Constructing Hanukkah

Guest Column: David Shasha, the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York, is one of my favorite weekly email reads. (You can subscribe, too, by contacting him directly.) He offers a fascinating, and very scholarly, take on matters of Jewish theology, philosophy, identity and politics, all from the perspective of the Jews of the Levant — whose voice has long been suppressed, particularly in the Ashkenazi Zionist tradition. David agreed to me republishing his Hannukah Notes, which offer some illuminating (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) insights into the politics that have gone into the construction of Hannukah as we know it today in the U.S. — or, how a minor nationalist celebration was transformed into a kind of Jewish Christmas. Something to read while chewing on your latkes. Coming next, from David, on Rootless Cosmopolitan, his piece explaining the “Levantine Option,” encompassing an Arab-Jewish alternative to the Zionist worldview.

Hanukkah Notes

By David Shasha

1. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, a Hebrew word meaning “to dedicate,” is a minor Jewish festival with no Biblical source.

2. Hanukkah is a historical holiday that commemorates the Jewish defeat of the Seleucidite Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE by a priestly family called the Maccabees. These Maccabees sought to defeat not merely the Greek occupiers, but to defeat their Jewish acolytes, the so-called “Jewish Hellenizers.”

3. Our rabbinic sources have not preserved any legitimate historical information for us. But the rabbis do set out the legal requirement of the holiday, a single prescription to light candles for eight nights, in the Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud. This legal discussion, our only “official” Jewish source for the holiday, is in essence appended to a much larger discussion of the intricacies of lighting candles for the Sabbath.

4. Our historical source for the holiday is the apocryphal Book of Maccabees 4:52 ff. where we read of the Maccabean rededication of the Temple on 25 Kislev, the traditional date of Hanukkah.

5. The rabbis who canonized the Hebrew Scriptures at Yavneh circa 100 CE neglected to include the Book of Maccabees in their Bible. There are many ways that we might speculate on this excision of the Maccabees from the Masoretic Bible.

6. The rabbis saw the Hasmonean dynasty as usurpers to the Priestly offices in the Temple and the monarchy. The Hasmoneans were country priests who did not come from the Zadokite lineage and took it upon themselves to lead the rebellion against Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks. From the rabbinic point of view, whatever positive gains were gained by this defeat of the Seleucids was negated in the very strict literal sense of Jewish law regarding priestly succession as elucidated in the rabbinic sources.

7. We can then examine the Hasmonean lineage and its impact on the Jewish culture in Pharisaic and post-Pharisaic Judaism. The first Hasmoneans by and large stayed true to the Jewish legal traditions along the rabbinic model. But as the generations went on, the Hasmoneans continued to garner more and more power and forgot the traditions that stirred the rebellion in the first place. At the nadir of Hasmonean power, the usurpation of the throne by the Idumean pretender Herod, who was technically a member of the Hasmonean clan as he married into the family, capped off what was by then many decades of Hellenization by the Temple priests.

8. So it should be noted that the rabbis were less than thrilled with the physical specimens of the Hasmonean dynasty who populated the Temple precincts in their own day. It would then make sense for the rabbis to seek to expunge the historical record of the Maccabean revolt and the reasons for the celebration of the Hanukkah holiday.

9. But the rabbis could not eliminate a holiday which had popular roots among both the Jewish masses and the priestly elite. Hence, they developed a hagiographic tale of a cruse of oil that was found amidst the Temple relics that was the only “pure” oil that could be used to light the Menorah, Hebrew candelabrum; according to the rabbis the oil, a one-day supply, lasted for the eight-day rededication ceremonies. It is curious to note that the Temple Menorah contained seven branches while the Hanukkah Menorah contains nine.

10. The story of the cruse of oil knowingly obscured the historical underpinnings of the holiday which, in addition to the Book of Maccabees sources, appears in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities Book 12, Chapter 7. Our historical sources tell us nothing about the cruse of oil but do tell us a good deal about the Maccabees and their war against the Syrians.

11. The rabbis, as is known, were split over their own thoughts and desires about Jewish national independence. There was a faction led by R. Akiba that continued to struggle for Jewish independence while another group, led by R. Yohanan Ben Zakkai, sought to make peace with the occupiers and develop a new Jewish national life based upon study and practice of the written and oral traditions of the Hebrew faith. According to this model the Jews would live at peace with the Romans in exchange for their religious freedom and communal autonomy.

12. The Hanukkah commemoration, a clearly nationalistic holiday, a holiday that was more political than spiritual, was muted within the rabbinic liturgical calendar. The rabbis were deeply concerned with the restoration by the Maccabees of Torah study rather than political independence. The rabbinic Hanukkah is a contemplative holiday that highlights the warmth of family ties and the freedom afforded by the Maccebean revolt for Jews to live in religious freedom.

