Shedding light on Chanukah
Chanukah and the rabbis of old
Lighting a Chanukah menorah (known as a chanukiah), singing “Maoz Tzur,” spinning a dreidel, flipping latkes, exchanging gifts. That is Chanukah in practice. Chanukah in theory is about religious freedom and Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.
Everyone who has ever seen a Chanukah play visualizes those themes in the person of Judah Maccabee, the mighty warrior of Modi’in who has come to symbolize victory over religious persecution – a precursor to the modern Israeli soldier-scholar.
Who was Judah, really?
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Who were the Hasmoneans (Chashmona’im in Hebrew), without whom there would be no reason to eat jelly doughnuts in December?
|This bust of Antiochus IV is on display at Berlin’s Altes Museum.|
What happened after this brave family of Mattityahu (Mattathias) and their followers purified the Second Temple and lit its seven-branched menorah with the miraculous oil on the 25th of Kislev, 164 B.C.E.?
And why did talmudic sages have so little to say about them and the holiday that grew up around their daring deeds?
According to Teaneck resident Mitchell First, author of “Jewish History in Conflict” (1997), the basic story comes from three sometimes contradictory sources outside of the Jewish biblical canon: The Hebrew-language “I Maccabees,” covering the years 175-134 B.C.E.; “II Maccabees,” written in Greek, which ends with Judah’s defeat of General Nicanor in 161 B.C.E.; and “Megillat Antiochus,” a somewhat sketchy Aramaic work.
This much we know for certain: In 167 B.C.E., Antiochus IV outlawed Temple sacrifices, Shabbat and holiday observances, and ritual circumcision (b’rit milah), among other measures meant to make the Jews “forget the Torah and violate all the commandments,” as I Maccabees puts it. He ordered the burning of Torah scrolls and the death of anyone possessing such scrolls. And he decreed that the Temple be dedicated to Zeus. (A statue of Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon of gods, demigods, and other immortals, was placed in the Temple and looked conspicuously like Antiochus IV. He tacked on the name “Epiphanes,” Greek for “god is manifest,” to make certain everyone understood that he was Zeus incarnate.)
Mattityahu of Modi’in was having none of this. He was a kohen – a member of the priestly class. Along with his sons Judah, John, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan, Mattityahu killed a Jew who had publicly sacrificed on a pagan altar, as well as the king’s official who had ordered the sacrifice. Father and sons fled to the mountains and gathered followers to begin a revolt aimed at gaining religious and political freedom.
Mattityahu was killed early in the bloody three-year rebellion, and Judah took over. The story does not end with the triumphant menorah lighting, however. The fight for independence continued.
“It was a checkered history for the next 23 years,” explains Lee Levine, professor emeritus of Jewish history and archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of books including “Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period” (2003) and “Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence?” (1999).
“Sometimes they won and sometimes they lost battles, although within two years of the Chanukah story, the Seleucid Empire was willing to compromise and do away with religious restrictions to the point where they appointed a Jewish high priest with the Greek name Alcimus.”
Judah found himself on the outs when he refused to accept anything less than Jewish sovereignty, and was killed in battle around 160 B.C.E. “The Hasmoneans seemed to have fled or were persona non grata,” says Levine. “In any case, they weren’t based in Jerusalem for the next eight years and things went along without them.”
The Seleucids reinstated the Hasmoneans in 152, apparently seeing leadership potential in Judah’s brother Jonathan. A political deal sealing this new alliance for the next nine years resulted in Jonathan becoming not just high priest but also – contrary to the Torah’s allotment of power to men of different tribes – the political leader and military commander in chief.
“Jonathan was killed in 143 during political machinations, and his brother Simon took over and declared independence in 141,” Levine relates. “That’s the beginning of Hasmonean rule as an independent entity, and it lasted until the year 63, when the Romans conquered Judea.”
This was the only period in the Second Temple era that Israel was independent of foreign rule. Simon’s son and successor, John Hyrcanus, subjugated hostile neighbors, abolished idolatry, and even forcibly converted one ethnic group to Judaism (the Idumeans); this was an otherwise unheard-of act in Judaism that was never fully accepted by religious authorities or the general public. John was followed by his son Aristobulus, who was followed by his brother Alexander Yannai, a notorious opponent of the pre-rabbinic Pharisaic sages of the time. Yannai’s disdain for the sages and their rulings led to a civil war in which 50,000 Judeans were killed. After Yannai won that war, he crucified 800 people, many of them Pharisees, often with their families being forced to watch the agonizingly slow and painful deaths.
“These rulers expanded the territories of the Jewish kingdom,” says historian First. “After the death of Alexander Yannai, his widow Sh’lom-Tzion ruled for several years. The rivalry between her sons led to the intervention of Rome and the conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 B.C.E. At this time, Jewish independence ended.”
The legacy of this decidedly non-democratic era is hard to determine from the sources, says Levine, because each of the three is biased toward or against the Hasmoneans. “Undoubtedly, there was both support and opposition, if you read between the lines.”
Chanukah is the most notable outcome of the successful revolt against religious oppression, says Levine. Yet the first credible mention of the holiday in rabbinic literature is a disagreement hundreds of years later – in the last years of the Second Temple – about whether to light eight flames the first night and count down to one, or to light one the first night and count up to eight (the latter opinion won out).
The famous story about the cruse of oil lasting eight days appears in the Babylonian Talmud, which was edited in the sixth and seventh century C.E., says Levine. It is cited as an early source, “but how early that is, and how much it reflects what Jews were actually doing, is a question.”
Levine says the holiday seems to have become popular sometime in the third to fifth centuries. The “Ahl Hanissim” Chanukah addition to the Grace after Meals was written in the sixth or seventh century.
The attitude of the religious leadership toward the Hasmoneans and toward the holiday itself is hard to discern. Unlike the pre-Second Temple episode of Purim, which merits an entire tractate of the Talmud (appropriately called Megillah), Chanukah is not mentioned much in the Talmud and is not marked by public readings or communal meals. The subsequent addition of “Ahl Hanissim” to the Amidah during Chanukah is the sole liturgical recognition that a holiday is even being observed. Contrast this to Purim, during which “Ahl Hanissim” is also said, but on which both the evening and morning services include a reading of the Scroll of Esther (M’gillat Esther) and a brief portion of the Torah is read in the morning.
However, First contends that none of this necessarily implies a rabbinic disapproval of the holiday or the Hasmoneans. After all, other events of the time period also get little or no mention in the Talmud. Also, here and there one can find positive statements about the Hasmoneans despite their inappropriate power monopoly. Chanukah is the sole survivor of 36 added Jewish holidays based on events in Hasmonean and Roman times, probably because “it was the only one with a mitzvah attached to it,” First speculates. Moreover, he notes, the Sages did choose to include the “Ahl Hanissim” in the Amidah.
Beyond Chanukah, Levine stresses, the legacy of the Hasmoneans was establishing a model for Jewish sovereignty.
“Because of their tenacity and the change of circumstances, within 26 years of the anti-religious edicts they were able to turn things around. That created a new reality which continued to the end of the Second Temple period, and allowed a great deal of development of Jewish life and of Jerusalem and the Temple. Conversions to Judaism became much more frequent and diaspora relationships grew. It was a positive, flourishing period.”