The History and Archaeology of Chanukah


Aaron Feigenbaum

If a survey questioned people about the defining feature of Chanukah, most would probably note the amazing miracle of a one-day supply of pure menorah oil which lasting eight days. Indeed, the whole purpose of lighting the menorah in our homes, is to commemorate that very miracle. Yet, to fully appreciate the importance of Chanukah to Judaism and Jewish history, and to understand just how big of a miracle it really was, one must look back at the historical context. As we’ll see, the events that led up to the menorah miracle over 2,000 years ago were some of the most tumultuous in Jewish history.

Several centuries before the miracle, Eretz Yisroel was ruled by the Persian Empire. The Persians, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, granted the Jews autonomy and the freedom to practice Judaism without interference. In fact, Cyrus approved and funded the construction of the Second Bais HaMikdash in the 6th century B.C.E. (as recounted in the books of Ezra, Daniel and Divrei HaYamim). It is because of this that Persian rule, though it was foreign, is regarded favorably in Jewish history.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

However, once Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire in 332 B.C.E. and established a Greek presence in Eretz Yisroel, the privileges that the Jews once enjoyed, gradually disappeared. The Greeks had no consistent policy towards their subjects: some rulers treated the Jews with relative tolerance while others were unabashedly hostile towards Jews and Judaism itself.

However, what was consistent was the steady encroachment of Hellenism into everyday Jewish life and thought. The impact of Hellenism in Eretz Yisroel was the active secularization of society and the negating of the connection between Torah and Hashem. Of course, Hellenism did far less at “bettering the world” than it intended, but it was quite effective in subjugating highly diverse populations who were spread across vast swathes of territory. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Hellenism has had an enormous impact on the Roman Empire, the development of Christianity up to modern Western thought.

In any event, the introduction of Hellenism into Eretz Yisroel, achieved the Greeks’ intended result: they created strife and factionalism amongst the Jews and thus make it easier to impose Greek rule. So-called “Hellenistic Judaism” became a major force in Jewish society to the point that a translation of the Torah into Greek was written (the Septuagint) and some kohanim adopted Greek names. According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, “The Hellenic influence pervaded everything, and even in the very strongholds of Judaism it modified the organization of the state, the laws, and public affairs, art, science, and industry, affecting even the ordinary things of life and the common associations of the people.”

Looking at the archaeological records, we can see how this extensive influence actually took form. Take for instance, the ancient Canaanite city of Tel Kedesh, near the Golan. The archaeological site not only shows it was the location of battle between the Jews and their Greek/Roman oppressors, but also symbolizes Hellenism itself. Inside the large administrative complex, researchers excavated over 2,000 bullae (clay seals) depicting Greek rulers and Roman merchants. Consider also the famous spring of Banias, also in Golan, where Greek rulers built a pagan temple that replaced an earlier one built by the Cannanites. And, there’s Tel Maresha, located near the West Bank, which was originally settled by Edomites, who were later joined by retired Greek soldiers when Alexander the Great conquered the region. Tel Maresha developed into a major Hellenistic city inhabited by a variety of Greek-dominated cultures such as the Nabataeans and Sidonians.

Hellenism became an everyday fact of Jewish life, as exemplified by Philo, a Jewish philosopher who sought to interpret Judaism through the lens of Hellenism. Yet, under the surface there were groups opposed to Greek rule and who wanted to purify the land of foreign influence and bring Jews back to authentic Judaism.

The victory in Eretz Yisroel of the Seleucid Greeks over the Ptolemaic Greeks kindled hope in the eyes of those who wanted a return to Persian-style rule where their religious rights would be respected and outside interference would be limited. These hopes were granted by King Antiochus III who, as the ancient Jewish historian Josephus put it, let the Jews live “according to the laws of their forefathers.”

Antiochus III

Antiochus III

However, Antiochus III’s son Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Judea and reversed his father’s tolerant policies by placing idolatry right in the Beis HaMikdash. Not only that, he threatened Jews with death if they circumcised their sons, forbade observance of Shabbos, ended korbanos and made possession of Torah scrolls a capital offense.

At this point, with the very survival of Judaism on the line, those groups that had once plotted in the shadows against the Greeks, now came out openly and in full force against Antiochus’ oppressive regime. Matisyahu, a priest, and his five sons, officially started the Maccabean Revolt by killing a Jew who wanted to follow Antiochus’ order to, chas v’shalom, make a pagan sacrifice on the Mishkan. Matisyahu died a year later and was succeeded by his son Yehuda. The Maccabees didn’t have either the manpower or weaponry that the Greeks did, but thanks to their spirit and determination, Yerushalayim was recaptured and the Bais HaMikdash was cleansed of pagan influence and was rededicated in Hashem’s name.

