the new december dilemma – which hanukah to celebrate

shabbat hanukah

In recent years, it’s become fashionable to talk of two Hanukahs.  One Hanukah celebrates the military victory of Judah the Maccabee; his uncompromising ideological purity, his ethnic pride and rejection of Hellenism and his band of nationalist and patriotic freedom fighters.  The other Hanukah celebrates the festival of lights, a heart-warming, home-centered celebration of a benign miracle which focuses on re-dedication to temple, home and Jewish learning.

What makes this tale of two Hanukas intriguing, is that the Maccabean Hanukah  is associated with the historical record, and the Festival of Lights was created by 1st and 2nd century Rabbis who invented a fable (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b) of a hidden vial of oil which lasted 8-days.  Following this two Hanukah approach, the Pharisee sages invented this can of oil in order to mask over a militaristic victory narrative, to which they had objections.  According to this train of thought, the Rabbis objected to the Maccabean militarism, nationalism, rejection of the enlightenment and most of all to the intolerance which culminated in the slaughter of Jewish Hellenists in the name of purity.

The punch line of this riff is that the Rabbis won the holiday war of their day… we celebrate the Festival of Lights. The Rabbis were so successful in blotting out the memory of the Macabean victory that the Book of the Maccabees, originally written in Hebrew is only available in Greek and we have it today thanks to its acceptance in the Christian Canon but not our own TaNaCH.  As Jon D. Levenson put it in a recent WSJ article: “Jews know the fuller history of the holiday because Christians preserved the books that the Jews themselves lost.” The only thing missing to deliver a Rabbinic knock-out to the militant Maccabees would have been a Mel Gibson action movie celebrating the Macabees, but alas, this April Warner pulled the plug…

With the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin z’l, the two Hanukahs were assigned to political camps.  The assassin, Yigal Amir and the right-wing religious nationalists whose anti-peace rhetoric empowered him, were associated with the Maccabees and the martyred Rabin and the liberal Peace camp were associated with the pacifist Rabbis.

So much for two Hanukas.  I’m not buying, at least not it this simplistic form. It just doesn’t hold up…..

In fact, the First and Second century Rabbis had no problem with the Maccabees who lived centuries earlier.  Their fight was with the corrupt Hasmonean Priests and Monarchists of their day who were descended from Judah and his band of freedom fighters.

The Rabbis celebrate the Maccabean victory in the Al Hanisim prayer recited three times a day and after meals…. All eight days of Hanuka.

And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time—

 In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Hanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

And as to who is the latter-day Judah the Maccabee.. … if I were to associate anyone with the Maccabees, it would not be Jerusalem suburbanites who want us to believe that they are today’s latter-day Zionist pioneers, but rather the spiritual heir of the Maccabean fighters would be Yitzhak Rabin and his peers who fought and lead Haganah and IDF troops in every battle fought for the Jewish State.

So how and why did the founders of Rabbinic Judaism re-package Hanukah?

In a fascinating book written by Harvard scholar Shaye J.D. Cohen; From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, the author follows the emergence of Jewish sects starting from the Maccabees and culminating with the emergence of the Pharisees (Rabbinic Judaism), Essenes, Samaritans, Christians, Sicarii and zealots .  He writes:

The Maccabean period lasted a century, from the victory of 164 B.C.E. to the entrance of the Romans into Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. During their tenure, the Maccabees gradually increased their power and prestige, They began as rebels against the Seleucid empire, but less than ten years after Judah’s death his brother was appointed high priest by a relation of Antiochus Epiphanes!  By the 140s and 130s B.C.E. the Seleucids had little choice but to accept the independence of the Maccabean state. The rise of the Maccabees within the Jewish polity was just as phenomenal. They began as insignificant country priests and became high priests and kings, the rulers of an independent state. They pursued an aggressive foreign policy, seeking alliance with Rome against the Seleucids and carving out for themselves a kingdom larger than that of David and Solomon. Their fall from power was caused by both internal and external enemies [p15]

The Hasmonean dynasty was not itself a sect; it was the corrupt ruling power under whose rule it became clear that the Jewish Commonwealth and Temple were doomed. The sects were a natural response… the emergence of a plan for a new age.  The Hasmoneans left little more than a trail of blood.  They took power, land and made treaties with foreigners when it served their purpose.  Their dynasty ended when the wicked Herod was appointed Governor.. they had prepared the way.

