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Zev Farber





Chanukah: Not Judah Maccabee’s Holiday



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Zev Farber





Chanukah: Not Judah Maccabee’s Holiday






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Chanukah: Not Judah Maccabee’s Holiday

In 164 B.C.E., Judah Maccabee defeats the Seleucid army and purifies the Temple. The fighting continues, and Judah is killed in 160 B.C.E. Only in 142 B.C.E. do the Seleucids finally make peace with Simon, Judah’s last surviving brother, who founds the Hasmonean dynasty of high priests that rule Judea for a century. Who established Chanukah as a holiday?


Chanukah: Not Judah Maccabee’s Holiday

Judah the Maccabee defeats the enemy and cleanses the Temple. Die Bibel in Bildern 1860.

As narrated in 1 Maccabees, on the 25th of Kislev, 167 B.C.E., three years before Chanukah, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV desecrates the Jerusalem Temple, and issues decrees meant to crush Judean religious observance (1 Macc 1:54–61). In response, Mattathias and his five sons lead a revolt against the Seleucids, headed by the warlike Judah, known as Maccabee, meaning “the hammer” (Aramaic מקבא), who was apparently the natural leader of the brothers.

Following a series of successful battles,[1] the Seleucid army retreats from Judea, and in 164 B.C.E., the Judeans find themselves again in charge of the Temple precinct, purify it, and rededicate with an eight-day celebration, again, in 1 Maccabees account, on the 25th of Kislev (1 Macc 4:36–59).

Judah then builds up Judea’s defenses, and wages war on Judea’s neighbors, the Idumeans, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. He further saves the Jews of Gilead from an attack by their neighbors and sends his brothers Simon and Jonathan to conquer the Galilee. Meanwhile, Antiochus IV, fighting a war against Persia, dies in Babylon (164 B.C.E.), leaving his young son Antiochus V Eupator in charge.

Antiochus V sends a powerful army, “one-hundred-thousand foot-soldiers, twenty thousand horsemen, and thirty-two elephants accustomed to war” according to 1 Maccabees 6:30—to retake Judea. At the battle of Beth-Zechariah, Judah’s army is forced to retreat (1 Macc 6:32–47).[2] The Seleucid army then retakes Beth-zur and marches on Jerusalem (1 Macc 6:48–54). The Judeans are on the brink of collapse when, due to internal political strife in the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus V leaves Judah in charge of Jerusalem so he can bring his army back to Antioch and defend his throne (1 Macc 6:55–63).

The Defeat of Nicanor

In the next chapter, 1 Maccabees narrates how, in 161 B.C.E., Demetrius kills Antiochus V and takes the throne. He sends a general named Bacchides to install Alcimus (אליקים) as high priest in place of Judah Maccabee, who finds himself again hiding in the hills, leading his band of followers in small raids and military engagements. King Demetrius I then sends Nicanor to defeat Judah Maccabee once and for all.

Nicanor first tries, but fails, to capture Judah through trickery. After Judah kills some of his men in a battle, Nicanor threatens to destroy the Temple, forcing Judah to meet him in battle. On the 13th of Adar, the two armies fight at Beth-horon, and Judah wins a resounding victory against the Greek army, and Nicanor is killed.

1 Macc 7:48 The people rejoiced greatly and celebrated that day as a day of great gladness. 7:49 They decreed that this day should be celebrated each year on the thirteenth day of Adar. 7:50 So the land of Judah had rest for a few days.

While this holiday represents how Judah’s army was able to keep the Seleucids away from Jerusalem and its Temple, it does not mark the end of the war. A year later (160 B.C.E.), at the battle of Elasa, Judah’s army is defeated by Bacchides in battle, and Judah is killed, leaving Jonathan, one of his brothers to continue the rebellion, until he himself is killed in 143 B.C. E.

At that point, Simon, the last remaining brother, takes up the mantel, and soon after, in 142 B.C.E., King Demetrius II officially appoints Simon as Judea’s high priest, and the Seleucid Empire recognizes Judea’s semi-independence as a client state, freeing them from the requirement to pay tribute.[3] Simon’s rule lasts until 135 B.C.E., after which his son, John (=Yochanan) Hyrcanus, rules for 30 years. The book of 1 Maccabees ends with a brief description of John Hyrcanus’ reign, and it seems clear that it was composed sometime during this period, by a scribe serving in the Hasmonean court.

