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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading for Chanuka

22nd December – 29th December
25th Kislev – 2nd Tevet 5769

The History of Chanukah
Chanukah, the Festival of rededication, is also known as the festival of lights. Chanukah is an eight day festival, and always falls on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, even though its corresponding date in the English calendar varies. This year, 2008, Chanukah begins on Monday, December 22nd in the evening. In the Western world, Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, principally because of its proximity to Christmas. While many may think of this holiday as the "Jewish Christmas," including elaborate gift-giving and decoration, Chanukah is actually a simple historical commemoration, celebrating the victory of a small band of rebels fighting against the imposing might of the Hellenistic Assyrian army. Commemorating this fight against oppression and assimilation, we kindle lights to remember the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and to rededicate ourselves to strengthening our own identities today.
Talmudic Beginnings.

The rabbis of the Talmud ask a strange question: ‘Ma hi Chanukah?’ (Shabbat 21b). Loosely translated, this means, "What the heck is Chanukah about anyway?" At this point you may be asking: "you mean the ancient sages of our tradition didn't know the story about the wicked Antiochus. ‘Achashverosh’ in Hebrew - and the flask of oil that lasted eight days and about latkes and dreidels and little chocolate coins?"

Well, except for the latkes and dreidels and little chocolate coins part, the ancient sages did know that story. In fact, they gave it to us. What they were not sure was how to properly celebrate the holiday, or how all the different traditions that had developed fit together.

To explain how the ancient rabbis saw Chanukah, first let's take a step back and look at the historical record, as best we understand it. In 167 B.C.E., a king named Antiochus Epiphanus (interestingly ‘Epiphanus’ means in the Greek ‘as God’) ruled over a chunk of the Middle East that included the land of Israel. He wanted to unify all the peoples under his rule with one culture, the Greek-Roman culture called Hellenism, which had been handed down from the time of Alexander the Great (ca 323 B.C.E.). So Antiochus outlawed the study of Torah and the practice of Judaism, and put Greek gods in Jewish holy places.

Some Jews went along with Antiochus's edicts and assimilated into Hellenism, but other Jews rebelled against these oppressive laws. The most successful rebel was a Hasmonean priest named Mattathias. He and his five sons, including the legendary Judah the Maccabee (Judah the "Hammer") led a successful rebellion to retake Jerusalem and reestablish Jewish sovereignty. Eventually, they even established themselves and their descendants as native Jewish kings. When they took over the Temple and cleaned out all the remnants of the idolatrous Greek worship, they rededicated the Temple and then immediately held a late observance of the eight day festival of Sukkot, the most important festival of Temple times. The next year, to commemorate their victory and the rededication of the Temple, a "late Sukkot" was held again, thereby giving birth to our eight-day celebration of Chanukah - which means "dedication".
The deeds of the Maccabees were recorded and reported to other Jewish communities throughout the Land of Israel and to those communities outside the land that developed during the first exile and who never returned. The oldest sources we have for the story of the Maccabees is the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. The First Book of Maccabees is a simple history, telling the story of the revolt and continuing the story of resistance that continued after the revolt when the Hasmoneans took over the monarchy. The Second Book of Maccabees was composed as a letter, written to the Jewish community of Alexandria, explaining the events that took place and encouraging them to commemorate the Hasmonean victory by observing the new holiday of Chanukah.

While these books tell the important story of the Maccabees, they were not universally embraced by Jews everywhere, and when the time came for the canonization (selection process) of the Hebrew Bible, they were left out. They were, however, preserved by the early Church, who did include the Books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the Greek writings that appear in Christian Bibles between the "Old" and "New" Testaments.

So what happened to the story of the oil and the miracle of the lights? Well, that's where the rabbis come in. In the rabbinic sources, we find virtual silence on the topic of Chanukah in the Mishnah. It is only in the Gemara (the later rabbinic material which, along with the Mishnah makes up the Talmud) that we find the new story about the oil and the miracle of the lights. By the time of the development of the Talmud, around 200-500 C.E., the Jews were living under Roman rule in Israel and under Persian rule in Babylon. In these circumstances, celebrating stories about military rebellion might not be viewed in too positive a light by the authorities, and the sages also feared that some Jewish hotheads might stir up trouble and cause all kinds of problems for the Jewish community. So the Talmudic sages put a new spin on the established holiday: YHVH wrought a great miracle for the people, enabling the few to triumph over the many, and YHVH showed the people another miracle in the oil, when a flask of ritually pure oil sufficient for one day lasted for all eight days.

But there is also more. The battle fought by the Maccabees was not only a revolt against religious oppression and colonial domination, but it was a civil war as well, fought between pietistic adherents to a strict traditional observance of Judaism (as practiced in those days) and those who were attracted to the might and worldliness of Hellenism and sought to acculturate. Ironically though, after their victory, the Hasmoneans assumed the Monarchy of Israel - which, in of itself was prohibited for a priestly family, and eventually, after some generations, became advocates of Hellenization and invited the Roman Empire to become protectors of Israel, setting the stage for the eventual Roman conquest. As a priestly family, the Hasmoneans sided with the Sadducees, the priestly advocates of the authority of Temple Sacrifice, against the Pharisees, the forerunners of the rabbis and the form of rabbinic Judaism we continue to practice today. With the destruction of the Second Temple, the fall of the Sadducees, and the ultimate conquest of the Land of Israel by the Romans, the new rabbinic authorities assume the mantle of religious authority. Unhappy with the Hasmoneans and critical of the eventual outcome of the Maccabean revolt, the Rabbis set out to relegate Chanukah and the Maccabees to a mere footnote in Jewish history. Hence the exclusion of Maccabees from Hebrew Scriptures and the shift in the emphasis of Chanukah from the victory of the Maccabees to YHVH's miracle of light. Effectively, the Rabbis sought to write the Maccabees out of Jewish history. Like the exclusion of Moses from the Passover Haggada, the Maccabees were removed from Chanukah, and the spotlight was put on YHVH.

So back to our Talmudic question: ‘Ma hi Chanukah?’ "What is Chanukah?" Well, the answer depends on your perspective. It could be a holiday of religious freedom, inspired by the people's desire to shake off oppressive laws. It could be commemoration of the human capacity for courage and hopefulness, as we remember the Maccabees' brave revolution. It could be an opportunity to reflect on Jewish distinctiveness and the miracle of Jewish survival in societies that offer so many opportunities to just chuck it all and assimilate. It could be a spur to many Jews to reach out to each other across denominational and ideological boundaries, inasmuch as the Maccabean revolt was also a civil war between Hellenized and non-assimilated Jews. It could be, as the Talmud suggests, a time to thank YHVH for the miracles in our lives; a time to think about what is in YHVH's hands and not in human hands. It could be a chance to ask ourselves: what seemingly ordinary things can I experience as miracles today?

Chag Sameach

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