What Is the History Behind Hanukkah?

Discover the story behind the ancient Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.

May 10, 2024By Paul Brian, PGDip Broadcast Journalism, BA Humanities

hanukkah history


Every year over 14 million Jews around the world celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. The eight holy days of Hanukkah commemorate a time when ancient Jews reconquered the land that is now Israel, and survived against all odds during a brutal war being waged against them. The lighting of the menorah has become an iconic symbol of Jewish culture and faith, stretching over 2,000 years since its origin.


The Roots of Hanukkah 

hanukkah menorah with cake
Menorah with donuts, photo by YB13D, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The region that is now Israel was ruled by a series of non-Jewish dynasties and empires for hundreds of years, starting in 720 BCE. This included the fairly tolerant Ptolemies, followed by Antiochus III of the Syrian Seleucid Dynasty. When Antiochus III died, however, his son Antiochus IV took over. This is where the intense persecution of the Jews began to get even worse.


Around 174 BCE when Antiochus IV took over, it was made clear that Judaism wouldn’t be tolerated. Antiochus IV worshiped Greek gods and prized Greek culture. He belonged to the pro-Greek Seleucid Dynasty and wanted the Jewish nation to stop being Jewish. Antiochus considered Jewish beliefs to be backward and overly strict and considered Jewish ethnic identity to be troublesome and unnecessary. Simply put, Antiochus wanted Jews to assimilate and join Greek culture — or die.


Around 168 BCE Antiochus took his goal to extremes, sending his troops into the center of Jerusalem to kill thousands of Jews and take over the sacred Second Temple. There, the forces of Antiochus put up a sacrificial altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs, starting a campaign to try to force Jews to worship the Greek gods, abide by Greek customs, and submit to Seleucid rulership in all areas of their lives. This included breaking Jewish dietary laws, ceasing Jewish worship, and beginning to live life as full Seleucid subjects.

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Harsh Repression Gets Worse

jerusalem model second temple
A model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, by Berthold Werner, Source: Wikimedia Commons


All Jewish worship was made illegal and Torah scrolls were burned. Jews were barred from having the Sabbath as a day of rest and forced to disobey kashrut or kosher laws. High rabbis were forced into humiliating rituals to eat non-kosher food in front of crowds and publicly executed when they refused to do so.


This area of Judea was ruled over by Antiochus’ Governor Phillip, who executed the High Priest Eleazar for refusing to eat pork or even pretending to eat pork in front of a crowd. Around this time, there was supposedly a woman, now known as Chanah, who was arrested along with her seven sons and accused of practicing Judaism.


Antiochus himself decided to sit in on this case and spent time convincing Chanah’s eldest son to come over to the Greek gods. The youth refused and he was tortured to death in front of his family. Each of the six other sons was also tortured to death.


The king tried to give the youngest son a way out by offering him money or the chance to bow down to him, but he did not agree, urged on by Chanah’s words that faith in God was the highest honor even above life. Following the death of her seven sons, legend has it that Chanah herself leaped from the roof of a nearby building to her death.


The Jewish Rebellion Begins

hanukkah gathering chile
Celebration of Hanukkah in Palacio de La Moneda, Santiago, Chile, from the Ministerio Secretaria General de Gobierno, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As Antiochus’ forces made their way into the wider countryside, they continued their campaign of terror, killing thousands more Jews who refused to submit and eventually chasing all non-compliant Jews to the caves and hills of Judea. This is where they ran into a big problem: The Maccabees.


While some Jews agreed it would be best to fall in line, not everyone agreed. A Jewish priest named Mattathias rebelled against the Seleucid soldiers at a town named Modiin in rural Israel, killing a soldier and refusing to bow to Greek deities. The Selucid officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattithais offer sacrifices to the Greek gods.


Mattithais refused to do so, saying, “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our God made with our ancestors!” At this point, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to make a pagan sacrifice. Mattithais grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends then attacked the Seleucid officers and men.


They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar. This started the Maccabee rebellion, led by Mattathias until his death in 166 BCE and taken up by his son Judah afterward. Before dying, the elderly priest got his sons together and urged them to continue the fight, which Judah led along with his courageous brothers.


The Maccabee Rebellion and the Miracle of Hanukkah

israel hanukkah coins
Modern Israeli 10 agorot coin, reproducing the menorah image from a coin issued by Mattathias Antigonus, from the Bank of Israel, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Maccabean rebellion was the worst nightmare of Antiochus and the Seleucids. Along with his four brothers, Judah waged relentless guerilla warfare across Judea. Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Seleucids and by a second force of 40,000 sent in by Antiochus under the generals Nicanor and Gorgiash.


Judah and his troops fought valiantly, disappearing into the hills and circling back in surprise attacks on their numerically superior foes. A crucial victory at Mitzpah against Gorgiash led to more and more momentum and the Maccabees were on the move.


The Maccabees went on to retake Jerusalem by 164 BCE and they cleared out the Second Temple of Greek religious items and worship. Judah ordered a menorah to be lit as part of the rededication of the Second Temple to the one true God Yahweh. As the legend goes, there wasn’t enough oil to keep the lights burning for more than a day, but they kept burning for eight nights anyway.


This gave Judah and his fighters enough time to find more oil for the lights while holding the temple secure against outside incursions. The Maccabees believed they’d witnessed a miracle, forming the basis of the Hanukkah religious festival.


A simple man with strong faith, Judah wanted to go back to Modiin, but his charisma and leadership were still needed, and his brothers Shimon and Jonathan encouraged him to stay. Under Judah, a civil war was fought against pro-Greek Jews which Judah won, and he would go on to crush the Ammonites across the Jordan River as well. Upon his death in 160 BCE, Judah was hailed as a national hero, and his brother Jonathan became high priest and king of Israel, part of his legacy and that of his father Mattathias.


Hanukkah Through the Ages

Chanukah Menorah opposite Nazi building in Kiel, Germany, December 1931 by Rachel Posner, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Hanukkah has remained an important festival in Judaism and one of its most well-known, although the most religiously important festival is actually Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As a powerful symbol of Jewish survival, however, Hanukkah ranks foremost in terms of festivals associated with the Jewish people and their faith. Traditionally, a menorah has nine candles: Eight to represent the eight holy nights and a ninth to light the other eight candles.


The festival has survived through the ages despite persecution and hatred. It was continued by some Jews even during the Holocaust and countless other times throughout the past 2,000 years when Jews have been persecuted, killed, and religiously oppressed. Despite Jews being forced to hide or downplay their ethnic and religious identity due to the actions of the ruling political and religious ideologies, the menorah lights have continued to shine.

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By Paul BrianPGDip Broadcast Journalism, BA HumanitiesPaul is a freelance journalist and author specializing in culture, religion, and geopolitics who has contributed and reported for Foreign Policy, BBC, Reuters, the Spectator, the Critic, the Federalist, the American Conservative and more. He has reported from around the world including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine.