I’d like to wish everyone who is celebrating a joyous and happy Hanukah, full of light and warmpth, spiritual enrichment (if you’re hoping for that), and lots of happy memories.
And here’s a little something to read while you’re watching the Hanukiah and enjoying the latkes and other holiday delicacies.
Megilat Hachashmona’im, known also as Megilat Antiochus, has come down to us in both Aramaic and Hebrew. The Hebrew version (see Siddur Otzer Yisrael) is a literal translation from the Aramaic original, which was composed probably in the seventh century and published for the first time in Montoba in 1557. During the Middle Ages this Megillah was read in the Italian synagogues on Chanukah just as the Book of Esther is read on Purim. It still forms part of the liturgy of the Yemenite Jews. Saadyah Gaon attributed its authorship to the five sons of Matityahu.
Per translation by Phillip Birnbaum, 1974 with some modifications.
The Greek monarch Antiochus was a powerful ruler; all the kings heeded him. He subdued many provinces and mighty sovereigns; he destroyed their castles, burned their palaces and imprisoned their men. Since the reign of Alexander there had never been a king like him beyond the Euphrates. He erected a large city on the seacoast to serve as his royal residence, and called it “Antioch” after his own name. Opposite it his governor Bagris founded another city, and called it “City of Bagris” after himself. Such are their names to this day.
In the twenty-third year of his reign, the two hundred and thirteenth year after the Temple had been rebuilt, Antiochus determined to march on Jerusalem. He said to his officers: “You are aware that the Jews of Jerusalem are in our midst. They neither offer sacrifices to our gods nor observe our laws; they abandon the king’s laws to practice their own. They hope moreover for the day when kings and tyrants shall be crushed, saying: ‘O that our own king might reign over us, that we might rule the sea and the land, so that the entire world would be ours.’ It is indeed a disgrace for the royal government to let them remain on the face of the earth. Come now, let us attack them and abolish the covenant made with them: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and circumcision.” The proposal pleased his officers and all his host.
Immediately king Antiochus dispatched his governor Nicanor with a large body of troops. He came to the Jewish, city of Jerusalem and massacred many people; he set up a heathen altar in the Temple, concerning which the G-d of Israel had said to his faithful prophets: “There will I establish my residence forever.” In that very place they slaughtered a swine and brought its blood into the holy court. When Yochanan ben Matityahu heard of this deed, he was filled with rage and his face changed color. In his heart he drew a plan of action. He then made himself a dagger, two spans long and one span wide, and concealed it under his clothes. He came to Jerusalem and stood at the royal gate, calling to this gate-keepers: “I am Yochanan ben Matityahu; I have come to appear before Nicanor.” The guards informed Nicanor that the high priest of the Jews was standing at the door. “Let him enter!” Nicanor said.
Yochanan was admitted to Nicanor, who said: “You are one of the rebels who-rebel against the king and do not care for the welfare of his government!” Yochanan replied: “My lord, I have come to you; whatever you demand I will do.” “If you wish to do as I please,” said Nicanor, “then take a swine and sacrifice it upon the altar. You shall wear royal clothes and ride the king’s own horse; you shall be counted among the king’s close friends.” To this, Yochanan answered: “My lord, I am afraid of the Israelites; if they hear that I have done such a thing they will stone me. Let everyone leave your presence, so as not to inform them.” Immediately Nicanor ordered everybody out.
At, that moment Yochanan ben Matityahu raised his eyes to heaven and prayed; “My G-d and G-d of my fathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, do not hand me over to this heathen; for if he kills me, he will boast in the temple of Dagon that his god has handed me over to him.” He advanced three steps toward Nicanor, thrust the dagger into his heart, and flung him fatally wounded into the court of the Temple. “My G-d,” Yochanan prayed, “do not count it a sin that I killed this heathen in the Sanctuary; punish thus all the foes who came with him to persecute Judea and Jerusalem.” On that day Yochanan set out and fought the enemy, inflicting heavy slaughter on them. The number of those who were slain by him on that day totaled two thousand seven hundred. Upon returning, he erected a column with the inscription: “Maccabee, Destroyer of Tyrants.”
When king Antiochus heard that his governor Nicanor had been slain, he was bitterly distressed. He sent for wicked Bagris, the deceiver of his people, and told him: “Do you not know, have you not heard, what the Israelites did to me? They massacred my troops and ransacked my camps! Can you now be sure of your wealth? Will your homes remain yours? Come, let us move against them and abolish the covenant which their G-d made with them: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision.” Then wicked Bagris and his hosts invaded Jerusalem, murdering the population and proclaiming an absolute decree against Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision. So drastic was the king’s edict that when a man was discovered to have circumcised his son, he and his wife were hanged along with the child. A woman gave birth to a son after her husband’s death and had him circumcised when he was eight days old. With the child in her arms, she went up on top of the wall of Jerusalem and cried out: “We say to you, wicked Bagris: This covenant of our fathers which you intend to destroy shall never cease from us nor from our children’s children.” She cast her son down to the ground and flung herself after him so that they died together. Many Israelites of that period did the same, refusing to renounce the covenant of their fathers.
