Loyalty to Our Principles

On Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks, who tried to force the Jews to refrain from keeping Jewish practices and leave their religion. In the resource, we will learn about the decrees of Antiochus and the Jewish opposition to them, and we will consider what principles are sacred to us and how they can be maintained in the face of external pressure.

Resource Ages: 12-14


King Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, and every one should leave his laws […] they should profane the sabbaths and festival days and pollute the sanctuary. That they should also leave their children uncircumcised… to the end they might forget the Torah […] And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die. 

Book of Maccabees I, chapter 1, 41-53 (selected verses)

Then Mattathias answered and spoke with a loud voice:Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away everyone from the religion of their ancestors, and give consent to his (the king’s) commandments, yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our ancestors. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances (of the Torah). We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either to the right or left.

Book of Maccabees I, chapter 2, 19-28 (selected verses)

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do we make good decisions? 
  • What factors shape our values and beliefs? How are my values and beliefs impacted by those around me?
  • How do we form identities that remain authentic and true to ourselves? 
  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?


Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What are the different approaches to maintaining principles seen in the Hanukkah story?
  • What does freedom of religion have to do with freedom in general? 
  • Why is it important to adhere to our principles? 
  • What things might make it difficult for us to adhere to our principles?

Background for Teacher

In the year 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Land of Israel, bringing Hellenist culture with him. Hellenist culture began to influence the Jewish population, particularly the wealthy Jews who lived in cities. The Jews living in the Land of Israel had different...

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In the year 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Land of Israel, bringing Hellenist culture with him. Hellenist culture began to influence the Jewish population, particularly the wealthy Jews who lived in cities. The Jews living in the Land of Israel had different responses to this phenomenon. There were those who continued to cling to Jewish culture exclusively and avoided adopting any Hellenist practices. There were also those who were influenced by Hellenist culture and adopted Hellenist customs and worldviews, while maintaining Jewish religious observance or instead of that traditional observance. These Jews were called mityavnim (מתיוונים, Hellenists) and were viewed negatively by the religious leadership of that time. 

In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes IV rose to power in the Hellenistic Kingdom and worked towards strengthening the process of hellenization in the Land of Israel. He ransacked the Temple and took amongst his spoils the golden menorah that stood there. He ordered the Jews to revere him as a god. When he realized that the Jews were refusing to obey this order, he declared his opposition to the Jewish religion and in 167 BCE enforced harsh religious laws called ‘the decrees of Antiochus’, which included prohibitions on observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays, Torah study and ritual circumcision. Whoever insisted on keeping Jewish commandments was summarily executed.

The Maccabees saw the king’s decrees as decrees of destruction, aimed at distancing Jews from their religion. They held fast to their principles and beliefs and were willing to fight for their right to uphold their religion. In the end the Maccabees succeeded in cancelling the decrees, purifying the Temple and establishing an independent Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Have each student write a list of 5-7 principles, beliefs and values that are important to them (you can offer examples of principles to which they connect on a personal level, to their family, being Jewish, our relationship to nature, etc.) Then, discuss with the students circumstances in which they would be willing to sacrifice the principles they listed. Each time, offer a different case study – ranging from easy to difficult – and have the students erase from their list whatever principles they would be willing to give up in this circumstance. You can mention reasons such as social pressure, a large sum of money, physical injury or incarceration. Check if everyone was left with at least one principle that they would not be willing to sacrifice for any of the things mentioned. What can we learn from this about our principles and our loyalty to them?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. The decrees of Antiochus focused on laws and customs that can be seen as basic Jewish identifiers (circumcision, Torah study, Shabbat observance and more). Why do you think the decrees were specifically aimed at these customs and laws? What was the purpose of the decrees?
  2. What options did the Jews have for reacting to these decrees? How do you think the majority chose to react? 
  3. Matityahu uses the term “bgida” (betrayal or disloyalty) regarding the choice to worship other gods. Why do you think he sees it in this way? 
  4. Matityau and his followers risked punishment by death for adhering to their faith. Can you understand this choice? What might lead a person to such a choice?
  5. What principles are sacred to you? What about them makes them sacred to you? How does the sanctification of these principles impact your life? Are there things you would change about the way you act because of them?
  6. In what circumstances would you be willing to sacrifice your principles? Is the principle of being loyal to your principles of high importance in your eyes? 
  7. What is the benefit of being flexible regarding your principles? Are there other options besides adhering to your principles or sacrificing them? Give an example. 
  8. Based on the historical background of the revolt, what are we actually celebrating on Hanukkah? 
  • Ask the students to make a newspaper that includes articles which would be written in the days of the Maccabees, in which the principles of the Jews and their adherence to them are expressed. For example, students can write articles on the decrees of Antiochus, opinion columns or letters to those who chose to become Hellenized and those who refused, and articles reviewing Hellenistic culture or the revolt from different perspectives.
  • Ask students to recall a situation in which they acted contrary to their principles because of social pressure or another reason. If they could go back in time, how would they behave in light of today’s lesson or the perspective of time? Would they change their behavior or act in the same way? Suggest that they write a letter to who they were then and give advice for what they should do. As a group, hold a discussion addressing the general questions of this activity, without sharing specific details of what the students wrote in order to maintain their privacy. You can discuss whether we should have compassion for choices we made in the past, in which we did not adhere to our principles, or if there is some value in regretting them.
  • Expand on the topic of Hellenization using the Hellenization resource.