About 175 years before the birth of Jesus, the Syrian empire ruled over the land of Israel.
The Syrian ruler, Antiochus IV, was a tyrant – a madman, a Hitler archetype. He sought to suppress all the Jewish laws. Thousands of Jews were killed.
All Jewish worship was forbidden. The scrolls were confiscated and burned. Honoring the Sabbath, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. Antiochus conspired to depose and later assassinate the righteous high priest, Yochanan. Antiochus’ henchmen ordered 90-year-old rabbi Eliezer to eat pork as an example to his followers. He refused and was put to death.
In a plot to undermine the strength of the Jewish family and morality, Antiochus decreed that any Jewish maiden who was to be married had to first spend the night with the local governor or commander.
The Syrians, under the command of Holofernes, laid siege to the town of Bethulia. While the town elders discussed a plan to surrender when their food supply ran out, a young and beautiful widow, Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the high priest, told the people to maintain faith in their God. She told them she had a plan they would have to accept on faith.
Yehudit took a large basket of cheese, bread and wine to Holofernes. She told the commander that, in exchange for mercy on her people, she would tell him how to capture the town. She explained that her people’s faith in God remained strong, making the fight against them that much more difficult. However, she said, soon the supply of kosher food would be gone. When that occurred, the people would begin to eat the flesh of unclean animals thus provoking God’s anger and causing the town to fall.
She agreed to stay with Holofernes, returning to Bethulia each day to find out how food supplies were holding out. She gained the trust of the commander who was eager to spend time with the beautiful widow as well as to win the siege.
After a few days, Yehudit told Holofernes that Bethulia was now out of food. He had only to wait a few more days for the Jews to begin eating the non-kosher animals. Holofernes invited her to come alone to his tent that night to celebrate. She agreed, inviting him to eat her salty goat-cheese. As he ate, he grew thirsty and Yehudit gave him the wine she had brought with her. While Yehudit pretended to eat and drink, Holofernes became drunk. Soon, he was in a deep sleep. Yehudit took Holofernes’ sword and cut off his head. She and her maidservant put his head in a cloth and returned to Bethulia.
Now was the time to attack the Syrians, she said. In disarray at finding their leader dead, the Jews won the battle.
Defeats like this made Antiochus even more determined to exterminate the Jews, if necessary, to achieve victory.
Hannah and her seven sons were brought before him because they refused to stop studying the Torah, keeping kosher and honoring the Sabbath. Antiochus demanded that they bow down to an idol before him. The eldest son stepped forward and said: “What do you wish from us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.”
Antiochus ordered him tortured. His tongue, hands and feet were cut off and he was placed in a cauldron of boiling water. Antiochus turned to the next son and demanded that he worship the idol. The brother refused and was similarly tortured. Antiochus continued down the line and each brother held fast to his faith and gave up his life until only Hannah and her youngest son remained.
Antiochus called the child forward and begged him not to be a martyr for such a small thing as bowing before a statue. The king went so far as to promise him wealth beyond his dreams if he would obey.
Hannah told her youngest child: “My son, I carried you for nine months, nourished you for two years, and have provided you with everything until now. Look upon the heaven and the earth – God is the Creator of it all. Do not fear this tormentor, but be worthy of being with your brothers.”
The boy refused to obey the king’s commandment and was put to death. As her child lay dying, she cradled his body and asked God that she should be considered worthy to her children in the world to come. She fell to the floor and died.
There were thousands of others who likewise sacrificed their lives as Antiochus’ men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants to worship pagan gods.
One day, the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modin where Mattityahu, the old priest, lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Mattityahu replied: “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our God made with our ancestors!”
When an accommodating Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice, Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends took on the Syrians, killing many and chasing the rest away. Then they destroyed the altar.
Mattityahu and his sons and friends fled to the hills of Judea. Many Jews joined them. They formed guerrilla armies and attacked the enemy.
Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue to fight. In waging warfare, he said, their leader should be Yehuda the Strong. Yehuda was called “Maccabee.”
Antiochus sent his army to wipe out Yehuda and his followers, the Maccabees. Though greater in number and arms, the Syrians were defeated by the Maccabees. Antiochus sent out another, bigger army. It, too, was defeated. Finally, he raised an army of 40,000 men to sweep into Judea for a final invasion.
When Yehuda heard of the coming invasion, he exclaimed: “Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!”
God gave the Maccabees their miraculous victory.
When the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it, they entered the Temple to clear it of the idols placed there by the Syrians. A new altar was built. The golden menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, so the Maccabees made one of cheaper metal. But when they went to light it, they found only a small amount of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to light only for one day.
By yet another miracle of God, though, it continued to burn for eight days, until the new oil was made available.
It is this final miracle that Jews commemorate annually with the lighting of candles and the Hanukkah celebration to this day.
It’s a commemoration that should be an inspiration to all freedom-loving, God-fearing people around the world.