Some of the Jews said to one another: “Come, let us keep Shabbat in a cave lest we violate it.” When they were betrayed to Bagris, he dispatched armed men who sat down at the entrance of the cave and said: “You Jews, surrender to us! Eat of our bread, drink of our wine, and do what we do!” But the Jews said to one another: “We remember what we were commanded on Mount Sinai: ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work; on the seventh day you shall rest.’ It is better for us to die than to desecrate Shabbat.” When the Jews failed to come out, wood was brought and set on fire at the entrance of the cave. About a thousand men and women died there. Later the five sons of Matityahu, Yochanan and his four brothers, set out and routed the hostile forces, whom they drove to the coast; for they trusted in the G-d of heaven.
Wicked Bagris, accompanied by those who had escaped the sword, boarded a ship and fled to king Antiochus. “O king,” he said, “you have issued a decree abolishing Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision in Judea, and now there is complete rebellion there. The five sons of Matityahu cannot be defeated unless they are attacked by all the combined forces; they are stronger than lions, swifter than eagles, braver than bears. Be pleased to accept my advice, and do not fight them with this small army lest you be disgraced in the sight of all the kings. Send letters to all your royal provinces; let all the army officers without exception come with armored elephants.” This pleased king Antiochus. He sent letters to all his royal domains, and the chieftains of various clans arrived with armored elephants. Wicked Bagris invaded Jerusalem for the second time. He broke through the wall, shattered the gateway, made thirteen breaches in the Temple, and ground the stones to dust. He thought to himself: “This time they shall not defeat me; my army is numerous, my hand is mighty.” However, the G-d of heaven did not think so.
The five sons of Matityahu went to Mizpeh in Gilead, where the house of Israel had been saved in the days of Shmuel Hanavi. They fasted, sat in ashes and prayed to the G-d of heaven for mercy; then a good plan came to their mind. These were their names: Yehudah, the firstborn; Shimon, the second; Yochanan, the third; Yonatan, the fourth; Elazar, the fifth. Their father blessed them, saying: “Yehudah my son, I compare you to Yehudah the son of Yaakov who was likened to a lion. Shimon my son, I compare, you to Shimon the son of Yaakov who slew the men of Shchem. Yochanan my son, I compare you to Avner the son of Ner, general of Israel’s army. Yonatan my son, I compare you to Yonatan the son of Shaul who defeated the Philistines. Elazar my son, I compare you to Pinchas the son of Elazar, who was zealous for his G-d and rescued the Israelites.” Soon afterwards the five sons of Matityahu attacked the pagan forces, inflicting severe losses upon them. One, of the brothers, Yehudah, was killed.
When the sons of Matityahu discovered that Yehudah had been slain, they returned to their father who asked: “Why did you come back?” They replied: “Our brother Yehudah, who alone equaled all of us, has been killed.” “I will join you in the battle against the heathen,” Matityahu said, “lest they destroy the house of Israel; why be so dismayed over your brother?” He joined his sons that same day and waged war against the enemy. The G-d of heaven delivered into their hands all swordsmen and archers, army officers and high officials. None of these survived. Others were compelled to seek refuge in the coastal cities. In attacking the elephants, Elazar was engulfed in their dung. His brothers searched for him among the living and the dead, and could not find him. Eventually, however, they did find him.
The Jews rejoiced over the defeat of their enemies, some of whom were burned while others, were hanged on the gallows. Wicked Bagris was included among those who were burned to death. When king Antiochus heard that his governor Bagris and the army officers had been killed, he boarded a ship and fled to the coastal cities. Wherever he came the people rebelled and called him “The Fugitive,” so he drowned himself in the sea.
The Hasmoneans entered the Sanctuary, rebuilt the gates, closed the breaches, and cleansed the Temple court from the slain and the impurities. They looked for pure olive oil to light the Menorah, and found only one bottle with the seal of the Kohen Gadol so that they were sure of its purity. Though its quantity seemed sufficient only for one day’s lighting, it lasted for eight days owing to the blessing of the G-d of heaven who had established His Name there. Hence, the Hasmoneans and all the Jews alike instituted these eight days as a time of feasting and rejoicing, like any festival prescribed in the Torah, and of kindling lights to commemorate the victories G-d had given them. Mourning and fasting are forbidden on Chanukah, except in the case of an individual’s vow which must be discharged. Nevertheless, the Hasmoneans did not prohibit work on this holiday.
From that time on the Greek government was stripped of its renown. The Hasmoneans and their descendants ruled for two hundred and six years, until the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
And so the Jews everywhere observe this festival for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. These days, instituted by Kohanim, Levites and Sages of Temple times, shall be celebrated by their descendants forever.
The Almighty Who performed for them a miracle and wonder, may He perform for us miracles and wonders. And we should see the fulfillment of what is written (Michah 7:15) “As in the days when you left the land of Egypt I will show it wonders.”