During the Holiday of Chanukah we add a paragraph of gratitude called Al Hanissim – on the miracles – to our Amidah prayers and to the Birchat Hamazon.
This prayer describes the rough situation the Jews were in during the Greek regime over the Land of Israel when the Greeks viciously implemented anti-religious edicts against the Jews and turned the Temple in Jerusalem into a place of pagan worship.
The few Macabees, headed by Matisyahu, led a revolt against the massive Greek army, and empowered by G-d, miraculously beat the Greeks. They were then able to restore the Temple to its purity and glory.
The text of the prayer reads, “This event took place in the time of Matisyahu the son of Yochanan Kohain Godol.”
It seems unclear from the text who the title Kohain Godol – high Priest – is referring to. Is it Matisyahu, or his father Yochanan?
Let’s do a little background check on this prestigious Macabee/Hasmonean family:
The Mishna in Ethics of our Fathers quotes a great sage by the name of Shimon Hatzadik – Shimon the righteous. Shimon Hatzadik was the first High Priest in the Second Temple and his tenure lasted 40 years.
While Shimon Hatzadik was High Priest, a daily miracle occurred. Each of the cups in the seven branched golden Menorah was filled with enough oil to burn through the night. Although there was an equal amount of oil in each cup, six lights burned out by the next morning, while a single Ner Tamid – everlasting lamp – remained lit until the kindling of the Menorah the next evening.
This daily miracle was similar to the Chanukah miracle, where one flask of oil containing one day’s worth of fuel, lasted eight days.
As a general rule, the High Priesthood was passed off to a descendant if he was worthy and fit for the role. Shimon Hatzadik’s two older sons, Shimi and Chonyo were not worthy of being High Priests, and his son Yochanan was not yet old enough to serve as High Priest, so it was bestowed on Shimon Hatzadik’s brother Elozar.
During Elozar’s reign, the Egyptian King Ptolemy II ordered that the Torah be translated into Greek. Seventy Jewish Sages were designated to fulfill the task of writing this work which is called the Septuagint. Although this work was guided miraculously, the Talmud says that three days of darkness descended on the world, because it was now possible for the unlearned to boast of a superficial, usually erroneous, understanding of the Torah. Since Elozar sent the Sages to Ptolemy without first inquiring of the Sanhedrin – Jewish high court, they removed him from his position and appointed his son Menashe as the High Priest. After Menashe’s death, Shimon Hatzadik’s beloved and righteous youngest son Yochanan was appointed as the High Priest.
Yochonan the High Priest had a son, Matisyahu, who was not appointed High Priest but was the head of the Macabi/Hasmonean family that led the revolt against the Greeks as detailed in the Al Hanissim prayer.
Matisyahu’s five children were Yehudah the Macabee, Shimon, Yochonon, Yonoson and Elozar.
With only twelve warriors, the Macabees miraculously defeated the massive and well armed Greek army which included armored elephants. Our sages tell us that Matisyahu’s son Elozar’s might and skill was equal to tens of thousands of Greek army personnel.
When the Macabees entered the Temple they found it in ruins with all its sacred vessels ritually contaminated. They wished to kindle the Menorah but all the oil had been defiled. After a thorough search they found a single flask of oil that had been buried and still retained an unbroken seal of the High priest that attested to its purity.
The Jews were ritually impure and required a seven day purification process including being sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer. However, they formulated a system whereby they used a wooden Menorah along with a special apparatus to pour and kindle the Menorah allowing it to retain its high level of purity.
The Macabees steadfastly wished to do everything in the purest way, rather than to rely on leniencies which would have allowed them to use readily available impure oil. This attitude was proven proper, for we see that G-d responded to them and caused a miracle. The one flask of oil lasted for an additional seven days until they were able to procure additional pure oil.
We have become the beneficiaries of the Macabees devotion to rededicate the Temple and to perform G-d’s service in the highest and most pristine manner. For when our sages saw that G-d approved their course of action by offering His miracle, they established the festive holiday of Chanukah. The Sages instituted laws detailing who, how, where, and when to kindle the Menorah. They also instituted that special blessings be said before kindling the Menorah.
The spiritual illumination of Chanukah along with the solid structure of its laws, has endured for over two thousand years. Each one of us plays an essential role in keeping the amazing momentum of this special time going!