oppressors when they got power. “Unfortunately the Maccabees were more noble in opposition than in power. They had grown so accustomed to fighting that they seemed incapable of working with anyone who disagreed with them about anything.”

Mattathias' descendant “King Alexander Yannai executed 800 of his Pharisee opponents after first forcing them to witness the murders of their wives and children. While the slaughter was going on, Yahhai was present, hosting a Greek-style drinking party. (For Jews the episode was doubly tragic; it was as if the descendants of the Marranos had later become the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition.)”

The Maccabees terrible moral and religious decline explains why there is almost no mention of them in the Talmud. Today, in fact, when Jews think of the miracle of Hanukkah, they are less apt to think of the Mccabean rebellion than of the small cruse of oli that burned for either days when the Temple was rededicated.”

During a civil war in 63 BCE between Mattathias’ descendants, the Romans were invited in. “It is one of the less proud facts of Jewish history that Rome occupied Jerusalem in 63 BCE not by invasion but by invitation.”

“The tragedy was now complete. The original Maccabees had freed the Jews from foreign rule; their corrupt descendants now returned the Jews to subjugation under an alien (and Pagan) power.”


“The Jew’s Great Revolt against Rome in 66 CE led to one of the greatest catastrophes in Jewish life and, in retrospect, might well have been a terrible mistake.”

The zealots, active since about 6CE, were anti-Rome and believed that all means were justified to attain political and religious liberty. The revolt began in the north and no help came from Jerusalem.

When the north fell to the Romans, the zealots came to Jerusalem, started a suicidal civil war, killing every Jewish leader not as radical as them. Some great figures of ancient Israel, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, opposed the revolt.

By 70CE, the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans and the Temple was destroyed leaving only one wall standing (the Western Wall – the Kotel).

It is estimated that one million Jews died in the Great Revolt.


After the fall of the temple, the surviving Zealots fled to the fortress of Masada. The Romans laid siege as the Zealots had been in revolt for nearly 70 years and had started the Great Revolt. Eventually the Zealot men killed their wives and children and then each other.

This episode is not mentioned in the Talmud. Why? Perhaps there was Rabbinic anger at the extremist Zealots who had died there. “Furthermore, at a time when the rabbis were desperately attempting to reconstruct a Judaism that could survive without a temple and without a sovereign state, they hardly were interested in glorifying the mass suicide of Jews who believed that life without sovereignty was not worth living.”

The story of Masada was a more or less forgotten episode until the 1920’s “when the Hebrew writer Isaac Lamdan wrote “Masada” a poetic history of the anguished Jewish fight against a world full of enemies.”


Simon Bar-Kokhba organized a rebellion again the Romans in 132CE. The reasons for the revolt are unclear. There seems no evidence that the Romans were trying to eradicate Judaism. Rabbi Akiva (135CE), perhaps the Talmud’s greatest scholar, was a strong supporter of Bar-Kokhba, saying that he was the Messiah.

When it was over and the Romans were victorious, nearly the entire land of Judea lay waste. Fifty percent of the Judea’s population was dead. Rabbi Akiva was executed by burning. Jews were outnumbered by non-Jews. Tens of thousands of Jewish men and women were sold into slavery and other women were forced to become prostitutes.

“In the opinion of many Jewish historians, the failure of this rebellion along with the Great Revolt was the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people prior to the Holocaust. It led to the total loss of Jewish political authority in Israel until 1948.”

“This loss in itself exacerbated the magnitude of later Jewish catastrophes, since it precluded Israel from being used as a refuge for the large numbers of Jews fleeing persecutions elsewhere.”

“As a rule, people regard bold actions they admire as courageous, and those of which they disapprove as foolhardy. In 1980, Israeli General Yehoshafat Harkabi shocked Israeli public opinion by arguing that one of the great Jewish national heroes, Simeon Bar-Kokhba, the leader of a second-century revolt against Rome should be placed into the category of the foolhardy rather than the courageous” arguing “that Bar-Kokhba initiated a revolt that was unnecessary and unwinnable.”

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