The Darker Side of Hanukkah

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

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Symbolic Stories

Two other versions of a Hanukkah story based on the rape-of-the-bride motif appear in two disparate texts: the She'iltot of the Babylonian Rav Ahai Gaon, composed in the 8th century CE, and an anthology entitled Beit Hamidrash, which includes medieval midrashim and aggadot that were collected from Jewish communities in Germany and Poland in the 1800s by Rabbi Adolf Yelenik. These multiple texts testify to the potency of the story that it was retold in diverse Diaspora communities for many centuries.

Rav Ahai recounts that after corrupting all the oil in the Temple, in a final act of desecration, a Greek leader attempts to rape Hannah, the daughter of the High Priest, while her father and her betrothed, Elazar the Maccabee, look on helplessly. In Yelenik's version of this story, the Greek unfurls a Torah scroll to serve as a mattress for the rape.

This image is carefully constructed. The Torah is utterly debased; the act of public sex symbolizes the clash between the Hellenistic focus on the body and Jewish value of modesty; and the high priest's daughter is associated with the holiness of the Temple, her rape representing its lost purity.

Meanwhile the priests timidly deliberate about whether to act or await God's redemption. They look to the eastern mountains, hoping that the Persians, also enemies of the Seleucid Greeks, would come to their rescue. Finally, Mattathias turns to the High Priest and suggests a revolt: "Counting ourselves and our sons, we are twelve, representing the tribes of Israel. Therefore, we can be assured of God's backing." Upon hearing this, Mattathias' son Elazar the Maccabee kills the Greek general, saves his betrothed, and the rebellion begins.

In another tale found both in Rav Ahai's writing and in Yelenik's Beit Hamidrash, the woman protests her fate, unlike Hannah, who is portrayed as a silent victim. Like in the previous story, the Jews face increasingly severe oppression, yet subserviently attempt to avoid confrontation with the Greeks. Still the marriage of Mattathias's daughter draws unavoidable attention.

The unnamed woman discovers that the elders are resigned to abandon her; rather than risking persecution, they plan to let her be raped by the king. But she does not agree. Her rape, she reasons, will be a sign to all the women of Israel that they too will not be protected. She prefers to martyr herself rather than become a symbol of desecration.

Our heroine makes a dramatic protest before she accepts death. She exchanges her fashionable clothing and jewelry for rags, brings a jug of wine to the public square, and drinks with all the passersby. In Yelenik's version she strips entirely naked at the pre-wedding feast. Her family is embarrassed and outraged by the guerilla theatre she enacts.

"Where are all the good men?" she cries. "Are you ashamed by my nakedness, but you are not embarrassed to abandon me to the uncircumcised?" Her plea finally spurs the Maccabees to hatch a plan. Like a Trojan horse, the stunning bride is paraded through town to the house of the king, who lets down his guard and allows the newly-activated Maccabees into his inner sanctum, where a slaughter ensues. 

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Alieza Salzberg

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.