Did Judah Establish Chanukah as a Holiday?

According to 1 Maccabees, Judah Maccabee himself established Chanukah as a holiday, when he purified the Temple in 164 B.C.E.:

1 Macc 4:59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.[4]

Nevertheless, there are reasons to doubt this claim.

The Abridgement of Jason’s History of Judah Maccabee: 2 Maccabees

Another account of Judah’s rebellion against Antiochus is found in the book of 2 Maccabees. This book is an abridgment of an earlier five-volume work by Jason, a Jew from the city of Cyrene in Libya, who appears to have been a contemporary of Judah Maccabee, perhaps even a witness to the events. While Jason’s larger book is lost, the author’s introduction (2 Macc 2:19–32) clarifies that he is mainly just condensing his source. While the author clearly adds material not from Jason, as well as personal reflections here and there, the scope of the work is apparently the same as Jason’s original.[5]

Unlike 1 Maccabees, which extends past Judah Maccabee’s death, covering the entire rebellion until Simon and then John Hyrcanus establish the Hasmonean dynasty of high priests, 2 Maccabees covers from the beginning of Antiochus IV’s persecution until Judah’s successful battle against Nicanor, the year before his death, ending with the establishment of Nicanor Day as a festival:

2 Macc 15:36 And they all decreed by public vote never to let this day go unobserved but to celebrate the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—which is called Adar in the Aramaic language—the day before Mordecai’s day (=Purim).

This line is the culmination of two-chapter long narrative about Judah’s conflict with Nicanor. The book is strongly focused on Judah Maccabee himself, never mentioning his father or his brothers, and, as Eyal Regev notes, the original title seems to have been “On Judah Maccabee” (κατὰ τὸν Ιουδαν τὸν Μακκαβαῖον).[6] Nicanor Day is Judah’s holiday par excellence, celebrating his success, piety, and military prowess, and indeed, 2 Maccabees can be read as a kind of megillah (scroll) for this holiday, or at least as a literary support for its observance.[7]

Adding Chanukah into 2 Maccabees

In the middle of Antiochus IV’s death scene in Babylon, 2 Maccabees briefly tells the story of Chanukah (indented), then returns to the death scene:

2 Macc 9:28 So the murderer and blasphemer (=Antiochus IV), having endured the more intense suffering such as he had inflicted on others, came to the end of his life by a most pitiable fate, among the mountains in a strange land. 9:29 And Philip, one of his courtiers, took his body home; then, fearing the son of Antiochus, he withdrew to Ptolemy Philometor in Egypt.

2 Macc 10:1 Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city… 10:3 They purified the sanctuary and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence…. 10:5 It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. 10:6 They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Festival of Sukkot… 10:8 They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

10:9 Such then was the end of Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes.

Verse 9 does not follow logically upon verse 8; indeed it is a non sequitur, but it reads fine as following 9:28­–29, and was clearly once the ending of that pericope. It would seem evident, then, that a later editor of 2 Maccabees—not Jason and not the author—felt the need to add something about Chanukah into the book.

In other words, Jason of Cyrene, who told the story of Judah in great detail, including the origins of Nicanor Day, said nothing at all about Chanukah. Nor was this added by the author of 2 Maccabees, who abridged Jason’s work, as he was clearly focused on Nicanor Day as Judah’s holiday.[8]

Instead, as Daniel Schwartz of Hebrew University has already suggested,[9] all of the references to Chanukah and the purification of the Temple come from the final editor of 2 Maccabees, who wanted to rework the book into an explanation of the origin of Chanukah.

The New Opening of 2 Maccabees

In its final form, 2 Maccabees begins with two letters from Jerusalem to the Jewish diaspora, each of which ends with urging the readers to keep Chanukah. The first letter (1:1–10), dated to the year Simon took over as high priest (143 B.C.E.),[10] concludes:

2 Macc 1:8 …We prayed to the Lord and were heard, and we offered sacrifice and grain offering, and we lit the lamps and set out the loaves. 1:9 And now see that you keep the days of the Festival of Sukkot in the month of Kislev.

