(This article by Ariel Feldman, associate professor of religion in AddRan College of Liberal Arts, and Rosalyn and Manny Rosenthal associate professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Brite Divinity School, first appeared on the History News Network and Newsweek.com.
When asked which Jewish holidays they know, my students frequently name Hanukkah first. Indeed, it is probably the most public Jewish holiday in the U.S. Not only does it often coincide with Christmas, but there are also giant menorahs, delicious foods, and, of course, presents. But despite the ideal conditions for a great holiday — gifts, cuisine, and the right timing—this popular holiday had a rather slow start.
The eight-day long festival of Hanukkah, “dedication” in Hebrew, celebrates the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. The events that led to it are among the greatest puzzles of ancient Jewish history. At that time, Judea was a part of the vast Seleucid kingdom ruled by Antiochus IV. His predecessors had no problem tolerating the diverse religious beliefs of their subjects. Yet in 167 BCE Antiochus banned Judaism and converted the Jerusalem Temple into a pagan shrine. To explain the king’s unprecedented actions, some scholars argue that he wished to unify his empire under one religion. Others suggest that Antiochus acted on the advice of the Jewish elites. These Jews embraced the Hellenistic culture and believed that a strict observance of their ancestral religion led to a dangerous isolation from the rest of the world. According to yet another view, the king’s forceful prohibition of Judaism was a punishment for a Jewish uprising fueled by their separatist religious worldview.
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