13. With the dual emergence of new trends in the modern period; Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism and the increased attention paid by Jews to Gentile-like behaviors and assimilation, the holiday of Hanukkah, a relatively minor part of the Jewish liturgical calendar as we have said, takes on a newly significant role.

14. For the Zionists, the Maccabean revolution was an alternative historical model to the standard narrative of the rabbis. In the Macabees, the Zionists found a valid historical model on which to base their own Judean nationalism. Rather than maintaining the codes and beliefs of the Talmudic sages, the Zionists re-formed a “new” Jewish “nation” upon “invented traditions” that were deeply informed by the Maccabean paradigm.

15. In the Zionist narrative the Hellenizing Maccabees were expunged and the Nationalist Maccabees were valorized. The movement which led to Herod and the eventual destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE was blanked out, as was the paradigm shift of R. Yohanan Ben Zakkai and the emergence of a new humanistic Judaism based upon the collection of the source traditions during this period of the written and oral traditions in the forms of the Masoretic Scriptures and the Mishnah, leading to the magnum opus of this rabbinic formalism, the Babylonian Talmud.

16. Zionism saw itself as heir to the Maccabeean revolution and not to the rabbis. The quietism of the rabbis was eliminated in favor of a new aggressiveness that thought little of the religious and cultural implications of this realignment of Jewish life. Zionism was an attempt to restore national life to the Jews at the expense of the religious imperatives developed in the Diaspora by the Jewish Sages.

17. The increasing level of assimilation by Jews into Gentile society has made Hanukkah a holiday meant to match up against Christmas, a central Christian holiday that forms, with New Year’s Day, the very core of Christian self-definition. Over the past century, Christmas has taken on mammoth proportions and has served to drive the engine of modern Western consumerism.

18. Thus, Jews who felt ill at ease with their own faith turned to Hanukkah as a “twin” holiday to stand up next to Christmas.

19. So, in summation, Hanukkah is a very minor Jewish holiday that has been obscured by the way in which Judaism has used the historical source materials and by the manner in which the Jewish rabbis sought to impress their own stamp upon the conceptualization of the holiday. Modern Jews have reframed the holiday and have given it new meanings not originally inherent in either the historical or the religious sense(s) of the commemoration transforming Hanukkah into a “major” Jewish holiday.

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17 Responses to Constructing Hanukkah

  1. Shlomo says:

    Very interesting article. Unfortunately, it includes no evidence whatsoever. In my fifteen years at religious Zionist dayschools, I can not recall a SINGLE Chanukah in which people tried to draw the connection to Zionism.

    There is a general idea that the Maccabbees staved off religious persecution and suppression. Remember, the revolt started when imperial forces commanded Judah Maccabee to sacrifice a PIG. If he had acquiesced, there would be no Judaism today. But this is separate from Zionism. As I’m sure everyone here realizes, Jewish freedom of religious expression can be attained through means besides Zionism.

    The cultural idea seems more pertinent to me. America has this nice tradition of religious toleration, where everyone has freedom of expression. Jews happily adapted the cultural aspects of Christmas, in order to better feel integrated in society.

  2. Marjorie says:

    Thank you for this, David. I wish your account could be more widely circulated. This is much as my Israeli raised husband has explained it to me. I am secular myself but am culturally Christian by upbringing and I despise what has been done to the simple, family Christmas of my childhood. It is now an ugly, shop-till-you-drop extravaganza of greed and consumerism tacked on to a mammoth eatathon.
    How sad then that the simple Hanukkah holiday my husband grew up with has been transformed into a hideous Jewish Christmas replete with everything that has ruined the major holiday on the Christian calendar. Most Americans are now convinced that it is a major jewish holiday with cards, lavish gits wrapped in blue and white gift wrap, special foods and a menorah instead of a Christmas tree. I have been asked this year if i’ve wrapped the Hanukkah gifts and written the cards for the in-laws back in Tel Aviv!
    Any group of people in the USA who hold their traditional holidays dear should hug them close to their hearts and keep them there and never worry that they are not as splashy as other folks celebrations. Cherish your traditions as they are and be very careful what you wish for. Just look what they did to their own holiday..

  3. Vox_in_Deserto says:

    Being somewhat knowdlegeable on Christianity, I’d like to improve the accuracy of this otherwise very interesting and informative post.

    “Christmas, a central Christian holiday that forms, with New Year’s Day, the very core of Christian self-definition.”

    Good Friday + Easter is the most important Christian Holiday and the very core of Christian self-definition.

    In fact, Sunday (which in many languages does not have the old pagan name but is named “Lord’s Day”: such as Domenica or Domingo from Dominus) is considered “the weekly Easter”.

    New Year’s Day is a minor holiday. In the Catholic Church, it honors St Mary as Mother of God. As a side note, the Catholic lithurgical year starts 4 weeks before Christmas.

    Christmas is the second Christian Holiday after Easter. I agree with Marjorie that it has been tremendously bastardized in the so-called “Christian” West. Actually, I sense a deliberate attempt to suppress Jesus, who by being born, living, and dying poor does not exactly fit with consumerism. Say Hello to Santa Claus, a bland fat guy who pleases everyone without making them feel uncomfortable when they shop and eat to death (sometimes literally).

    In my home there is never an image of Santa Claus. I’m sure the poor good Saint would have strived for anonimacy had he known what consumer society would turn his memory into.

  4. Rob says:

    Christmas was, after its comparatively late genesis, accorded the rank of fifth place in the Christian Festival cycle. It is outranked by Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and I believe, Transfiguration. Many observers have noted that Mark, John, Paul, Peter, James, and John of Patmos were not aware of the Christmas stories of Luke and Matthew, neither of which can be easily matched with the other. Both Hanukkah and Christmas were devised one in the Roman Empire and the other in the US to ‘baptize’ the mid-winter festival which was not considered religiously acceptable to the authorities. For an interesting history of Christmas see Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. Warning – very little of what we hold near and dear existed even in the early 1800s. But it is a fun as well as informative read.

  5. Y. Ben-David says:

    Point no. 11 is incorrect. Rabi Akiva (RA) and Rabi Yochanan Ben Zakkay (RYBZ) were not active at the same time. RYBZ was active during the first Revolt against the Romans (66-73 CE) and RA during the second, also known as the Bar-Kocbha Uprising. During the time of RYBZ, seeing that the internal civil war was weakening Jewish resistance, RYBZ and the “peace faction” made a cease-fire with the Romans and set up their scholarly center in Yavneh. This does NOT mean that they didn’t originally support the uprising, but they opposed the direction it took with much internal infighting. However, the Talmud is critical of the terms of the cease-fire RYBZ achieved, and he was tormented by his own doubts about it to the end of his life, according to the Talmud. According to RAMBAM (Maimonides), the 12th century , RA had almost wall-to-wall support for the second uprising.

  6. Y. Ben-David says:

    Point no 15…”that Rabi Yohanan Ben Zakkai (RYBZ) created a new ‘humanistic’ Judaism is a politicized comment made to support some current poltical agenda. RYBZ himself insitituted numerous customs to keep memory of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) alive, including taking the 4 species on Sukkot on the intermediate days (Hol Hamoed) in addition to the first day. The Haggadah recited on the Seder of the 1st night of Passover also speaks at length about the customs of the Beit HaMikdash and the Passover Sacrifice. The Babylonia Talmud, which is a producte of the exile, a couple of hundred years after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash discusses at length the sacrificial service even though it had been suspended at the time and was only theoretical, in anticipation of its renewal in the future.
    The claim the RYBZ represented some sort of “humanistic”, rootless Judaism in opposition to a “nationalist, Temple-centered” Judaism that existed before is simply wrong. The exile no doubt caused changes in emphasis, but the triad
    Am Israel-Torat Israel-Eretz Israel (The people of Israel, their Torah and the Land of Israel) was alive for the scholars both in the period before the destruction as well as after down to our own day. While it is true that many religious Jews had become passive and the Zionist movement rebelled against this passivity, most Jews who responded to the Zionist call, understood it as the revival of an already existing subtext that existed in Jewish tradition throughout the long period of exile following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the national center in Eretz Israel.

  7. ej says:

    I take it from Y Ben-David that there has been an unborken series of nut cases that has brought us the barbarism of principled intutionalised ethnic cleansing that constitutes the current state of Israel.

  8. Steve says:

    ej — you are an anti-semite (and a poor speller to boot). Any attempts to provide some perspective on what distinguishes political Zionism from the religion of Judaism are clearly futile in your case.

  9. Tony says:

    Steve, firstly, there’s nothing anti-Semitic about accusing Israel of institutionalised ethnic cleansing. Quite the contrary, you can make a very strong case for that indictment. Second, it’s not him that’s collapsing the distinction between Zionism and Judaism, it’s Y. Ben David — that’s exactly the point ej seems to be making…

  10. Steve says:

    My objection to Hanukkah is the elevation of a festival with minimal religious significance to one that is supposedly the Jewish equivalent of a Christmas (a diluted version thereof, admittedly). It doesn’t in any way communicate the theology of Judaism (expect perhaps the idea of exceptionalism, for which we can blame the medieval writer Yehudah haLevi and historical vagaries). But as Vox in Deserto points out, Christmas has also been blown out of proportion to its religious significance, so I can’t complain too much.

