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.

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. 

Women as a Symbol of the Nation

So, what really happened, and what can these different versions of the Hanukkah story teach us? The Book of Maccabees was written in close proximity to the events it describes, and scholars presume it to be largely historically accurate. Its triumphant themes emerge from an era when the Jews had relative autonomy and were free to praise zealous action. In contrast, the rabbinic texts that relate Hanukkah to stories of sexual violence were written at least eight centuries after the Maccabean revolt, and doubtless were primarily a product of the rabbis’ imagination.

The rabbis’ obsession with stories of rape gives us a sense of the anxiety they experienced in the Diaspora. Centuries after the Hanukkah story actually took place, Jewish communities told these stories about rape as an allegory for the emasculated position of the Jewish people in exile, often forced to abandon faith or weakened by competing religions. The helpless position of the virgin bride represents not only the susceptibility of the Jews to physical violence, but also the danger that enemy culture could penetrate and perhaps impregnate the minority.

These stories also reflect a patriarchal perspective, suggesting that women are dangerous–they draw the attention of non-Jews, they are more vulnerable then men, and if impregnated they are an avenue for the oppressor to infiltrate the nation. Further, these stories dramatize a class of people who are even more vulnerable then the men suffering under oppression, and the stories create the opportunity for the masculine heroes to eventually rise to their protection.

However, in the last version of the tale we examined, it is the woman herself who protests, while the elders remain stooped in an attempt to simply survive the oppression. Her choice to bare her body and protest the Jewish leadership is a threat to their defensive survival mode. Yet her willingness to martyr herself turns her into a heroine. She reminds her brothers that when tyranny seems impenetrable, even the weakest member of society can inspire a rebellion.

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