Chanukah Midrash-Chapter 1: The Story of Chanukah-Megillas Antiochus


Chapter 1: The story of Chanukah-Megillas Antiochus


 Introduction-Background, Authenticity, and Content:[1]

Megillas Antiochus is a historical record of the events that surrounded the Chanukah miracle.

Its various names: Megillas Antiochus is also known by the names of: Megillas Chanukah, Megillas Beis Chashmonai[2], and Megillas Yevanis.

Its authenticity: The Megillah is quoted in classical scholarly literature of Poskim[3], and is authentic.[4] It is seemingly the oldest recorded historical literature of the Chanukah story.[5]

Is it part of Tanach?[6] No. Megillas Antiochus is not considered one of the 24 books of Tanach, and the last of the books of Tanach is Megillas Esther. Nonetheless, this Megillah was sanctified and treated as if it were one of the books of Scripture. Rav Sadia Gaon in his introduction to his translation of Megillas Antiochus testifies that the Megillah was broken down to Parshiyos, and verses, together with punctuation and Taamim, as is done with all books of Scripture. In many old publications of the Tanach, Megillas Antiochus was published at the conclusion of the 24 books.

What language was it written in? It was originally written in Aramaic. Later on it was translated to Arabic by Rabbi Sadya Gaon, and then later on was translated to Lashon Hakodesh.

Who authored it and when was it written? Some[7] say it was written in the times of the Chashmonaim, close to the time of the miracles, by the children of Matisyahu. Others[8] say and was written by the elders of Beis Shamaiy and Beis Hillel.

Reading on Chanukah: The Rishonim[9] record a tradition of some communities to read Megillas Antiochus during Chanukah. Nonetheless, they emphasize it is to be read without a blessing being that there is no root for this obligation.[10] The custom of reading of Megillas Antiochus during Chanukah is followed until today by Algerian Jewry, and is published in a number of Siddurim.

Other historical works of the Chanukah story:

There are two other major historical works which exist that contain the Chanukah story:

1. The book of Josephus: The book of Josephus is a classical Jewish work on the history of the Jews in the Roman era. Unlike other history books, the Poskim[11] rule that the book of Josephus is permitted to be read. Nonetheless, its historical accuracy has been questioned.[12]

2. The book of the Maccabean: The book of the Maccabean, which comes in four volumes, is considered amongst the Sefarim Chitzonim[13], the secular books, which the sages negated its reading, despite its potential historical accuracy. Certainly, we do not rely on its historical accuracy, especially when it contradicts traditions and words of the sages.

Discrepancies between it and the story written in Megillas Antiochus: Megillas Antiochus carries the upper hand in historical accuracy over the story as it is depicted by Josephus or in the book of the Maccabean, being that is the official historical chronicles written and accepted by the sages. Amongst the discrepancies found in the accounts of the story of Hanukkah within these various historical works, we find the following:

1. When did Matisyahu and his son Judah die? According to Josephus, Matisyahu died before the war began with the Greeks, while according to Megillas Antiochus he survived the war, and his son Judah died during the war prior to him.

2. The miracle of the oil: The famous miracle of the oil lasted for eight days is not recorded in Josephus nor in the book of the Maccabees, however it is recorded in some versions of Megillas Antiochus, and likewise in the Talmud.

Why was the Megillah named after Antiochus?[14]

The mystical meaning of the Chanukah miracle and its annual significance, is in the transforming of the outside to holiness; lighting the candles of Holiness to the public darkness, and thereby enlightening it. Thus, the Megillah is called by the name of Antiochus, the wicked king, as it represents turning the side of evil into Holiness.

When did the Chanukah story take place?[15]

The rule of the Chashmonaic monarchy began in the year 3590 [171 B.C.E.]. According to some sources, however, it began in the year 3621 [140 B.C.E.]. The war against Antiochus lasted between 3-5 years. Accordingly, the Chanukah story took place sometime in-between the years 3585-3621 [176 BCE – 140 BCE].


Megillas Antiochus -Free Translation

King Antiochus:

It was in the days of Antiochus, the king of Greece, who was a mighty king who reigned over all the other kingdoms. He conquered many nations and mighty kings. He destroyed and burnt their sanctuaries, caused destruction to their buildings, and poisoned the citizens. He built a great country on the beachfront to serve as his capitol. It was called after his name, the country of Antiocha.


