The tale of how Hanukkah came to be is in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are not officially part of the Hebrew Bible but are significant nonetheless.
The story of how Hanukkah came to is amazing — here’s a super-abridged version. In short, it’s action-packed and is chockablock with fascinating characters — some of whom are well known and others, less so.
Here’s a quick introduction to some of the more iconic characters connected to the story of Hanukkah. A warning: Some of their stories are quite gruesome!
Antiochus III the Great
Antiochus III is the Hellenistic Greek king who ruled the ancient kingdom of Syria and Judea, between ruled 222 BCE – 187 BCE. He was friendly to the Jews and let them practice their religion, he even gave money to the Temple. But then came his son…
Antiochus IV Epiphanes
Antiochus IV forbade Jews from practicing their faith. He ordered them all to convert, and for their Temple to be turned into Greek/pagan place of worship. While some Jews embraced the Greek way of life, others revolted, which leads us to…
Mattityahu was a Cohen, a Jewish priest. He served in the Great Temple in Jerusalem and lived in the town of Modi’in. When Antiochus IV’s men came to him, ordering that he make sacrifices in honor of the Greek gods, he refused, killing the messenger. He helped lead the Jewish revolt against the Greeks, helped by his five sons, Simon, Jochanan, Jonathan, Eleazar (who was famously crushed to death by an elephant during battle!) and most famously…
Judah Maccabee was Mattityahu’s third son, and the general of the small but powerful army of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees. Under his strong leadership, the Maccabees were able to defeat the Greeks, and retake control of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees went to light the menorah — the holy flame that illuminated the Temple — but only found enough oil to last for one day. Instead, in a great miracle that happened there, the oil lasted for 8 whole nights (which was sufficient time to make new oil).
One of the forgotten heroines of the Hanukkah story, Judith helped defeat the Greek army by killing its general, Holofernes. The brave widow gorged him with cheese and wine, and when he was sufficiently inebriated, she cut off his head! She then showed the Greek army his decapitated head (we told you this gets gruesome!) and, demoralized, the Greeks left, defeated. If you want to honor this awesome lady, you can eat cheese on Hanukkah to remember her bravery.