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Chanukah Story

Until now, Shimon the pottery maker and his Jewish neighbors could always find a way to sneak around the decrees against Jews that came from the Syrian king. But this latest decree might be impossible to avoid. It forbade Jews to perform the ritual circumcision of newborn sons. Shimon’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant. They already had two beautiful daughters. This time Sarah was convinced she was carrying a boy. If it was, he would have to be circumcised. That was the Jewish way, since the time of Abraham. Shimon was determined: no Syrian king would stop him.

But what could he do? It was one thing to hide Torah study and prayer services, to light candles and celebrate holidays in secret. Shimon and his Jewish neighbors even went so far as to pretend to make sacrifices to the Greek and Syrian gods when ordered to just so they would not be punished. Then they prayed secretly to Adonai, the one God, for forgiveness. A baby, however, is something else. You can’t hide the fact your wife is pregnant, at least not for long. Sooner or later the baby has to come out of its mother. Then the Syrian soldiers, who were always snooping around, would find out. Worse yet, there were people in his small town, even among the Jews, who might tell on him. Shimon was worried.

“I see Sarah is expecting,” Ruben said to Shimon one morning as he walked into

Shimon’s pottery shop. “When is the baby due?”

“Not for a while,” replied Shimon evasively. He suspected Ruben was a spy for the Syrian soldiers. Ruben and his sons had quit being Jewish several years ago when the trouble first began.

Shimon lived in a small town in Israel, far from Jerusalem. It was the time of the second Temple, but Israel was now part of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids were Greeks who lived in Syria. The different Seleucid kings were unpredictable in their behavior, sometimes nice and sometimes mean, particularly when it came to Jews. The current king, Antiochus IV, was the worst. He was determined to destroy the Temple and the Jews.

Natan the baker, a close, trusted friend of Shimon, came into the shop moments after Ruben. Finishing up quickly, Ruben said: “Well, make sure you let me know when the blessed event takes place. Zeus and the gods will be happy,” and he left.

“You have to watch out for him. He won’t hesitate to report you to the Syrians,” warned Natan.

“I know, I know,” Shimon agreed. He didn’t need to be warned. He was wracking his brains trying to come up with a way to hide the birth of his son, if indeed Adonai blessed him with a son. He had to get away, but where? No place was safe anymore.

For most of Shimon’s life it had seemed the rest of the world didn’t even know his village existed. A few people might go off to Jerusalem for a festival once in a while and return with news, but that didn’t happen very often. Mostly, the Jews in Shimon’s village lived the way their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had, going all the way back to Moses, who first set down how Jews should live.

Shimon had only left his village once, with his father, to celebrate Sukkot at the great Temple in Jerusalem. It was a long, long walk of many days. Someday he hoped to bring his own children to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the festivals …if there still was a Temple left in Jerusalem after the Syrians got done with it.

The best idea he and Natan could come up with was a vague plan to flee into the woods and marshes if the baby was a boy. They would try to join up with the Maccabees, a band of Jewish fighters who were battling the Syrians. But Shimon and his Jewish neighbors–bakers and farmers and tradesmen–were peaceful people. They didn’t know how to fight like soldiers. They didn’t even have any weapons to use against the Syrians, who had big swords and shields, helmets and armor and were trained in fighting.

“How would I even find the Maccabees? I don’t know how to survive in the woods and marshes. And, I’d have to bring Sarah and the children with me. Otherwise, the Syrians would kill them,” Shimon reasoned. “Still, it’s our only hope,” he concluded.

“Don’t be afraid. Adonai will help you if it comes to that,” said Natan. Shimon reluctantly agreed: he could only trust in God.

The people of the village had heard about the Maccabees. “The Maccabees,” a Syrian officer boasted during a meeting in the town square, “will never get here. They will be destroyed and forgotten in a matter of weeks.” Shimon prayed the officer was wrong.

As the birth of the baby approached over the next few months, Shimon looked for signs of the Maccabees. While everybody heard rumors of their victories, it all seemed to be happening far away. In his village, the Syrians appeared as strong as ever.

One night, Sarah gave birth to the baby, a boy. “Thank you, Adonai, for giving me a healthy child,” Shimon prayed. But the family’s joy was mixed with fear because in eight days, according to Jewish law, they would have to circumcise the baby. That would bring the anger of the Syrian soldiers upon them. For now, however, they would keep the birth of the baby a secret. Sarah was to remain inside the home, out of sight.

