The Darker Side of Hanukkah

Some different--and surprising--stories about how the Maccabean revolt began.


The most popular version of the Hanukkah story comes from the first book of Maccabees, which describes how the Seleucid Greeks forbade the observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and circumcision. Many Jews chose to martyr themselves rather than abandon their faith, as the story goes, but this was not yet cause for rebellion. According to this account, written in the first century BCE by a Jewish writer of the Hasmonean court, the revolt began with an act of passion against religious coercion: the Jewish priest Mattathias spontaneously kills a Greek officer who forces Jews to make sacrifices to pagan gods.

Imagination Centuries Later

An altogether different story appears in a commentary to Megillat Taanit, a list of festivals and fasts that was compiled in the Second Temple period. The commentary, called the Scholion, was composed in the talmudic period but edited sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries. It reports that the Greeks sent officials to the Land of Israel for the purpose of raping brides before their marriage, a legal ordinance also called jus primae noctis in medieval legal documents or “right of the first night,” in modern scholarship.

The rabbis who authored the Scholion report that the Jews, out of fear, responded to this Greek policy by abstaining from marriage, and then by engineering underground weddings. But the upcoming nuptials of the daughter of the high priest prove too prominent to conceal. When a Greek official comes to rape the maiden, the Maccabees defend their sister’s honor. This is what sparks the rebellion.
Scholars have questioned the historical validity of this story, as well as whether the “right of the first night” was ever perpetrated against the Jews. Still, anxieties about brides being raped were obviously embedded in the rabbinic psyche. Predating this story about the start of the Maccabean revolt, Midrash Bereshit Rabbah presents prenuptial rape as one of the sins perpetrated by the generation of the Flood, and the crime also makes a couple appearances in Tractate Ketubot as a legal scenario in marriage law.

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Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.

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