The Secret History of Hanukkah | Unpacked

– Lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel, eating fried foods. Yep, I’m talking about the Festival of Lights. But there’s more to Hanukkah than latkes and gelt. – More than that. – What if I told you that the Hanukkah story has more intrigue and violence than a season of “Game of Thrones?” – Impossible. – It’s got everything. A ragtag group of rebels and zealots, a mighty empire, a civil war, and a really awful villain. So what’s the real story behind Hanukkah? And why does a 2,000-year-old rebellion still matter to us today? (dramatic music) The year was

sometime around 200 BCE. The place was the land of Israel. Except it wasn’t very Jewish at the time. The Holy Land has changed hands once or twice, or 36 times over the years. And at this particular moment, it was in the hands of the Syrian Greek empire, aka, the Seleucids, ruled by Antiochus III. (bell dinging) The Seleucids were pretty into Hellenism, Greek culture. You know, muscular, life-like statues? – Hi there! – Greek gymnasiums. (statue farting) – Excuse me! – Greek temples, Greek philosophy, Greek gods. It was basically a Percy Jackson novel. – This is crazy!

– Hellenism had its upsides. I mean, democracy. (bell dinging) The Olympics. (bell dinging) A commitment to getting swole? – Oh yeah. – Plus the Seleucids really encouraged their subjects to adopt

Greek culture. Some Jews gave in. But others were less than thrilled about the whole polytheistic pagan thing. – We don’t really do that. – Despite the disapproval of the anti-Hellenization crowd, (blowing raspberries) life under Antiochus III was more or less peaceful. For an ancient imperialist, the guy was pretty chill. Sure, he showed up and announced that everyone in the land of Israel was now a

Seleucid subject. – Nice. Nice. – But like, he didn’t kill or banish the Jews. And he didn’t interfere with their right to worship as they pleased. As long as he was in charge, Jews and Seleucids were basically cool with one another. But here’s the thing about monarchy. It tends to be hereditary. Which means that the king isn’t always the most qualified guy in the room. Antiochus III might have been great. His kid, Antiochus IV? Eh, not so great. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our villain. A paranoid, power hungry, militaristic schemer. But for all his faults,

Antiochus IV was politically savvy enough to exploit a power vacuum when he saw one. The Jewish priests in the holy Temple had been squabbling for years, creating the perfect conditions for a hostile takeover. In one corner, we have the pious, non-Hellenizing types, who care about the letter of Jewish law. In the other corner, we have the guys who care about power, and are willing to do anything to get it. Both camps appealed to the Seleucid authorities to take their side. But it was the second camp, the I’ll-do-anything-for-power guys, who ultimately won. ‘Cause they made Antiochus

an offer he couldn’t resist. I’m talking about bribery. – Bribery, nice. – But here’s the thing about buying your power. There’s always going to be someone who outbids you. And that’s exactly what happened. So when a different power-hungry weasel made Antiochus an even better offer, Antiochus accepted. Problem was, the Jews hated the new guy. – Why don’t you go ahead and go die? – He even let Antiochus barge into the Temple and cart away its treasures in order to pay for his wars with Egypt. As rumors flew that Antiochus had been killed in battle, the

Jewish priests geared up for a coup. They were going to depose the new guy and take back what was theirs. But the rumors of Antiochus’ death turned out to be just that. Rumors. (slapping foreheads) And when he saw the power struggles between his puppet priests, he assumed incorrectly that they were trying to depose him. – I know, I know! – God, Antiochus. Not everything is about you. – How dare you? How dare you! – And he was so ticked off about this imagined coup that he besieged Jerusalem, massacring tens of thousands of Jews, and selling

others into slavery. More violence followed, but Antiochus was on a roll. Turns out he didn’t just want to kill Jews. He wanted to kill Judaism. He outlawed Shabbat, Torah study, circumcision, and kosher laws. And then, just to prove he meant business, he turned the Holy Temple into a shrine to Zeus, where he and his men sacrificed pigs, held creepy sex parties, and forced Jews to celebrate pagan holidays. The Jews were horrified. But those who spoke out were tortured and executed. It was time for drastic measures. The leader of the fight was a priest named Mattityahu

ben Yochanan. Yep, a priest. Which means that he used to work in the Temple and had some very salty words for its new management. (speaking foreign language) Mattityahu had strict ideas about right and wrong. Right was Judaism. Wrong was, well, everything the Seleucids were doing. So when a Seleucid official commanded him to worship a pagan God, Mattityahu killed him. And then for good measure, he killed a fellow Jew who had obeyed the Seleucid official. Yikes! This is the part they don’t tell you about in Hebrew school, the whole Jew-on-Jew violence thing. But this is actually

a major part of the Hanukkah story. It wasn’t just a fight between the Jews and their foreign oppressor. It was a fight between Jews about the nature of Judaism. One that had started years before, as various players fought over control of the Temple. Now the fight had come to the people, and it was time to make a decision. Were they gonna buckle under foreign influences and Hellenize? Or were they going to resist any attempt to change their faith? You can guess what Mattityahu chose. Together with his five sons, he called the Jews to rebel against