    And, it calls for conjecture what might have happened to Judaism if the Maccabees had not mounted an insurrection. (The historical record being cloudy enough as it is). After all, as David points out, their descendants turned out to be as thoroughly Hellenized as the Jews who were the target of their revolt. It is interesting to speculate, however, what would have happened if Philo spent a little more time reading up on halachah.

  11. Steve says:

    Y Ben David is guilty of gross generalizations that obscure deep divisions about the legitimacy of Zionism by religious thinkers. The return to Zion is a theological construct (something akin to the Kingdom of God in Christian thought), not a political aim, in part because of Jewish powerlessness.

    As far as I can tell, ej is suggesting that the State of Israel’s policies are a direct outgrowth of Judaism (regardless whether they are based on Y Ben David’s assertions). This is anti-semitism. There may certainly be extremists who make that argument In Israel (and Brooklyn) in order to reconcile the irreconcilable, but the reality is that Israel’s behavior is in direct contradiction to the principles outlined in the Torah. I wonder if ej would describe Al Ghazali or St Francis of Assisi as nutcases. Or assume that the actions of the Syrian regime in some way reflects Islamic theology.

  12. A couple of Hanukahs ago I wrote a similar post after hearing a wonderful drash (Torah conversation) by Rabbi Ted Falcon: Hanukah–Festival of Lights or Nationalist Triumph.

    Tony–you need to get Spam Karma 2 to clean out the spam comments.

  13. Ernie Haberkern says:

    Actually, Christmas is also a late, invented, tradition.

    The church father’s generally opposed this attempt to baptize a pagan solstice festival which had already been integrated with the birthday of the Persian saviour god Mithras.

    Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, the church hierarchy caved in to the sentiments of the “vulgar mob” who liked the idea of a party in the middle of winter.

  14. Mike Macathy says:

    It doesn’t in any way communicate the theology of Judaism (expect perhaps the idea of exceptionalism, for which we can blame the medieval writer Yehudah haLevi and historical vagaries).

  15. Wall Street in New York City, the country’s income distribution, inequality, economic crisis, the banks and in protest against unemployment and

    “Wall Street Meat occupation” civic initiative organized under the name of a month filled.

    “Wall Street Meat occupation” force, and 17 through the web site on the Internet since September direct their donations to those who visit their Zuccutti Park’?n? 300 thousand dollars in cash donations made to a bank and the money they deposited the check the protesters said. Meanwhile, cash donations, as well as swelling of the protesters beds, sleeping bags, blankets, canned food, medical and hygienic materials also stated that posted the largest increase in the number of beds in the park, especially swelling is noticeable.

    Meanwhile, in Zuccotti Park, a small first-aid station in a tent on them in the red tape that marks the center was established and is working as a volunteer activist 7-8. Park, while continuing to distribute free food in the food stocks of the movement at the web site stating that it is reported to help with this expectation. Restaurant in the neighborhood, some of the activists and protesters who support food assistance are made from time to time, as well as the famous ice cream brand in the United States, “Ben and Jerry’s” continued support for the activists.

    Tourists also come to Zuccotti Park, plenty of pictures of activists protesting çekerlerken, who sell food to Zuccotti Park, around the many parties is a T-shirt led to come to the seller. Also on the park wall activists all over the world by creating the post newspaper, news, review papers were here.

    Activists web sites at the weekend protests in a month period starting on Wall Street has spread to 82 countries all over the world on October 15 thousand 500 and wrote the action is done.

    “We 99’suyuz percent of the population” message, according to surveys by the American people won the hearts of more than half of the web site, movements now reached an international dimension, both in the United States at the same time, as well as the agenda has changed the opinion of the world, he argued.

    Meanwhile, a survey by Quinnipiac University showed their support anketNew Yorklular’?n Wall Street protests. About 87 percent of respondents Yorklular’?n kat?lanNew think the protesters should be allowed to remain Zucutti Park, 67 percent of the activists showed their support completely. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party supporter who said that 81 percent of the activists say their support, this ratio is only 35 percent among those who support the Republicans have also attracted attention.

    Activists in a protest this week at the moment expected for a night before, sometimes not found anywhere in the city to protest the decision verebiliyorlar. But this time, another famous Manhattan’s Union Square is a square, a new protest on October 22 announced to be made in advance.

    Cleanliness of the park designated to perform Zuccutti Park activists have expressed that remain in the Brookfield company that owns the park, park clean up must be thinking, the park was damaged by activists of the use of both pislenip, as well as park kullanamad???n? argues that no one else.

    Cleaning is expected to be made early in the morning last Friday, was postponed because of the influx into the park activists. The activists, the issue of cleaning the park is actually aimed at Wall Street’s protest as an excuse to use to finish the thought in the coming days, activists belirtirlerken of Brookfield company also spoken on this issue may be a contact.

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