everyone it is clear that in its present form, Hanukkah dates back to the struggle
led by the Maccabees a family from the priestly
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.
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.
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.
It ain't so clear and simple
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.
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?"
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?
A very cautious attitude
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.
Tables are turned; Hanukkah is reborn
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.
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
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.
Seasons of Our Joy: A Celebration of Modern Jewish Renewal, Beacon
Press, 1992. Reprinted by permission of the author.
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).