Thus, the miracle of the menorah oil is not only evidence of the Hashem’s power to bend the laws of nature, but is also a sign that the Jews, by resisting Hellenic paganism, did indeed merit to continue serving Him at the Bais HaMikdash.

In one of the most significant archaeological discoveries relating to this period, researchers just last month unearthed the ruins of the fortress built by Antiochus IV in Jerusalem that was used during his siege of the city in 168 B.C.E. Mentioned both by Josephus and the Book of Maccabees, the Acra fortress appears to have been guarded by Hellenized Jews (misyavnim) who eventually fell to the forces of Shimon HaMaccabee in 141 B.C.E.

Artifacts found at the site include lead sling stones, a catapult, bronze arrowheads, ballista stones marked with the image of a pitchfork (symbolizing Antiochus IV) and a trove of coins dating from the reigns of Antiochus IV to that of Antiochus VII. According to the researchers involved in the dig, “This stronghold controlled all means of approach to the Temple, and cut the Temple off from the southern parts of the city. The many coins dating from the reign of Antiochus IV [Epiphanes] to that of Antiochus VII [Sidetes] and the large number of wine jars (amphorae) that were imported from the Aegean region to Jerusalem and were found at the site bear witness to the citadel’s age, as well as to the non-Jewish identity of its inhabitants.” Archaeologists have been searching for this crucial archaeological site for over a century.

Another crucial archaeological find from this era is Umm el-Umdan in the modern city of Modi’in. Meaning “Mother of Pillars” in Arabic, excavations have uncovered evidence of an ancient Jewish village, possibly the one from which the Maccabees originate. Underneath the site’s ancient Herodian-era shul lies another shul that dates to the time of the Maccabees. Nearby at Horbat Ha-Gardi are what are believed to be the Maccabean family graves. Just 3 months ago, the site was rediscovered for the first time in 150 years. Unfortunately, while the buildings seem to match the descriptions from 150 years ago, the archaeologists couldn’t draw any definitive conclusions as many of the stones and artifacts have been stolen.

Aerial view of an ancient Jewish village, including Shul in the city of Modiin

Aerial view of an ancient Jewish village, including Shul in the city of Modiin

Life after the Maccabean revolt was markedly better for the Jews of Eretz Yisroel. Jewish rule over the Land, in the form of the Hasmonean dynasty, was reestablished in 140 B.C.E. for the first time in centuries, albeit with nominal Greek sovereignty. As the Greek empire crumbled, the Hasmoneans became fully independent in 110 B.C.E. and expanded into parts of modern day Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. However, the threats of Roman domination and internal strife loomed large.

Indeed, these threats became fully manifest when Shimon HaMaccabee’s great-grandsons Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, fought a civil war against each other, following which the Romans were called in to “intercede.” Eventually, Herod, with the help of the Romans, overthrew the Hasmoneans in 37 B.C.E. and established himself as a puppet ruler of Judea. Between then and the establishment of the State of Israel, there was no independent Jewish state in the world.

Despite the sad ending to the Hasmoneans, the courageous example set by the Maccabees undoubtedly inspired the resistance to the Romans from 66-70 C.E. and has been a unifying force for Jews up to the present day. For example, a WWI British recruitment poster reads “Now is the time for Jews to reciprocate and show the old spirit of the Maccabees is not dead. Every able bodied unmarried Jew between 19 and 45 should join the British Army.” It is this same spirit that has driven the Zionist movement, militant Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, and the Irgun.

Poster seeking to recruit Jewish soldiers during World War One

Poster seeking to recruit Jewish soldiers during World War One

Yet, while the Maccabees have been a rallying symbol for Jews throughout the ages, we should remember not just their fearlessness in battle but really their incredible act of Kiddush Hashem. They were able to overcome the temptations and secular ideas of Greek Hellenism and re-establish Eretz Yisrael as a place where Jews could worship freely. They united fiercely opposed Jewish groups under a banner of Torah observance and the rejection of foreign beliefs and foreign domination. But above all, it was their insistence on purity, as exemplified by their decision to use only pure olive oil rather than tamei oil that merited the menorah miracle. It is in this context that we should remember the miracle of the menorah and fully appreciate all that it symbolizes.