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Jewish History: The Big Picture

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Jewish History: The Big Picture

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Jewish History: The Big Picture
By Gila Gevirtz
Behrman House Publishers, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-8744-1838-5

This lively and accessible volume presents the full range of Jewish history, from biblical to contemporary times. Adapted from the two-volume award-winning work, The History of the Jewish People by Professors Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Krasner, this single volume treats readers to a fast-paced account of Jewish history that is grounded in scholarship and brimming with information on topics as diverse as the development of Christianity beyond its Jewish roots into a new religion and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. The text is filled with colorful anecdotal detail about Jewish communities throughout history and around the world, such as how Passover was celebrated on the Civil War battlefield and the origins of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian-Jewish community. The broad array of graphics 16 maps, 12 charts, 27 timelines, and more than 100 photographs is sure to engage readers and enrich their appreciation and understanding of Jewish history.

The following excerpt from Jewish History: The Big Picture has been provided courtesy of Behrman House Publishers.


In the Jewish month of Kislev in 164 bce, the Maccabees captured Jerusalem from the Seleucids and purified the Temple. The Temple was rededicated on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, the third anniversary of the day on which it had been defiled.

Judah and his men styled their dedication according to the eight-day autumn harvest festival of Sukkot, which they had not been able to celebrate a few months earlier. The new festival eventually became known as Hanukkah, which means "dedication." It is also called the Festival of Lights. To this day, Hanukkah begins on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, which usually falls in December, and is celebrated for eight days.

The Oil Story

A legend recorded in the Talmud, the authoritative collection of Jewish law, suggests another reason why the Hasmoneans—the family that led the revolt against the Greeks—created an eight-day festival. When the Maccabees purified the Holy Temple, this story says, they found enough oil to light the Temple's candelabra for only one day, yet the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.

Independence and Division

The Hasmoneans' struggle to win independence from the Seleucids continued for another twenty-three years. In 141 bce, the hated Seleucid fortress overlooking the Temple was finally destroyed. The Jews were free once again.

Mattathias's only surviving son, Simon, was proclaimed High Priest and Prince of the People. This proclamation signaled a change from the past—Simon was not a member of the traditional high priestly family. In the minds of some Jews, he was no more a legitimate High Priest than Menelaus had been. Simon's grandson would go one step farther and proclaim himself king of the Jews, a position many Jews believed could be held only by a descendant of King David.

Although Judea was independent, it was still in a region dominated by Hellenism. So the question Jews continued to confront was: Do you support resistance, adaptation, or assimilation? Ironically, the descendants of the Maccabees were in favor of adaptation. For example, they minted coins that used both Hebrew and Greek and some included symbols that were not uniquely Jewish, such as anchors, palm trees, and wheels.

North American Jews continue to face the issue of resisting, assimilating, or adapting to the Diaspora culture. Although the concern remains critical, it hasn't been as divisive as it was in Judea. Under the Hasmoneans the bitter divisions would have tragic consequences.

© Behrman House; used by permission.

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