Hanukah, The Hasmoneans And The Qur’an – OpEd


The post-Biblical eight day Jewish holiday of Hanukah (which begins on the evening of 12/18/22) started with a religious miracle and ended with failed  political leaders and policies. 

Hanukah begins with a family of priests (kohanim) from the village of Modiʿin who lead most Jews in the Land of Israel in a rebellion against the oppressive Seleucid Empire regime of King Antiochus IV. According to 1 Maccabees, the rebellion was  started by the elderly patriarch of the family, Mattathias, in 167 BCE, but soon after, his son Judah, known as the Maccabi (meaning “the Sledgehammer”), took the lead, and over the next three years led the Jews in battle, with the Seleucid-Greeks suffering defeat after defeat.

After his success in the Battle of Beth-Zur in 164 BCE, Judah recaptured Jerusalem and its Temple, destroyed the idol Antiochus IV had installed in the Temple, purified and rededicated the Temple and ordered a new altar to be built in place of the one polluted by pig’s blood. This event was celebrated as Hanukah; which means dedication or rededication in Hebrew. 

Three years later (161 BCE), after defeating the Greek Syrian General Nicanor, who had threatened to personally destroy the Holy Temple. Judah’s success was celebrated for many generations as Nicanor Day (13th of Adar) and commemorated in the Second Book of Maccabees.

Hasmonean history didn’t end there, however. The very next year, Judah’s army lost a major battle and Judah himself was killed in 160 BCE. After this, Jonathan, the youngest of the five brothers, took over as leader, and fought the Seleucids. In 143 BCE, after 24 years of off and on fighting, the then king of the Seleucid Empire, invited Jonathan to negotiate a peace arrangement, and then treacherously captured him, and had him killed.

Jonathan’s (older) brother, Simon, then took over as leader. Simon sided with the treacherous king’s rival for the throne, Demetrius II, who in turn granted Judea independence, with Simon recognized as the official ruler by the Seleucids, the Judeans, and even the Romans. So independence was gained not just by war but by a wise political alliance. 

Simon’s dynasty, the Hasmoneans, lasted for several generations. Upon his death, his son John Hyrcanus took over as high priest and ruler (134–104 BCE); he was succeeded by his son, who ruled only one year, and followed by his brother Alexander Jannaeus who ruled for 27 years (103–76 BCE), husband of the famous Salome Alexandra, who ruled as queen after his death (76–67 BCE).

After her death, the Hasmonean dynasty began a steady moral and political descent. Salome Alexandra’s two sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought over the throne, and turned to the Roman general Pompey to choose between them. This was a very bad mistake. 

Pompey sided against the more militant Aristobulus, supporting the weaker Hyrcanus, and took the opportunity to invade Judea, conquering Jerusalem in 63 BCE, and making it a Roman province; thus ending Judean independence. 

Hyrcanus II had an advisor named Antipater, who was a shrewd politician, and during the fight between Julius Caesar and Pompey, he backed Caesar, who defeated Pompey, and Caesar rewarded Antipater by appointing him regent of Judea in 47 BCE. So, the family of Antipater became more powerful than that of the Hasmoneans. Antipater appointed his son Phasael governor of Judea and Phasael’s son Herod governor of the Galilee in the north of Israel.

In 40 BCE, Judea was briefly retaken from the Romans with the backing of the Parthians who ruled Persia at the time. Herod, who had taken his father’s place as regent, was declared by Rome to be Judea’s rightful king and he reconquered Judea on behalf of Rome, retaking Jerusalem in 37 BCE.

Herod then married  his bride, Mariamme, age seventeen and their marriage produced five children, some of whom survived to become the founding members of the Hasmonean-Herodian family who ruled Judea for over a century as client kings of Rome, until 70 CE when a Roman Army destroyed Jerusalem and its holy Temple while suppressing a Jewish revolt which lasted almost 4 years. 

It was under the first century Jewish Herodian kings that Prophets John and Jesus were executed. This is why the Qur’an states: “Allah has certainly heard the statement of those [Jews] who said, “Indeed, Allah is poor, while we are rich.” We will record what they said; and they’re killing the prophets without right, and will say, “Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire. (3:181)

“And for their breaking of the covenant, and their disbelief in the signs of Allah, and their killing of the prophets without right, and their saying, “Our hearts are wrapped (and sealed)”. Rather, Allah has sealed them because of their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few. (4:159)

 In the above passages it even sounds like all Jews killed all prophets which were sent to them — note the definite article: “the prophets”. On the other hand, there are two passages which were formulated more cautiously; that only a few Jewish Kings killed (only) a few Jewish Prophets:

“And We did certainly give Moses the Torah; and followed up after him with (with 55 male and female prophets as) messengers. And We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear proofs and supported him with the holy spirit. But is it [not] that every time a messenger came to you, with what your souls did not desire, you were arrogant? And a party [of prophets) you denied and another party you killed.” (2:87)  

And “We had already taken the covenant of the Children of Israel and had sent to them messengers. Whenever there came to them a messenger with what their souls did not desire, a party [of messengers] they denied, and another party they killed.” (5:70)

In the New Testament itself, Matthew (23:31–35) quotes Jesus as chastising the scribes and the Pharisees, telling them that “You testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets,” promising that “upon you may come [punishment for] all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” 

This is a dramatic, but very unfair exaggeration, of the historical facts. The theme of the Jews as murderers of their prophets appears three more times in the New Testament. (See Luke 11:47-51, Luke 13:34, and Revelation 16:6)

Of course, many leaders of the various tribes in Makkah joined in on the plot to kill Prophet Muhammad yet nobody blames their descendants for plotting to kill Prophet Muhammad. Justice demands that we punish only the rulers who order these terrible deeds.

The political leaders of that period have been long forgotten; but the religious teachers of that period: Hillel and Shammai for the Jews, and Prophets John and Jesus for the Christians, are still remembered; and their influence is still very much alive. 

The rabbis of that age created a wonderful fable to replace the Hasmonean political decline that followed the period of the heroic Maccabees. According to the Torah, pure olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn day and night throughout the year. 

However, the Syrian soldiers had polluted all the pure oil in the Temple except for one small jar, so there was only enough pure oil found to burn for one day, and it would take a week to prepare a fresh supply of pure oil for the menorah. 

Some said to delay the Hanukah of the Temple for a week. Others said to kindle the Temple Menorah and pray for it to last until new pure oil could be made. 

The menorah was lit; and it did not go out prior to the arrival of the new pure oil. An eight-day Hanukah festival was declared by the rabbis to commemorate this miracle. And it is still celebrated world wide by Jews to this very day. 

The rabbis regarded Hasmonean politics as a disaster; and so kept positive books about the Hasmoneans out of the Biblical canon, although the early Christians did include them in their Greek and Latin Christian Bibles. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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