Who was Antiochus?[16]

After Seleucus was killed, his brother Antiochus IV began to reign over Syria in the year 3586 – 174 B.C.E.). He was a tyrant of a rash and impetuous nature, contemptuous of religion and of the feelings of others. He was called “Epiphanes,” meaning “the gods’ beloved.” Several of the Syrian rulers received similar titles. But a historian of his time, Polebius, gave him the epithet Epimanes (“madman”), a title more suitable to the character of this harsh and cruel king.


Bagram the viceroy:

Also, Bagram, his viceroy, built a province opposite the country of Antiochus. He called it Bagrim, after his name, and so is its name until today.


The battle against Jerusalem:

In the twenty third year of his reign, which was the 213th year of reign of the second Temple, Antiochus waged a conquest against Jerusalem. He told his men “Do you not know that there is a nation of Jews in Jerusalem that do not sacrifice to our gods and do not follow our culture. They forsake the will of the King in order to fulfill the laws of their religion. They wait for the destruction and fall of all the gentile governments, in order for their G-d to give them ability to be the sole ruler of all earth. It is not honorable for our kingdom to allow this nation to live. Let us now wage a battle against them and break their covenant with their G-d. We will decree upon them that they may not fulfill the Mitzvos of Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and Mila.” This plot of Antiochus found favor in the eyes of all of his princes and servants.

General Nikoner overthrows Jerusalem:

At that time Antiochus sent his General Nikoner, together with a large army, to battle against Judea and Jerusalem. They murdered many Jews and built an altar for idols within the Beis Hamikdash, the area where Hashem promised to dwell His presence on eternally. In that area, they slaughtered a swine and offered its blood in the Holy Sanctuary.


Hellenizing Jewry:[17] 

Antiochus tried to unify his kingdom in that they should all have a common religion and culture. He suppressed the Jews and prevented them from abiding by the Jewish Laws, in an attempt to root out their individualism of. He removed the righteous High Priest, Yochanan, from the Temple in Jerusalem, and in his place installed Yochanan’s brother Joshua, who loved to call himself by the Greek name of Jason. For he was a member of the Hellenist party, and he used his high office to spread more and more of the Greek customs among the priesthood. Joshua or Jason was later replaced by another man.


How many Jews became Misyavnim?[18]

Majority of the Jewish people were influenced by the greek culture and became Misyavnim. Thus, the Chashmonaim were not only a minority amongst the Greeks, but even versus our own people, the Jews. On this it states that Hashem handed the Timeim, Reshaim and Zeidim into the hands of the Tzadikim.

Yochanan the son of Matisyahu Kohen Gadol:

When Yochanan, the son of Matisyahu, the Kohen Gadol heard of this atrocity which the Greeks performed in the Temple, he became filled with wrath, the color of his face changed and he began plotting how he could take avenges. Yochanan then welded for himself a double bladed sword which was two Amos long and one Zeres wide placing it under his clothing.

Yochanan’s assassination of Nicanor:

Yochanan then proceeded [after forming a sword] to come to the gates of the King in Jerusalem. He called to the guards and said to them “I am Yochanan the son of Matisyahu. I have come to be seen by Nikonar”, The guards proceeded to inform Nicanor of his arrival and said “The high priest of the Jews is standing by the entrance [to greet you].” Nicanor acquiesced to his request and told the guards to let him enter. Yochanan was brought before Nicanor and was told by Nicanor “You are one of the rebels which have rebelled against the King and do not desire peace with the king. Yochanan answered “My master, this is true, I have now come before you and that which you desire I shall do.” Nicanor retorted to Yochanan “If so that you will obey my will, take a swine and slaughter it on the altar of idolatry. I will reward you for doing so by garbing you with kingly garments and letting you ride on horse of the king like one of the kings beloved friends” Upon Yochanan hearing the reply of Nicanor he answered him “I am afraid to do as you requested [in front of others], lest my brethren the Jews hear about this and stone me, so please remove all your men from here and I will then do as you requested.” Nicanor acquiesced to his request and had everyone leave from in front of him. Yochanan, the son of Matisyahu, raised his eyes to the heavens prayed before G-d “My G-d and the G-d of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, please do not hand me into the hands of this uncircumcised one, as if he kills me, he will boast that his false deities gave me into his hands.” At that moment, Yochanan took three steps [forward] and entered the sword into the heart of Nicanor and threw his corpse onto the floor of the Azara, in front of G-d. He then said a second prayer “Hashem, please do not view my actions as sinful, that I have murdered a man in your Holy place. Please hand over all of our enemies into our hands.” Yochanan, the son of Matisyahu, [after the assasination] then proceeded to battle the enemy [Greek] nation, and he killed many of them. On that very day he killed 72,700. When he returned, he built a monument for his name, and it was called Maccabee who kills the strong.


