This week Jews the world over have been celebrating Hanukkah, the festival of lights. This eight-day celebration is best known for the distinctive nine-armed candelabras that are lit each night after sundown; the potato latkes, which are delicious; and the chocolate gold coins, which are not.
Unlike other Jewish holidays, the origins of Hanukkah are not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Nor is there a lengthy treatise in the Talmud (the writings of ancient rabbis) dedicated to explaining how and why Hanukkah is celebrated in the way that it is. Instead, there’s a comparatively parenthetical reference to it in Tractate Shabbat in which the length, origins, and institution of Hanukkah are described.
The backstory to the celebration is recorded in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. These texts are not canonical for Jews but do form part of the Roman Catholic canon. They tell the story of the revolt of the Jewish people, led by Judas Maccabee and his heirs, against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
The Seleucid empire was founded in the aftermath of the death of Alexander the Great by one of his favoured companions, Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian nobleman and general. Because the Seleucid Empire was based in Syria, the Seleucids are sometimes called Syrians; and because they spoke Greek and promoted Greek culture and language they are occasionally identified as Greeks or Hellenists.
In many ancient sources, including the writings of Greek historians, Antiochus is described as a power-hungry madman, and it is easy to see why. After being held as a political hostage, he came to power after a Game of Thrones-style power grab that included ousting a usurper, proclaiming himself co-regent with an infant, and subsequently murdering that infant.
Antiochus’ ambitions extended further than the Seleucid empire; he hoped to extend his reach by conquering Egypt. In the midst of his military campaigns and as the result of a great deal of political intrigue, Antiochus decided to try to consolidate power by outlawing religious customs in his empire, promoting himself as a kind of divine ruler, and, as consequence of these, persecuting Jews. Antiochus and those Hellenized Jews who served as his representatives in Jerusalem set about outlawing religious practices like Sabbath observance and circumcision.
In their analysis of the Maccabean revolt, scholars tend to see Antiochus’ actions less as those of a persecutor and more as those of a legislator who sided with one (the reformist) of two competing factions in Jerusalem. Whether you see Antiochus as a pragmatic ruler or a crazed persecutor, these legislative actions culminated in the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
According to the books of the Maccabees, a group of pious religious traditionalists objected, raised an army, successfully took Jerusalem, and rededicated the Temple. The Talmud adds that when they arrived in the Temple and wanted to rededicate it, the Maccabees found only one sealed (and, thus, uncontaminated) container of oil—enough to fuel the Temple candelabrum for a single day. But the oil miraculously burned for eight, which was enough time for the priests to secure more oil. And in this way, with the rabbinic details supplied, the festival of Hanukkah—which had originally been a military celebration commemorating the victory over imperial forces—became a more religious event.
Speaking of things that have changed over time, latkes were originally made of cheese. Symbolically, eating fried potatoes reminds those eating them of the oil that burned for eight nights, but in the medieval period people ate cheese. Part of the impetus for this was the memory of the Jewish heroine Judith, who plied an Assyrian general with wine and salty cheese, and then beheaded him when he passed out. The connection between pancakes and Hanukkah was first made by an Italian rabbi named Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymous (ca. 1286-1328). The ricotta pancakes made by Sicilian Jews came to form part of the Hanukkah menu. The use of potato latkes developed among Ashkenazi Jews in the nineteenth century.
Finally, there is a myth, still popular among many Jews, that the original candelabrum that adorned the Temple in Jerusalem resides today in a secret chamber at the Vatican. The historical presence of the candelabrum in Rome is not in dispute. Following the destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans in 70 c.e., the precious golden Temple treasures—the trumpets, the fire pans used for burning incense, the table of the shewbread, and the candelabrum—were taken back to the capital of the empire.
Their arrival in Rome is commemorated on the famous Arch of Titus, which marks the entryway into the Roman Forum. But no one knows where the Menorah is. The Vatican still receives hundreds of letters a year asking that the temple vessels be returned to the Jewish people. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the menorah was placed in Vespasian’s newly built Temple of Peace, not far from the Arch. It seems to have resided there at least until the third century, if not until the Ostrogoth Sack of Rome in the fifth.
But, as Steven Fine, a cultural historian and author of The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, told The Daily Beast, ancient artifacts frequently go missing—but gold artifacts do not. They get recycled, often being minted as coins. It is possible that the Vandals melted down the menorah after they sacked the city in 455 C.E.