Hanukkah, Hellenization, and Hasmoneans

Between the reign of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty, Jewish leaders are forced to make historic sacrifices for their religious freedom and authority. Under Greek influence and oppression, these heroes stand up for their Jewish values to the point of death, and people like Matityahu and Yehudah Hamaccabi, and Hannah and her seven sons, are memorialized for centuries afterwards. Many wars are fought and conflicts abound even within the community- but the Jewish people persevere, fighting for their religious and political freedom.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. Who didn’t destroy Jerusalem after conquering the Holy City?
    • Alexander the Great
    • Nebuchadnezzar
    • Titus
    • Helena
  2. To which nation does Antiochus III belong?
    • Roman
    • Seleucid
    • Greek
    • Babylonian
  3. Which name does not have a Greek influence?
    • Aristobulus
    • Alexandra
    • Hyrcanus
    • Sophia
    • Anna
    • Penelope
    • Yohanan
  4.  What does a Hellenist do?
    • Worship more than one God
    • Eat bacon
    • Practice the Greek religion, culture and language
    • Name all firstborn daughters Helen
  5.  To which family did Yehudah Hamaccabi belong?
    • Maccabean
    • Hasmonean
    • Judean
    • Israelite
  1. The video highlights a difference between physical antisemitism that we experienced from Pharaoh and Haman and the cultural or spiritual antisemitism of Lavan and Antiochus. What do you understand as the key differences between them?
  2. The Book of Maccabees is largely a story about a military victory. Yet, it is the tale of the oil lasting eight day which takes center stage in the Talmud. Why do you think the Rabbis of the Talmud wanted to emphasize the miraculous aspect of Hanukah over the military success of the Maccabees?
  3. Some leaders view Judaism through the prism of a nationality or a civilization and some leaders view Judaism more so as a religion. It is Sisyphean to the extreme to attempt to convince the other that Judaism is either a religion or a nation. After reading this article, share your view about whether you think Judaism is more a religion or a nation and why you think that way.
  4. The video highlights several reasons why Jews should celebrate Hanukah beyond oily food. They include the “miracle of a small Jewish army defeating the world’s greatest global power of the time, the establishment of a prosperous, self-ruling dynasty, the successful fight for Jewish autonomy, and the right for Jews to exist as Jews.” Which of these do you personally view as the most compelling reason to celebrate Hanukah?
  5. Why do you think adults and children sometimes hear different versions of the Hanukah story? What happens when ideas we grew up with are challenged? To what extent does it matter if the miracle of oil happened? To what extent should we be investigating our history to balance myth with reality?
  6. After the success of the Hasmonean revolt, Jonathan and Simeon rule Judea for 129 years as an independent Jewish State. Key issues that divided their people at the time were: the combined position of the High Priest and the monarchy, military expansion, and conversion, resulting from different interpretations held by Hasmonean Saducees and Pharisees. In what way can you see parallels to the divisions back then to those that exist in the modern State of Israel today?
  7. When Mattityahu is forced to sacrifice a pig to a pagan god on an altar, he responds by bringing together a group of people to violently resist the edict of Antiochus. If you were ever forced to do something against your beliefs, how would you resist such a person or institution?
  1. Use a ready-made lesson plan on “Hanukkah, Hellenization and Hasmoneans” HERE.
  2. Hanukkah Today: On December 2, 1993, someone in Billings, Montana, tossed a brick through the window of a Jewish home. On December 11, the Billings Gazette wrote: “Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment.” A year later, photographer Frédéric Brenner staged this photograph of residents of Billings–from all walks of life, ethnicities and religions–holding menorahs to mark the city’s singular response to an act of religious intolerance. Your Task: Research the history of Hanukkah celebrations in your country, and write about three iconic images that capture the essence of this festival where you live.
  3. Jews and Bacon: When we look at the prohibition against eating pork in the context of the other prohibited foods enumerated in Parshat Shmini, it’s surprising that the pig has achieved such unique notoriety. The list of forbidden foods begins with more obscure delicacies like camel and rock badger. The pig (swine) is the last of the mammals to be mentioned and seems almost like an afterthought. Even more surprisingly, the pig does not violate the standards of kashrut as flagrantly as other animals do. The Torah teaches that in order to be kosher , animals must chew their cud and have cleft hooves. The pig does not chew its cud but it does have cleft hooves — so we might expect that it would be less offensive than animals that meet neither criterion. Why then has pig become the one food that many Jews will not eat, even those who don’t keep kosher? Your Task: Interview three people in your community including those who do and don’t observe the laws of kashrut and ask them why they think there is a special aversion of so many Jews to eating pork.
  4. Give your students our Kahoot on Hanukkah, Hellenization and Hasmoneans!
  1. When Antiochus wanted to harm the Jews, he forced them to make sacrifices to Greek gods and to desecrate Shabbat and forbade circumcision and Torah study on punishment of death. How would you have responded if a leader ever imposed these types of restrictions on you in the country where you live?
  2. If you have ever been amused to find that a popular Israeli beer is named “Maccabi” or wondered why the “Jewish Olympics” are called “Maccabiah,” then you have been exposed to the use in modern Hebrew culture of the image of the historical Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukah story. Read this article and share how you feel about the secular Zionist reclamation of the Hanukah story.
  3. When Antiochus Epiphanes ruled Judea, the numbers of Jews who embraced Hellenism increased dramatically. Those Jews, known as mityavnim, sought to popularize Hellenism among the Jews. The book of Maccabees quotes Hellenists who proclaimed, “Let us go out and make a covenant with the heathen around us.” (Maccabees 1:11)Two brothers, both mityavnim and both heirs to the position of the High Priesthood, feuded for that position. One of the brothers, Menelaus, went to the Emperor, and told him that the mityavnim were “desirous to leave the laws of their country, and the Jewish way of living according to them, to follow the king’s laws and the Grecian way of living.” (Josephus Flavius, Antiquities, Book 12, chapter 5:1) He then proposed the construction of a Greek style stadium in Jerusalem, to which the emperor consented.

    Jewish Historian Josephus writes that “Because two brothers could not get along, we lost our freedom and liberty to Rome.” Do you agree? What for you is the ultimate message of Hanukkah?

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