The term Maccabee:

Famously, the Chashmonaim are also referred to as the Maccabees. In truth, while the term Chashmonai is found in typical Jewish sources that discuss the Chanukah era, the term Maccabee is not mentioned. It however is found in the book of Josefus, who in turn explains its root meaning, that it stands for the Hebrew words Mi Komocho Bo’eilim Hashem, “Who is like unto Thee, O G-d.” It is also the name of one of the early secular books [Sefarim Chitzonim]. Above, in Megillas Antiocchus it states that Maccabbe means one who is strong.


Antiochus seeks revenge-Bagram the Rasha persecutes the Jews:

When Antiochus got word that his general, Nicanor, was killed he was very saddened, and sent for Bagram the Rasha [to lead the conquest in his place]. They decided to abolish the covenant made between the Jewish people and Hashem through prohibiting the keeping of Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and Mila. Bagram and all of his legions arrived at Jerusalem and killed many multitudes, and decreed a severe decree against keeping Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh or Mila. It was once found that a Jew circumcised his son, and the father and mother were both hung in the presence of the child. In another occurrence, a widow circumcised her newborn son on the 8th day and climbed the walls of Jerusalem together with her circumcised son. She then proclaimed “Bagram the Rasha, you will not be successful in abolishing the covenant of our forefathers from us. [The observance of] Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh or Mila will not be lost from our descendants. She then proceeded to throw her child to the ground, and she followed him, both dying simultaneously. There were many Jews who followed likewise, and refused to give up the covenant of their forefathers. A group of Jews decided to run away into hiding, in a certain cave, and guard the Shabbos there, lest Bagram discover them. Bagram sent a group of soldiers to the opening of the cave and tried to entice the Jews to exit through offering them delicious foods and tasty wines, on condition that they act like them [and desecrate the Shabbos]. The Jews refused their requests and decided to rather die than to desecrate the Shabbos. When the soldiers saw that their offer was refused, they brought wood to the entrance of the cave and set it afire, thus killing approximately 1000 men and women.


Rabbi Eliezer is ordered to eat pork:[19]  

One of the respected elders of that generation, Rabbi Eliezer, a man of 90, was ordered by the servants of Antiochus to eat pork so that others would do the same. When he refused, they suggested to him that he pick up the meat to his lips to appear to be eating. But Rabbi Eliezer refused to do even that and was put to death. There were thousands of others who likewise sacrificed their lives.


Chanah and her seven sons:[20]

The famous story of the martyrdom of Chanah and her seven sons according to some sources occurred during the Chanukah period.[21] Antiochus’s men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants to worship pagan G-ds. They had brought Chanah, a Jewish mother, with her seven sons in front of Antiochus. He told them to bow to the idol that was positioned in front of them, and each one of the sons refused, quoting a different verse, for which so they were all put to death. The sons were called in one at a time to Antiochus, and he requested from each one to bow. When the son refused, he was killed, and the next son was brought in. By the time it came for the seventh and last remaining son to bow to the idol, Antiochus changed course after his refusal and requested from the boy that he pick up the signet ring that he threw on the floor so at least it appear to the public that he is prostrating himself to the idol. The boy refused and was taken out to be killed. Chanah, the mother, asked to be allowed to speak to her children before their death. She told them “My sons, go up and tell Avraham your father that he offered one son on the altar, while I have sacrificed seven.” The mother than went up to a roof and jumped off to her death. A heavenly voice proclaimed and said, “The mother of the children is happy.”


