Understanding Hanukka

Exploring three questions on the observance and story of Hanukka.

Hannuka painting 370 (photo credit: Paintings by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com)
Hannuka painting 370
(photo credit: Paintings by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com)
Three questions on Hanukka: 1. Why does this latter-day rabbinic yom tov merit eight days of the full Hallel prayer, more than any other hag? 2. So what if the old oil miraculously lasted all eight days? New oil would have had to be produced in any event.
3. Although Antiochus had defiled the Temple and banned the practice of circumcision and observance of Shabbat, who authorized Mattathias and his sons to start an all-out war against the ruling power? The answers to these questions, which challenge the conventional wisdom, lie in a deeper understanding of the times in which the Hasmoneans found themselves (190-168 BCE). There is a hint to this in the opening words of the Al Hanissim prayer: “In the days of Mattathias, son of Johanan” – that is, if you wish to understand the actions of Mattathias, you must first comprehend the days in which he lived, which in turn were still largely the consequence of the transformative disaster that had befallen the Jewish people in 586 BCE, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the upper classes to Babylon.
With that tragedy, the material foundations and the conceptual frameworks that had defined Jewish peoplehood for the past five centuries had been demolished. The dynastic monarchy of the House of David, which had provided political leadership, was now gone. The Temple with its Priesthood, which had been the center of Israel’s religious life, the locus of the agricultural pilgrimage festivals connecting the nation to God, was no more. The storied land of the patriarchs and prophets, which God had given to Israel, no longer caressed their feet.
Thus, the real problem of the forlorn Levite weeping by the rivers of Babylon was not, “Can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Psalms 137:4), but, “What, looking forward, does it now mean to be a Jew?” HERE, IN rough outline, are the events that followed. Less than 50 years later, the Persians under Cyrus conquered Babylon and permitted the captive peoples to return to their lands and rebuild their temples. About 40,000 men joined one of the princes of the House of David and returned to Judea, which was now a province of the Persian Empire. There they found harsh economic conditions and met with hostility from the foreign elements that had infiltrated the land. After much intrigue and many setbacks, a Temple was built, the sacrificial service resumed and the structure dedicated in 515 BCE.
However, conditions continued to deteriorate until reinforcements arrived from the Diaspora in the persons of Ezra (458 BCE) and Nehemiah (445 BCE), each armed with the authority of the crown.
While Nehemiah focused on the political aspects, finally getting the walls around Jerusalem rebuilt, Ezra – a priest knowledgeable in the ancient Torah texts – arrived with an additional 1,800 men, including Levites and priests, and a complete social and educational program. This was designed to revitalize the people and give them a sense of unity by reconnecting them to their past. He convened public assemblies in which the Torah texts were read, translated and explained to the people, who personally rededicated themselves.
Subsequently Ezra established an organization known as the Men of the Great Assembly (probably the first Jewish NGO).
It consisted of 120 men, including the last of the prophets, and lasted about 200 years. We know very little about the identities of these men, but later generations tell us that they inherited the mantle of authority from the prophets (Avot 1:1) and developed the oral tradition into what we know today as rabbinic Judaism.
As a result of their activities, Torah study became democratized and new local institutions arose, such as the beit midrash (Torah study hall) and beit knesset (synagogue). In addition, texts for regular prayers and blessings were formulated, and the Temple service itself was made more accessible to the people.
An outside observer viewing the condition of the Jews in Judea around 350 BCE could be excused for calling what he saw the beginning of a restoration. After all, we had all the attributes of nationhood: contiguous territory, a national language, a constitution, autonomous internal government headed by a high priest who was recognized as such by the foreign ruler. However, it would be a mistake to judge what was happening in terms of a return to what once had been. In fact, something entirely new and innovative was in the making. The mechanism was now in place to convert the oral law into an all-encompassing, practical way of life and to rearrange the conceptual principles of Judaism.
According to Simon the Just (one of the last members of the Men of the Great Assembly), the Jewish world rests on three things: Torah, which refers to Torah study; avoda, which refers to prayer and observance of the commandments, including support of the Temple; and gemilat hassadim, acts of loving kindness.
