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Learn Hebrew: Chanukah

December 13, 2009 | by

The geopolitics behind this spiritual battle.

The story of Chanukah is full of heroism and bravery, as well as of tradition, faith and martyrdom. It puts a magnifying glass on the issue of assimilation of Jews with the nations that surround us. It is an ancient story, yet as current as could be. Let us introduce you to the historical story behind this well-known festival of lights.

Alexander the Great conquered the land of Judea in 333 BCE and began the Greek reign over the land of Israel. However, he allowed the Jews to keep their beliefs and tradition and gave them religious-national autonomy. After his death, the empire was divided and Israel became cast into conflict due to its high strategic value as a passage-way between the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia.

Eventually, in the year 175 BCE, the Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus IV) came into power, with the goal of merging all the nations under one Greek-Hellenistic culture. The Jewish high priest (כהן גדול) of the Temple, Yason, agreed to spread the Hellenistic culture among the Jews. He proclaimed Jerusalem (ירושלים) to be a city-state ruled by the chosen citizens, and received much power and financial benefits. These benefits attracted other priests who plotted different schemes to get the power, killed their opponents, stole the treasures of the Holy Temple (בית המקדש) and betrayed each other. Most Jews, however, kept their faith in God and did not follow the Hellenistic ideas.

In 167 BCE Antiochus decreed that all the Jews must cease worshipping God and must worship the Hellenistic gods instead. He also ruled that Jews must work on Shabbat and holidays (שבת ויום טוב), and to stop studying Torah and following its rules, including the circumcision ritual (ית מילה). Jews had to prove they were not acting as Jews by eating swine and participating in Pagan ceremonies. Many of those who refused to do so were killed by the Greeks.

The most famous story tells of Hanna and her seven sons: After they were captured by Antiochus' troops, they were commanded to bow to an idol and eat pigs (חזיר). One by one, each boy refused and was tortured to death before his mother's eyes. When they reached the youngest child, the Greeks threw a coin on the floor to slyly make the boy bow to the idol when bending to grab the coin. The child kept standing and was killed as well. Hanna requested to kiss her dead sons and then jumped from the roof and died.

Enter the Maccabees

When Antiochus’ officials reached Modi'in , a small city in the Judean mountains, they built an altar for their gods and ordered an elderly priest named Matityahu the Hasmonean  to sacrifice a pig to the idol. He refused, and when an apostate Jew stepped forward to comply, Matityahu stabbed him, killed the Greek official, and tore down the altar. After that, he turned to the crowd announcing: - "Follow me, all of you who are for God's law and stand by the covenant."

Matityahu fled to the Gofna hills accompanied by his five sons: Yochanan (), Shimon (), Judah (Yehudah - ), Jonathan (Yonatan - ) and Elazar ( ). From there, the family launched a guerrilla war against the armies of the empire.

The rebels, ruled by Matityahu and later by his third son Judah Maccabee , began attacking the Greek army with much bravery and smart tactics, ambushing the enemy at unexpected places and surprising them when the sun blinded their eyes. Although Judah's band of fighters was incredibly outnumbered, they won one miraculous victory after another.

The consequence of the successful revolt was the abolishment of all the decrees against the Jews. On the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (164 BCE), Judah's army recaptured the Holy Temple, which they cleansed and purified and rededicated to God. (Chanukah means "dedication.") When it came time to re-light the Menorah (מנורה), they searched the entire Temple, but found only one jar of pure oil bearing the seal of the High Priest. The group of believers lit the Menorah anyway and were rewarded with a miracle: That small jar of oil burned for eight days, until a new supply of oil could be brought.

(From then on, Jews have observed a holiday for eight days, lighting a menorah during the eight nights of Chanukah.)

Actually, that was not the end of the war, and the fighting went on for another 12 years, until the Jews regained control of their land. Geopolitically, that was the moment of real political triumph.

But Chanukah isn't about political power -- Chanukah is about the Jewish yearning for God, for the concentrated holiness of the Temple and its service. Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday not found in the Bible (תנ''ך) and the only one rooted in a military campaign. And yet its focus is almost entirely spiritual, not physical. The triumph of the Maccabees was the triumph of the soul over the body, of light over darkness -- viewing the world with God, not man, at its center.

Chanukah Word: "Maccabee"

Judah, the third son of Matityahu, was nicknamed the Maccabee .

The rebelling Jews who followed him were called the Maccabees .

There are two possible explanations for this name:

1)- makevet, a hammer

2) An acronym for "who is like you among the powers, O God" (- "mi kamocha ba'elim Hashem") - the battle cry of the Jewish people.

Related Hebrew Names

Judah (Yehuda) -

Judah is related to the verb (lehodot, "to thank"). Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah (Genesis 29:35); the tribe of Judah is called after his name, as is the kingdom of Judah.

Hanna (Chana) -

A girl’s name from the Bible: the original Chana was Elkanah's wife, and the mother of the prophet Samuel (1-Samuel 1:20). In the Chanukah story, a woman named Chana watched as her seven sons bravely chose death rather than betray their Jewish faith.

Chanukah Song

Click here for audio.

Chanukah, Chanukah
Chag yafeh kol kach
Ohr chaviv, mi-saviv
Gil li-yeled rach.
Chanukah, Chanukah
Sivivon, sov, sov
Sov, sov, sov! Sov, sov, sov!
Ma nayim vi-tov.


Chanukah is a great holiday.
Surrounded with lovely light.
Fun for little children.
Dreidel, spin, spin, spin.
How wonderful!

Hebrew Word Search

See if you can find all the words in the puzzle below:


חנוכה שמח,

Chanukah Same’ach

Happy Chanukah!


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