their oppressors, and restore Judaism throughout the land. No, not Hellenized Judaism with its pagan influences. OG Judaism, without the altars to Zeus and the gymnasiums. Mattityahu started off destroying all the symbols of Hellenism that he could find. Altars, idols, statues, buildings. When he died, his son Judah took the rebellion one step further. He was done attacking symbols of Hellenism. It was time to take on the source of the problem. The Seleucid Empire. Judah, like his father, was a true believer. So it didn’t matter to him that his forces were tiny. The enemy may have had

bigger numbers and better weapons, but Judah’s followers had the ultimate secret weapon. Their unwavering faith in God. Judah was ferocious. Friends and enemies alike called him “The Maccabee,” from the Aramaic word for “hammer.” His troops adopted the name too. Like a hammer, The Maccabee struck hard and fast. True, there weren’t a lot of them, but they knew the Judean hills like the backs of their hands. So their lightning ambushes were a success. Yeah, I’ll say that again. A tiny group of Jews that could have doubled as a Bar Mitzvah band. Seriously, Judah and the Maccabees?

Amazing band name. Was winning against the generals of the second most powerful army in the world. But the second most powerful army was in trouble. The Seleucid empire was in free fall. And the first most powerful army had a vested interest in seeing them destroyed. See, the Maccabees weren’t just warriors. They were also masters of statecraft. And they knew who the real power was. Rome. So they sent representatives to, shall we say, reach an understanding with the Roman Empire. The Maccabees still did the bulk of the fighting, but it helped that they had the world’s

biggest superpower on their side. They also had a pretty good grasp on military strategy. So when Antiochus sent a massive force led by his top generals, the Maccabees prepared a little surprise. Judah knew the Seleucids were planning to ambush the Maccabee camp. So he snuck his army away in the middle of the night, leaving all the lights burning to trick the Seleucids. But only a tiny force remained in the camp, armed to the teeth, and ready to fight, while most of the army was preparing for a counterstrike. Or rather, multiple counterstrikes. The Maccabees divided themselves

into separate forces, using each to attack the enemy from different sides. The Seleucids were surrounded, their forces crushed. It didn’t take long for the Maccabees to retake the Temple, where they did a serious deep clean and built a new altar for kosher sacrifices. Finally, they lit the famous menorah with the last reserves of olive oil that remained. You know this story. There was so little pure olive oil left that the menorah was only supposed to burn for one day. Instead, it burned for eight, giving the Maccabees enough time to make more oil. This is why

Hanukkah lasts for eight days. – Eight crazy nights. – Why we eat delicious fried foods. – It looks like they’re deep frying – – Everything. – And I’ll have a diet Coke, deep-fried. – Why we light a Hanukkiah. – Absolutely. You’ll light it up. – Our modern tribute to the ancient menorah. So happy ending. No loose ends, right? Not exactly. Retaking a city is a lot of work. The Maccabees may have rededicated the Temple, but there was still fighting to be done. In fact, Judah was killed trying to take the rest of Jerusalem. Pour one

out for the OG Maccabee. It took years until the Jews managed to kick out the Seleucids entirely. And the story doesn’t end there. Remember, this was a war on two fronts. Maccabees versus Seleucids. And Maccabees versus Hellenizers. The Maccabees were winning, for now. They gave the Hellenizers three options. One, stop being Hellenizers. Two, leave Judea. Three, die. Some went with option one. Some, with option two. I’m guessing very few chose option three. The Maccabees won this round, but they didn’t exactly get a happy ending. They threw off the Seleucids and established a monarchy. But their

reign was marked by constant and intense power struggles. And you know who loves exploiting power struggles? Big empires, like Rome. But that’s a story for another time, kids. – I think we would’ve stopped now. – So Hanukkah isn’t a simple holiday. It commemorates some pretty tragic stuff. Petty power struggles, religious oppression, civil war, an alliance with a superpower that eventually goes haywire. Now, I’m not trying to be the Grinch, or rather, the Grinch who stole Hanukkah. Because at the end of the day, it’s still a celebration of resilience, of beating the odds, of standing up

for your beliefs. Throughout our chaotic history, the Jewish People have drawn strength from the story of the mighty warriors who fought to keep their culture alive, and won. For what it’s worth, I think the Maccabees themselves would’ve been both amazed and horrified by their legacy. On the one hand, Jews use Maccabee as a synonym for strength, heroism, and bravery. Israeli sports teams are named for the Maccabees. And so are the Jewish Olympics, or Maccabiah Games. And no, the irony of that isn’t lost on me. But how would the Maccabees feel if they knew that their

holiday has become commercialized, in an attempt to compete with Christmas? So while I don’t live my life like a religious zealot, circa 167 BCE, I do try to spend the eight days of this holiday celebrating my right to worship freely, as I please, in my own homeland. Considering Jewish history, that’s a real miracle.

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