The letter calls Chanukah “Sukkot of Kislev,” exactly as the supplement in chapter ten does. Next comes a much longer letter (1:10­–2:18)[11]—which contains a description the death of Antiochus that contradicts the one in the main text[12]—and it also advocates that the readers of this work must celebrate Chanukah, again calling it “the Sukkot of Kislev”:

2 Macc 1:18 Since we intend to celebrate the purification of the temple on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, we thought it necessary to notify you in order that you also may celebrate it, as the Festival of Sukkot and of the fire…

Whether or not these letters are authentic or literary creations of the redactor, adding them to the book reframes 2 Maccabees from the story of Nicanor Day to the story of Chanukah.[13]

Chanukah and the Hasmonean Priests

Jason’s history and its abridgement in 2 Maccabees predate Hasmonean independence under Simon and John Hyrcanus, and they know nothing about Chanukah. While Judah probably did retake the Temple and purify it in 164 B.C.E.—and they may well have celebrated its rededication at the time—this was not seen as a miraculous or symbolically significant event. The defeat of the army was the main event, and purifying the Temple was the necessary and obvious thing to do for a victorious Judean army led by priests. At the time, however, Judah did not make a holiday out of it.

Judah knew that the Seleucid retreat was temporary, and he was in the midst of non-stop fighting for Judea’s freedom and expansion, preparing for their return. If anything, his unexpected defeat of Nicanor was his crowning achievement; certainly this is how Jason of Cyrene and the author 2 Maccabees understood matters. 1 Maccabees notes that after defeating Nicanor, Judea had peace, if for a very short while (1 Macc 7:50), and 2 Maccabees states that after this, Jerusalem was not taken again. Both 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees advocate celebrating Nicanor Day.

Over time, however, Nicanor Day lost its appeal to the Hasmoneans. About a year or so after the defeat of Nicanor, the Seleucids return and Judah dies. After twenty years more fighting, and the death of another Hasmonean leader, the last remaining brother, Simon, becomes the high priest of Judea, and obtains recognition by the Seleucid King of Judea’s status as a semi-independent client state.[14]

During Simon’s reign, and the subsequent long reign of his son, the emphasis of the Hasmoneans was less on their defeat of the Seleucids decades earlier, and more on the rightful place of Hasmoneans—specifically Simon’s line—as the high priests of the Jerusalem Temple.

The book of 1 Maccabees was written during John Hyrcanus’ reign. Though preserved only in Greek, the work was originally written in Hebrew, in biblical style, by a court scribe, and it was clearly meant as an apologia for the Hasmonean dynasty.[15] Pushing forward Chanukah, as opposed to Nicanor Day, as the main Hasmonean festival establishes the natural Hasmonean right over the Temple precinct.

A Miraculous Coincidence

Indeed, the way the festival is introduced makes its mythic importance clear:

1 Macc 4:52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year (=164 B.C.E.), 4:53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 4:54 At the very season and on the very day that the nations had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals.

The date is presented here as a miraculous coincidence, showing that divine providence had a hand in the ceremony. And if Judah is the one to have instituted the festival—as the next verses in 1 Maccabees claims—then it has the same legitimacy as Nicanor Day, and perhaps even more, since it was instituted first.

The final editor of 2 Maccabees, also from the time of Simon or later, is working with this model as well. For diaspora Jews, the audience of the work, Chanukah is also the more meaningful holiday, since it celebrates Jewish religious freedom, and not merely political freedom like that reflected in Nicanor Day.[16]

Not Judah’s Holiday

It would seem, therefore, that while Judah was the one to retake and purify the Temple, he was not the one who instituted the festival of Chanukah. His holiday was Nicanor Day (though he didn’t live to celebrate many of them). Instead, Chanukah was a holiday of the Hasmonean dynasty, commemorating an act of Judah’s, but instituted later by Simon and John, the high priests.


December 25, 2022


Last Updated

April 12, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).