If the Rabbis had anything against Judah the Maccabee it was only in so far that he was a crucible for what lay ahead.   sof maʿaseh b’maḥashavah teḥilah … the ultimate deeds were contained in the original thoughts….

lecha dodi
In the 21st Century, we have a first-hand knowledge of religious freedom fighters like the Taliban and al qaeda, who begin or welcomed into a struggle because of their dedication and selflessness, only to take control with a savagery and corruption beyond any imagination.

The Rabbis sparred with the other sects, but with the Hasmoneans they fought.

In the Talmud  (Kiddushin 66a) there is an account of a Hasmonean King named Yannai:

It happened that King Yannai went to Kochalis in the desert and conquered 60 cities.  Upon his return he was exceedingly happy and so he invited all the sages of Israel to a celebration…they served delicacies on gold tables and they feasted. ….  There was there a certain elder named Yehudah ben Gedidyah.  He said to Yannai: “King Yannai!  Be satisifed with the crown of kingship; leave the crown of Kehunah for the descendants of Aaron.”  Yannai removed the sages from the feast. Eliezer ben Poira said to King Yannai: “King Yannai! If an ordinary Jew were treated in this way it would be his lot, but you are a King AND Kohen Gadol, is this your lot?”   … immediately Yannai executed all the sages of Israel and the world was bereft of Torah knowledge until Shimon ben Shetach came and returned the Torah to its former standing

The Hasmanoim destroyed the historical division of power between the king and the priest, Temple and State.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 18b) recounts:

Once in the city of Lod they decreed a fast on the holiday of Hanukah.  In response, Rabbi Eliezer went to a bathhouse and took a bath and Rabbi Yehoshua went to a barber in Lod and had his haircut.  These two rabbis said to the people of Lod who had fasted: “Go out and make another fast on account of the fact that you fasted on Chanukah.”

We learn from this that the Holiday of Hanukah was controversial, even then… clearly some Jews did not believe that the re-packaging of Hanukah as a festival of lights had done the job.  Their hatred for the Hasmanoim was so great that they actually fasted on Hanukah.

The Talmud in Rosh HaShana continues:

“On the Third of Tishrei, the superfluous mention of God’s name was removed from secular documents.  For the Greek kingdom had decreed that God’s name not be mentioned, and when the Hasmoneans took power they decreed that people should mention God’s name EVEN in secular documents.  And so they would write, ‘In the year so and so to Yochanan who is the Kohen Gadol to the Supreme God (kohen gadol le-el elyon).’  When the sages heard about this matter they were displeased, for they said: ‘Tomorrow this person will repay his debt and the unneeded document will be found lying in a garbage heap.’  And so they nullified the Hasmonean decree.  That day they made into a festival.”

What makes this story remarkable is that the Third of Tishrei is also a fast day… it is the Fast of Gedaliah… the first instance of Jew-on-Jew assassination that occurred in the time of Jeremiah where the governor that Jeremiah supported was killed as a Babylonian collaborator by a zeolot.

It would seem that even though the 3rd of Tishrei was a fast day (Tzom Gedlaiah) which is observed by Orthodox Jews till today on the day after Rosh HaShanah, the Rabbis saw no contradiction in celebrating the nullification of a Hasmonean decree.  It would appear that the Rabbis made a connection between the Jew-on-Jew violence of the zealots in Jeremiah’s generation with the similar action of the Hasmoneans in their own.  Nullifying a Hasmonean decree was an act in the spirit of the fast of Gedalya.

The Rabbis rejected the Hashmanoim attempt to force religion and ideology into every aspect of life. The Rabbis who modified the story of Hanukah had seen first-hand how religion and politics don’t mix and how important it is to create checks and balances… a fence around the Torah.  The Rabbis saw in the Hanukah story a lesson to beware of freedom fighters and purists who can too easily become radical tyrants and purgers.

So I light my candles for the Rabbis and their defeat of the Taliban of their day and their successful rebranding of the Hanukah story.  While my candles burn bright in my home and my gaze lingers on them, I rededicate myself to protecting our people from self-proclaimed zealots, purists and power grabbers who start out smelling like Judah the Maccabee but end of like the Hasmanoims.

And for some reason, when I light my candles I also think about and mourn Yitzhak and the fact that our people have not yet deemed it appropriate to commemorate his assassination as they did that of a nondescript governor named Gedaliah…..

on this day were  26 innocent children were massacred in Connecticut .. let us all light a candle to put an end to all senseless violence… may their memories be a blessing and their families find comfort.


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One response to “the new december dilemma – which hanukah to celebrate

  1. brilliant/ thanks.

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