The skirmish warfare fought by the sons of Matisyahu:

After the above incidents, the sons of Matisyahu, Yochanan and his four brothers went to battle the nations and killed many of them, in reward of their great trust in G-d. Bagram the Rasha fled back to Antiochus on a ship, together with the surviving soldiers. Bagram told Antiochus that their decrees were not being kept and that not even all the nations in the world can battle the five sons of Matisyahu. They are stronger than lions, faster than eagles. I suggest to you not to fight them [alone] but rather to gather all the generals and armor, artillery and elephants throughout all the kingdoms and let them go out on a conquest of Jerusalem. Antiochus found favor of this advice and sent letters to all the countries to send their armies forward. With this huge reinforcement, Bagram the Rasha went to battle Jerusalem a second time. They broke the walls of Jerusalem, and breached the walls of the Beis Hamikdash in 13 different places. They crushed the stones of the Temple and turned it into dust, and felt indestructible. When the five sons of Matisyahu got word of the destruction, they journeyed to Mitzpei Gilaad, fasted and sat on ash, in prayer to Hashem to show them mercy. They then had a good idea. Their father Matisyahu then went on to bless each one of his children, Yehuda, Shimon, Yochanan, Yonason, and Elazar, with strength. With this new empowerment, they set forward to battle the nations, and they killed many of them. Yehuda was killed in battle, and the sons returned to their father to report to him of his death. The brothers feared going back to battle without their leader Yehuda. Matisyahu, the father, then agreed to lead them in battle. Hashem handed over to their hands all of the warriors of the enemy, and they killed all of the platoons of fighters, leaving not one fighter to remain, as all the survivors fled back to their home countries.


The annihilation of the Greek forces in Modiin by Matisyahu:[22] 

One day the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modiin where Matisyahu, the old priest, lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Matisyahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Matisyahu replied, “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our G-d made with our ancestors!” Thereupon, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Matisyahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar. Matisyahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened. He would certainly send an expedition to punish him and his followers. Matisyahu, therefore, left the village of Modiin and fled together with his sons and friends to the hills of Judea. All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions and from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus.


The liberation of Jerusalem-The story of Yehudis:[23]

The liberation of Jerusalem, and final conquest against the Greeks took place on the account of a certain Jewish woman called Yehudis who assassinated the Greek general[24] positioned over Jerusalem. Yehudis was the daughter of Yochanan Kohen Gadol[25] and was especially beautiful. The Greek general upon setting his eyes upon her desired her to be with him. She acquiesced to the general’s request and entered together into his quarters. She then went on to feed him a great meal consisting of milk and cheese in order to arouse his thirst. Upon him becoming thirsty she gave him wine until he fell asleep. Seeing the opportunity at hand she took a sword and beheaded the general. She then paraded the general’s head throughout Jerusalem, entering fear into all his soldiers which were quick to flee.

The death of Elazar:

Elazar was given the task in battle of killing the elephants. During one attempt he drowned in the feces of the elephant, and was later found in it after a search mission.  

Rejoicing, celebration and the miracle of oil:

The Jewish people rejoiced over the victory and burnt Bagrams the Rasha alive. When Antiochus the king heard the Bagrams was killed and all of his legions annihilated, he fled on a ship to other countries. Each country he came to, he was rejected from. The Chashmonaim came to the Beis Hamikdash and rebuilt the destroyed gates, and rebuilt the breaches of the walls. The Azara was purified from the corpses and the impurities. They made a search for oil to light the Menorah and could only find one small jar of oil which had the seal of the Kohen Gadol, and was hence known to be pure. It had enough oil for only one day’s worth of lighting, but Hashem made a miracle and placed blessing into the oil, having it last for eight days. Accordingly, the Chashmonaim declared that each year, these eight days should be celebrated as days of rejoicing and festivities, just like the Holidays written in the Torah. One is to light candles to publicize the miracle that Hashem did for us in winning the battle.


How long did the war against the Greeks wage for?[26]

The war against Antiochus lasted between 3-5 years.


