1. Clear and Simple

To everyone it is clear that in its present form, Hanukkah dates back to the struggle led by the Maccabees — a family from the priestly tribe — against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel and against Hellenized Jews, from 169 to 166 BCE.

The Maccabean war was a fusion of anti-colonial and civil war. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Hellenistic King of the Syrian branch of Alexander's empire, had decreed that local religions, including Judaism, be rooted out. Circumcision, kosher food and Shabbat were outlawed on pain of death. Hellenistic rituals and sacrifices were instituted at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and at shrines throughout the land. Many Jews, filled with admiration for the worldly wisdom and power of Hellenistic culture, followed the direction and obeyed the decrees.

But others, deeply committed to Torah, were filled were fury at the oppressive decrees and with revulsion at the cooperation of their compatriots. They rallied under the leadership of Mattathias the Priest, a Hasmonean who lived in Modiin, and his five sons — who came to be called the Maccabees. After three years of guerrilla warfare in the hills and forests against the regular armies of Antiochus and his collaborators in the Jewish community, the Maccabean forces won. They recaptured Jerusalem in 166 BCE, and set out to rededicate the Holy Temple.

During the next century, the deeds of the Maccabees were recorded and celebrated. The eight-day celebration of rededicating the defiled altar in the Temple is described in detail in I Maccabees chapter 4. In II Maccabees chapter 10, Hanukkah is described as a kind of rerun of Sukkot, the Festival of Huts, which the Maccabean guerrillas ("living like wild animals in the mountains and caves") had been unable to celebrate in its proper season. The First and Second Temples were both dedicated at the season of Sukkot, and so the reenactment of Sukkot may have seemed an especially appropriate way to rededicate the Temple. And so, from I and II Maccabees, the story seems fairly clear and simple.

2. It ain't so clear and simple

Jewish tradition about Hanukkah, however, is not so simple. The books of the Maccabees themselves became an issue. They seem to have been treated as holy books by the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria. The rabbis, on the other hand, never regarded them as holy, and never entered them among the books that made up the Jewish Bible. And it was rabbis who determined what became Jewish tradition. Ironically enough, these books that celebrated the Maccabees' victory over Hellenism survived not in Hebrew but only in the Greek language... (Indeed, the Maccabean books survived into modern times only because some of these Hellenized Jews became recruits to Christianity, and brought with them the assumption that these Books of the Maccabees were holy writings. The Christian Church then included Maccabees among its version of what it called the "Old Testament.")

For the classic Jewish view of the origins of Hanukkah, therefore, we must turn to the Talmud. Here we find Hanukkah in a most peculiar position. It is the only one of the traditional festivals that does not have a place in the Mishnah (the earlier level, or layer of the Talmud). And in the later layer, the Gemara, it is treated in a very off-hand way, without the focused attention that is normal for deciding how to observe a holy day.

In a discussion of what kinds of candles may be used for Shabbat, one rabbi asks, rather casually, whether the rules for Hanukkah candles are different; in this context, another asks — as if he had barely heard of the festival — "What is this Hanukkah?"

And this is the answer he receives:
Our rabbis taught: On the 25th day of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Hanukkah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day's lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit [with that oil] for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival, with Hallel (prayers of praise) and Thanksgiving [Shabbat 21b].

After this brief explanation, the rabbis go back to discussing the candles. They have no more to say about the internal divisions of the Jews, the revolt against Antiochus, the victory of the Maccabees, the rededication of the Temple. How can we explain this?

3. A very cautious attitude

The reason for this cautious attitude towards Hanukkah is that the rabbis were not happy with the Maccabean approach to Jewish life. They were writing in the period when similar revolts against Rome, seeking to win the Jews political independence, to turn Judea into a rocky fortress, and to toughen the Jewish people had been systematically and brutally smashed by the iron first of Rome. The rabbis believed that only the rabbinical kind of power — the power not of the fist but of the spirit — had protected and preserved the Jewish people in the past and could do so now.