That is, in the absence of the personal religious experience of prayer or serious attention to morality, one’s Judaism is neither balanced nor stable.
HOWEVER, IN 332 BCE, there occurred an event that would have worldwide consequences and threaten the renaissance of Judaism that was taking place in Judea.
Alexander the Great had invaded the Middle East on his way to world conquest and brought with him Greek culture (Hellenism), which was the first transnational civilization the world had ever known.
Here were elements that any intelligent person could enjoy: science and philosophy, art and theater, sports and military arts, plus institutions such as the polis, city government, the agora and the gymnasium.
The key, of course, was the Greek language, which Jewish merchants who were engaged in international trade soon mastered. Also, the Septuagint, the translation of the Torah into Greek in about 200 BCE, for the growing Jewish population in Alexandria facilitated the knowledge of Greek among the priestly circles.
After Alexander’s unexpected death in 323 BCE and the division of his empire among his generals, Judea became an unwilling pawn – and sometimes participant – in the wars between Egypt of the Ptolemies and Syria of the Seleucids. As Hellenism spread among the affluent and priestly classes, they formed rival political parties, some favoring rule by the Ptolemies and others by the Seleucids. Ultimately this resulted in the corruption of the high priesthood, which was acquired by the party making the highest bid.
Though fighting among themselves, the Jewish Hellenizers believed they could remain Jewish nationals and properly perform the traditional service in the Temple while living the life of cultured Hellenes and giving lip service to the Greek gods.
But things came to a head in 198 BCE with the Seleucids gaining control over Judea, and the ascendancy of aggressive Hellenizer Antiochus IV to the throne in 175 BCE. Enraged by his inability to completely defeat Egypt and by the aid that country had received from its supporters in Jerusalem, Antiochus embarked on a total war against the Jewish religion. He defiled the Temple, banned circumcision and Shabbat observance, and ordered periodic offerings of unclean animals in honor of the emperor. The rest is history.
LET US now address the questions we posed at outset, only in reverse order.
3. Mosaic traditions, as well as the history of the First Temple period, support the commonsense belief that a people living on its land has every right – and indeed, obligation – to fight invaders. However, when Israel went into exile, Jeremiah the prophet instructed them in the name of God to “seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray for it” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Although back on their own land since 538 BCE, the Jewish people had remained under benign foreign rule (Persia and Greece) and presumably therefore committed to the teaching of Jeremiah.
There was also the tradition of martyrdom, which inculcated a readiness to die rather than violate some of the basics of Judaism. I submit that it was primarily the Hasmoneans’ deep understanding that their situation was profoundly new, altogether unprecedented and posing an imminent existential danger to their people and faith, that informed their decision. First, the enemy was not some greedy neighbor, but a breathtaking civilization being imposed by a political power that enjoyed local support in circles already in control of the Temple in Jerusalem. Second, at stake was not merely territory, but the entire inner revival and development of Judaism that had been growing in popularity.
As to the basic question of going to war against both the Syrian Greeks and the Jewish Hellenizers, there was no one to ask: The prophetic period had come to an end, and the age of overt miracles was no more.
At this most crucial turning point in our history, a single family assumed the mantle of leadership and, with sublime faith in the God of Israel, took up the sword of their biblical ancestors.
2. Unlike the miracles in the Bible, which occurred because there was a need for them (the splitting the Sea of Reeds, the manna in the wilderness), the miracle of the oil was simply a sign of Divine favor, approving the actions of the Hasmoneans and signifying that the new light of a revitalized Judaism kindled by the sages of the Great Assembly would continue to radiate.
1. If all of the above is a true analysis of the significance of Hanukka, then it is no wonder we celebrate it by reciting the full Hallel for all eight days of the holiday. As the sages put it, “For Yourself, O God, You have made a great and holy name in Your world and for Your people Israel. You have achieved a great deliverance and redemption as of this day,” and those beneficial effects are still felt today.
The writer is the emeritus Irving Stone professor of Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University.