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December 15, 2017  RSS feed
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Text: T T T

The politics behind the Hanukkah miracle

By RABBI RICHARD BIRNHOLZ Congregation Schaarai Zedek

A significant discrepancy appears in a comparison of two versions of the Hanukkah story. One is found in the Second Book of Maccabees (10:6). The other is written in the Talmud (Shab.21a) three centuries later. This divergence raises an intriguing question: Does the difference result from two different Maccabean sources or was the story in the Talmud purposely repackaged to send a different message about the meaning of the holiday? The answer is fascinating.

The version in the Book of Maccabees makes no mention of the jar of oil which miraculously lasted eight days. Instead, it says that after defeating the Syrian Greeks in war ” … they (the Maccabean Hasmonean Jews) celebrated joyfully for eight days, as on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), remembering how, not long before, they had spent the Feast of Booths living…like wild beasts (while still fighting the Syrian Greeks).” Many interpret this to mean that the eight-day Hanukkah celebration stems from a belated eight-day Sukkot celebration by the Maccabees after winning the war and rededicating the Temple.

The Talmudic account gives a completely different explanation for celebrating the eight days. Written more than two hundred years later, the rabbis ask, “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?” They answer that when the Maccabean Hasmoneans rededicated the Temple, they found only enough oil to light the menorah for one day and night. But the oil burned miraculously for eight days and eight nights. So, we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights to mark the miracle.

These contradictory versions of the Hanukkah story raise interesting questions. First, since the account in Second Maccabees was the oldest and was written by the Maccabees themselves, why didn’t they mention the miracle of the oil? If they had seen it, surely, they would have noted it.

Second, why did the Talmudic rabbis, writing three centuries later, have to ask, “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?” Had the Jews forgotten by then, or did the rabbis use the question as an opportunity to put a different spin on the meaning of the holiday?

Third, why did the rabbis totally ignore the Maccabean military victory in their retelling, and why did they exclude the Book of Maccabees when they decided what books belonged in the Jewish Bible?

The answers to these questions are telling. Clearly, the Maccabees would have written about the oil if they had experienced the miracle. I suspect they didn’t. Neither is it likely that the Jews in rabbinic times forgot the meaning of Hanukkah. Had they forgotten, the rabbis would not have known to ask the question, “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?” And the Maccabean military victory does not appear in the rabbinic version of Hanukkah for the same reason the rabbis substituted the oil story for the military one and excluded the Book of Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis did not want Hanukkah connected to militarism in any way.

Why? Scholars speculate that the Jews faced a very different political situation 300 years after the Maccabean victory. The Maccabees wrote their version to celebrate their military victory over the Greeks and to justify the independent Jewish state they subsequently created. At the time neither Rome nor Greece had the power to defeat the other, so the Maccabees felt free to fill the political and military void.

But three centuries later, when the Romans ruled over the Jews, the rabbis could no longer afford to tell a militaristic Hanukkah story. Continuing to do so might lead the Romans to think that a new Jewish uprising was being fomented, because the Jews had already mounted two rebellions against them. This new political reality necessitated a new Hanukkah story, one that emphasized a Divine miracle instead of a military triumph.

The rabbis also wanted to substitute the miracle story to extinguish latent Jewish military fervor. The Jews’ previous rebellions against Rome had been disastrous and another one would have meant the end of the Jewish People.

This interpretation tells us that there are really three miracles connected to the Hanukkah story: the defeat of the Greeks by a much smaller Jewish army, the miracle of the oil which may (or may not) have occurred (who can prove one way or the other), and the decision by the rabbis to embrace peace and thus save our People from a war we could not win. And the last may be the greatest miracle of all because we are here to tell about it.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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