Moreover, the Maccabees had made themselves and their offspring kings, after expelling the Syrian-Greek empire. That, in itself, was a violation of the ancient Israelite constitution, which required that priest and king be of different tribes, so as to create a check-and-balance system between religious and political power. Even worse in the eyes of the rabbis, the Hasmonean kings — despite their anti-imperial, anti- assimilationist origins — had invited the Roman Empire to become protectors and overlords of the Jewish kingdom, paving the way for the ultimate Roman conquest. Finally, and worst of all, the Hasmonean kings sided with the Sadducees, the priestly upholders of the primacy of Temple offerings as a channel to God, against the Pharisees — forerunners of the rabbis who saw prayer and the study and interpretation of Torah as the path to God.

All these Maccabean ways of exercising power seemed to the rabbis a subtle surrendering to the habits of the Gentiles (ironically, a form of assimilation) as distinct from pursuing a life-path that the rabbis saw as authentically Jewish. And so, in retrospect, the rabbis were critical of the meaning and ultimate outcome of the Maccabean revolt; without utterly rejecting the national liberation movement, they refocused attention away from it toward God's miracle — toward the spiritual meaning of the light that burned and was not consumed for eight days.

4. Tables are turned; Hanukkah is reborn

Through almost two millennia, Hanukkah remained a real but secondary festival of the Jewish people. Beginning late in the 19th century in central and eastern Europe, Hanukkah had a second birth. There were two major factors in this second birth, both of them stemming from the emancipation of the Jewish people and their increasing day-to-day contact with the Christian and secular world.

As secular, non-religious, or rational religious ideas grew during the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment in the 19th century), there was a special disdain for the irrational notion of the miracle of the oil in the Temple. In addition, with the growing popularity of the secular notion of Jewish peoplehood, including the Zionist notion of the Jews as a nation seeking political rehabilitation through politico-military action, the Maccabees began to seem less dangerous and more heroic than they had throughout the centuries of rabbinic tradition. Indeed, many Zionists identified the rabbis' fear of militant action against oppressive governments as a major element of exile mentality to be transcended in rebuilding the Jewish people.

Thus, from about 1890 on, the miracle of the lights declined, and the Maccabees advanced in attention and popularity. Hanukkah became more and more important as a celebration of Jewish political courage and military prowess. At the same time, the Christian Apocryphal books of the Maccabees became more accessible to Jews, as the barriers between the Jewish and Christian worlds crumbled.

An additional factor contributing to the rebirth of Hanukkah was the growing popularity of Christmas as a major society-wide event among Christians in Europe and North America. As Jews became more assimilated into the broader (Christian) society, they felt themselves both attracted and threatened by the joyful Christmas celebrations and especially by their appeal to children. Hanukkah — both because of its date and because of its anti-assimilationist content — became a useful tool for strengthening Jewish identity.

Out of these twin facts, Hanukkah was reborn as a popular holiday, with a greater emphasis on the Maccabees, on resistance to assimilation and the defense of religious and ethnic pluralism, on the giving of gifts, and on the pleasure of children.

5. Reflections

As we have seen, the Rabbinic tradition was hostile to the Maccabees, and modern Zionism, identifying with the Maccabees, was often hostile to the Rabbis. From the standpoint of the Rabbis, Hanukkah celebrated God's saving Spirit: "not by might and not by power..." From the standpoint of the Maccabees, Hanukkah celebrated human courage, the human ability to make history bend and change.

Is there any way to integrate these conflicting orientations to Hanukkah? Can a new generation of Jews help resolve this contradiction? By perceiving that Hanukkah is the moment when light is born from darkness, hope from despair, we understand that the real conflict is not between Rabbi and Maccabee, not between the spiritual and the political, but between apathy and hope, between a blind surrendering to darkness and an acting to light up new paths. By acknowledging the season of darkness, we know it is time to light the candles, to sow a seed of light that can sprout and spring forth later in the year.

Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a time for accepting both the Maccabee and the Rabbi within us, and a resource to help us experience our moments of darkness whenever they occur throughout the year and strike new sparks.


From: Seasons of Our Joy: A Celebration of Modern Jewish Renewal, Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted by permission of the author.

author Rabbi Waskow is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and the author of a number of works of Jewish renewal, including Godwrestling Round 2 (Jewish Lights Publ., Woodstock, VT) and Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, & the Rest of Life (Wm. Morrow).




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