Friday, December 30, 2005

Oy Chanuka

As we head into Shabbos Chanuka, I thought you might like some provocative thoughts to share at your dinner table. [Note: DovBear takes no responsibility for horrified grandmothers or furious father-in-laws. Use these factoids at your own risk.]

(1) Chanuka and Freedom
Politicians, conservative columnists, and reform Rabbis often call Chanuka "The Festival of Religous Freedom." They are 180 degrees from the truth. As soon as the Greeks were gone, the Macabees set up a monarchy, which is harldy conducive to freedom as the word is understood today. The Mighty Macs were fighting not for religious freedom, but for the right to practice their own understanding of their own religion. They had no intention of providing freedoms of any kind to other faiths, or even to co-religionists who might have wanted to practice a different sort of Judaism. Hasidim or Reformers, for example, would have been most unwlecome in MacabeeLand.

(2) The Dreidal
The old story about the Jews who concealed their Torah-learning during the Greek persecutions by playing driedal is 100 percent true. Only our ancestors used an 9-sided top, not a four-sided top, and instead of having one letter each for the phrase "[A] Great Miracle Happened There," the letters on the ancient Judean dreidal were an acronym for : [A] Great Miracle [is] Going [to] Happen Here Pretty Soon, We Think."

Actually, the game began in Europe with letters corresponding to the German words like Nichts(nothing) Halv (Half) Gans (all) , etc.) Later the Jews made this game their own, and added the nes godol part.

(3) The Bes Yosef's Question
If the Macabees had sufficient oil for one day, why is Chanuka 8 days long, and not 7? Well, according to the book of Maccabees, we keep Chanuka for 8 days, because the Hashmoneans were celebrating a late Sukot. During the Greek occuupation, Jews couldn't get to the Temple to perform the sacrifices and rituals. After driving the enemy from Jerusalem, the Maccabees invited everyone to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday they'd most recently missed: Sukkot. In fact, the book of Maccabees doesn't even call the festival Chanuka. Instead, it refers to the holiday as Sukkot B'kislev -December Sukkot. And Sukkot (as it was celebrated in Temple Times, together with Shmini Atzeres) is an 8-day celebration.

Fun fact: There were lulavim at the first Chanuka: And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 7: Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.

(4) The Miracle of the Oil
The only miracle discussed in Macabees is the military victory, the same miracle we talk about in the Al HaNissim. The small jug of oil first appears in the Talmud, codified about 600 years after the events of Chanuka. In the interim, a variety of rabbinic stories were told to answer the questions: (1) Why do we light candles on Hanukah? (2) Why is Hanukah 8 days? As you'll see, these stories show how the relationship between the Rabbis and the Hashmoneans changed over time:

"[At Hanukah] we commemorate the dedication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans who fought and defeated the Hellenists, and we kindle lights -- just as when [we] finished the Tabernacle in the Wilderness . . . ." (Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 6)

"Why do we kindle lights on Hanukah? Because when the sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priest, defeated the Hellenists, they entered the Temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on them and lit them." (Pesikta Rabbati ch. 2)

"Why did the rabbis make Hanukah eight days? Because . . . the Hasmoneans entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils. They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? Because . . . when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple there were eight iron spears in their hands. They covered them with wood and lit candles on them. They did this each of the 8 days." (Megilat Ta'anit ch. 9)

"What is Hanukah? When the Hellenists entered the Temple, they desecrated all of the oil. And when the Hasmonean dynasty grew and defeated them, they searched but found only one cruse of oil sealed with the stamp of the High Priest, and there was only enough in it to burn for one day. A miracle happened and it burned for eight days. The next year they made these days a fixed annual commemoration . . ." (TB Shabbat 21b; also Schol. Megilat Taanith 25 Kislev)

Why did the story change from a glorification of the military victory, to an oil miracle?

One easy answer (and beware of easy answers) is that the Rabbis wanted to demphasize the majesty of the Hasmoneans after they (the Hashmoneans) either (1) joined forces with the Sadducees and/or (2) presided over a civil war (ca. 67-61 BC) during which perhaps more than 100,000 Jews were killed. Support for this answer appears on the same page of Talmud where the oil miracle is first mentioned. On Shabbat 21b the Rabbis tell you that "in times of danger" Chanuka candles can be lit on a table: in other words, don't be a martyr like Judah and his brothers. Risking your life for the sake of Chanuka is not needed.

A second easy answer (same caveat) is that the Rabbis were wary of capricious rulers, and thought it wise to stay silent about that time we rose up and overthrew the ruling powers.

A third answer might seem more familiar to American Jews. The Mishnah has some brief references to the rules for Chanuka , indicating that by the end of the second century C.E. there was already a custom of kindling lights at the darkest period of the year. This was a custom that may have been imported from the northern latitudes during Roman rule -- perhaps in imitation of the Roman Saturnalia observances. Sometime between then and the completion of Gemara, the celebration of lights assumed greater significance and, just as today we elevate the observance of Chanuka in order to offset the influence of Christmas, the rabbis of the Talmud may have built up the idea of a miracle connected with lights, to show Jews that we had our own basis for a solstice observance.

Which is the right answer? No clue. Its one of the mysteries.

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