To keep up appearances, Shimon continued to go work. The day before the bris, the circumcision, Ruben stopped by the shop. “How’s Sarah doing? It must be about time. We haven’t seen her lately.”

“She’s been very tired. She’s staying in bed,” Shimon replied.

“Let us come over to help. With two little girls already in the house, I’m sure you can use some extra help,” offered Ruben.

“Thank you, but that’s not necessary. Everything is under control,” said Shimon.

The next morning, Shimon planned to do the bris as early as possible and then flee into the woods and marshes with his family. He hoped to bump into the Maccabees, but he had no idea where they might be. More likely, he realized, they’d bump into Syrian soldiers who would capture and punish them. But it was his only chance.

Shimon’s family and some trusted friends and their families joined together at Shimon’s house for the bris. Everybody was at great risk. Older children were posted as lookouts to warn if any Syrians approached.

Just as the mohel, a person specially trained in doing circumcisions, was performing the actual circumcision, one of the children ran in. “A Syrian is coming,” she whispered urgently. Natan quickly bolted the door, securing it as best he could.

Before the Jews could finish and flee, the Syrian officer, accompanied by Ruben, banged on the door. “We know you are there. We know what you are doing. Come out now or we’ll break down the door,” the officer demanded.

No one answered. Shimon and the mohel were finishing up as quickly as possible. The infant began to cry.

Ruben and the officer threw their full weight against the bolted door. Once. Twice. The door started to splinter under the blows. “Hurry!” cried Natan, trying to reinforce the door.

On the third try the door gave way. Ruben and the officer charged into the room. “Halt!” commanded the officer, pulling out his sword.

“They are performing a circumcision, just as I suspected,” shouted Ruben.

“The penalty for performing a circumcision is death,” declared the officer. He raised his sword to strike the baby, but before he could bring it down, Shimon grabbed a metal poker from the fireplace and swung it at the officer as hard as he could, hitting him on the head. The officer fell to the ground.

Ruben ran out of the house shouting for more Syrian soldiers. “We’re all in trouble now. We’ve got to flee,” Natan urged. Sarah wrapped the baby in blankets. They grabbed the few provisions they had packed and dashed out, quickly plunging into the woods and marshes.

It was slow going with the baby and the children. The marshes were wet and mucky. The woods were dense with prickly thickets that scratched them. The Jews expected Syrian soldiers to catch them at any moment. They all prayed to Adonai as they struggled forward, away from the village.

Once they heard a noise ahead. “Hide!” ordered Shimon, in a loud whisper. Everyone dove for cover. The noise was only an animal moving through the woods.

The Syrians still hadn’t caught up to the small band of Jews as twilight came. They were cold, wet, and hungry. They were torn and scratched from the thickets. Sarah was still weak from childbirth. They were poorly prepared to spend a cold night outside. They couldn’t even light a fire for warmth, fearing it would attract the Syrians.

Sarah passed around the little food she had packed. They said the blessings, wondering if they would live to see the next day. Again they heard noises in the woods–men’s voices. They knew it had to be soldiers.

“Take cover,” ordered Shimon. They crawled as best they could under thickets. The noises were growing louder, getting closer and closer. In the fading light, Shimon could see they carried swords and shields. It’s all over, he thought, and started praying.

One of the men passing nearby suddenly stumbled. Shimon’s girls screamed. In the growing darkness, the soldier had tripped over the girls hiding by a thicket. Shimon and Natan, grabbing heavy sticks and rocks, prepared to fight the Syrians to the end.

“Wait!” shouted the soldier. “We’re fighters of Judah Maccabee. We drove the Syrians from your village. The people sent us to find you.” Only then Shimon noticed the soldier’s shield glinting in the last remaining bit of daylight. Across it were Hebrew letters, the initials of the Hebrew words: Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty [Mi Chamocha, Ba-ayleem Adonai]. The Hebrew letters spelled out Maccabee. Shimon knew they were safe and sang a prayer of thanks to God.

Shimon and Natan joined the Maccabees. They quickly learned to be soldiers and marched with Judah Maccabee to liberate and restore the holy Temple in Jerusalem. When they returned to their village, Shimon told his children and later his grandchildren over and over again of Judah Maccabee, their victory over the Syrians, the great Temple in Jerusalem, and the one-day’s worth of holy oil that lasted eight days. And for many years, he would bring them to Jerusalem in the month of Kislev to thank God and celebrate the great miracle that happened there.