2015 Chanukah & Shabbat Message

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah – From Rabbi Naomi

Here we are in the darkest time of the year with the sun sinking low so early and long, moonless nights. And the blessing of rain makes the days seem even darker. It’s a time for cozy fires, reading, and singing around the Chanukah candles.

Most Jewish holidays are based on our mythic history (Pesach, Sukkot, Shabbat, Shavuos, Simchat Torah, Rosh HaShanah), some are historical (Yom Kippur,) some works of historical fiction (Purim), and some based on historical events (Chanukah, Tisha B’av, Yom HaShoah). Understanding the holidays that derive from historical events requires historical analysis. We achieve this for Tisha B’av and Yom Hashoah; reliable, accessible histories of those tragic events abound. But we miss the mark for Chanukah. Most versions of the Chanukah tale in circulation are gross over-simplifications. Why is this?

Let’s start to answer the question by asking some more: If the story of the Maccabees is so important to us, on what holiday do we read it in the synagogue service? On which night or day of Chanukah? (These are trick questions.) The answer is: we don’t read it on any night of Chanukah, nor on any other holiday, in fact we never read it at all, because the two Books of the Maccabees were not included when the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible was canonized circa 100 Common Era. The First Book of the Maccabees was written in Hebrew sometime around 150 BCE, the Second Book about 25 years later in Greek, most likely in the great city of Alexandria, famous for its extraordinary library. Ironically, the texts – which are interpreted as reviling Greek culture – were revered by Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, survived only in Greek, and were included in the “Old Testament” of the Catholic Bible. Go figure.

The rabbis of the Talmud – the founding fathers of Judaism – didn’t care for the story of the Maccabees, a priestly Judean family that led a guerilla war of resistance in 169 BCE (Before the Common Era) against draconian policies of Antiochus Epihanes lV, the Greek-Syrian ruler of the Seleucid Empire (sih-LOO-kid.) The Maccabees were also in conflict with fellow Judeans allied with the Seleucids. The rabbis had a few good reasons to downplay the bloody historical tale: 1) The story starts with one of the Maccabees killing a fellow Jew, 2) once they achieved power the Maccabees’ descendants (the Hasmonaen dynasty) indulged in standard monarchic excesses of greed, intrigue, murder, massacres, forced even conversion to Judaism, 3) the Maccabean strategy of resistance was not deemed a helpful model for rabbis living under Roman rule and protection.

We can understand why the rabbis make scant mention of Chanukah in the Talmud – and when they do so it’s in reference to the legend of a small miracle; when the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated there was only enough oil to last one night, but it lasted for eight. (The Maccabees were celebrating a delayed Sukkot. They had been able to gain the upper hand in the war because the Seleucid army suddenly had bigger fish to fry being redeployed north to put down a rebellion in their capital of Antioch in Syria.) So the rabbis turn our attention at Chanukah to the dark time of the year, and the modest miracle of the oil. (Perhaps someone had developed a new technology for wicks, lamps and oil refinement that conserved energy?)

The rabbis also gave Chanukah a message of peace by choosing verses from the Prophet Zecharyah as the Haftarah reading for the Shabbat on the festival: “Not by might, not by power, but through my spirit, says the Holy One.”

Zecharyah was from a priestly family who lived 350 years prior to the Maccabees, in the time of Darius, King of Persia (520 BCE). It was about sixteen years after the first wave of Judeans exiles had returned from Babylon and begun rebuilding the Temple, thanks to the largess of Darius’ predecessor Cyrus the Great. (Cyrus was from Persis, now Farsi in Iran and figures prominently in modern Iranian identity – which gives Jews and Iranians a shared champion!)

As the esteemed historian Elias Bickerman pointed out, by the time the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 333 BCE, “six generations of God-fearing Jews had been brought up under the protection of Persian archers.” Similarly, before the time of Antiochus Epiphanes lV, there had been minimal political tension between the Greek/Macedonian overlords and the small community of Judeans: “Ancient empires were neither willing nor able to change the traditional structures of subject cities, villages and tribes. Thus the privileges obtained from the Persian kings remained essentially in force under Macedonian [Greek] rulers and Roman emperors alike.” (Bickerman, The Jews in the Greek Age.)

During the Persian Empire the lingua franca of the region was Aramaic, which we still use every time we recite the Mourners’ Kaddish. After the conquests of Alexander, Greek became the international language for trade and administration, just as English is today. As cultures of west and east met, both were gradually reconfigured, adopting one another’s institutions, literature and vocabularies.

Let us hope that Zecharyah’s vision of peace remains the message that we want to share with the world on the dark, wintry Shabbat of Chanukah.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Naomi