When was the war won and consequently the Menorah lit?[27]

According to some Rishonim[28] the war was won by the Chashmonaim on the 24th of Kisleiv and the Menorah was lit on the night of the 25th and then again, the next day on the day of the 25th. According to other Rishonim[29] the war was only won on the midst of the 25th and thus the first lighting was done on the afternoon of the 25th which was the eve of the 26th. The teachings of Chassidus[30] lean like the former opinion, that the last day of battle was on the 24th of Kisleiv and on the 25th they fully rested.



[1] See “Megillas Antiochus Hamurcheves” by Natan Fried for a full essay on the history of this work

[2] So is written in all old Yemenite manuscripts

[3] Tosafus Rid Sukkah 44a; Shivlei Haleket 174; Likkutei Sichos 6:368

[4] Sichas Motzei Zos Chanukah 5734; and 4738

[5] Otzer Midrashim p. 185 that seemingly it predates Sefer Chashmonaim

[6] See Yuma 29a that Megillas Esther is the last of the Holy books; Shaar Hamoadim Chanukah p. 77

[7] Rav Sadya Gaon in Sefer Hagaluiy

[8] Bahag Hilchos Sofrim p. 282

[9] See Tosafus Rid Sukkah 44a; Shibulei Haleket 174; See Likkutei Sichos 6:368

[10] Tosafus Rid ibid

[11] See Admur 307:30; Likkutei Sichos 23 footnote 345

[12] See Igros Kodesh 21:214

[13] See Mishneh Sanhedrin 10:1; However, see Tosafus Yom Tov on Megillah 3 and Aruch Hashulchan 671 who quotes the Sefer

[14] Shaarei Hamoadim Chanukah p. 79

[15] See Seder Hadoros p. 40

[16] Based on The Complete story of Chanukah by Rabbi Nissan Mandel

[17] Based on The Complete story of Chanukah by Rabbi Nissan Mandel

[18] Shaareiy Hamoadim p. 72; See Elya Raba 682

[19] Based on The Complete story of Chanukah by Rabbi Nissan Mandel

[20] Gittin 57b; Midrash Eicha Raba 1:50; Recorded in length in Sefer Hamakabim 2:7 and 4:8-18

[21] So is recorded in Sefer Hamakabim 2:7 and 4:8-18 although there is no proof from the Talmud or Midrash as to when it occurred. The story was entered into the Nussach of Megillas Antiochus Hamurcheves [Fried-see there p. 7]; Historians have written essays on this subject as to when exactly the story took place.

[22] Based on The Complete story of Chanukah by Rabbi Nissan Mandel

[23] This story is brought in: Rama 670:2; Tosafus Megillah 4a; Kol Bo Chanukah 44; Ran [Shabbos] Perek Bameh Madlikin; Beis Yosef 675; Peri Chadash 670; Chemdas Yamim 2 Chanukah 2; Ben Ish Chaiy Vayeishev 24; Kaf Hachaim 671:17; Otzer Hamidrashim Eizinshtein p. 204; Kitzur SH”A 139:3; Hashlamos Rav Nechemiah Dubravna; See also regarding women not doing Melacha: Taz 670:2; M”A 670:1

[24] Kol Bo states “the Greek king”

[25] This refers to Yochanan the son of Matisyahu. Seemingly, she was the sister of the same Yochanon Kohen Gadol who is mentioned in the beginning of Megilas Antiochus to have assassinated the general Nikanor. This Yochanon had a son named Matisyahu, named after Yochanon’s own father whose name was Matsiyahu, who was the father of the five famous sons known as the Maccabees. Thus, Yehudis was the sister of Matisyahu and the aunt of the five Maccabee brothers.

[26] See Seder Hadoros p. 40

[27] See Peri Chadash 670; Rebbe in Shaareiy Moadim Chanukah p. 39 and 46

[28] Meiri Shabbos 21b

[29] Rambam Hilchos Chanukah 3:2; M”B 670:1 writes the war was won on the 25th;

[30] Torah Or end of Vayeishev; Likkutei Torah Tzav 15a; Mamarei Admur Hazakein 5563 p. 57; Shaareiy Orah 53; Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvah 58

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