Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for November 2021

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the mass of territory he ruled got divvied up among his generals and the general whose name comes into the Hanukkah story is Seleucus.

The diadochi – the successors of Alexander – didn’t sort it out amicably but, one way or another, Seleucus ended up with swathes of the Near East, including Syria. The Ptolemies had Egypt, which explains why Cleopatra was Greek.

Seleucus founded an empire, a centre of sophisticated Hellenistic influence and culture, ruled by kings who were mainly called Antiochus. The rest of the Seleucid kings  were called Seleucus, as you’d expect and there were a couple of Philips, but that’s another story.

In 175 BCE the Antiochus on the throne was the fourth of that name, called Antiochus Epiphanes, which was complimentary, but also known as Antiochus Epimanes, which meant bonkers. I’m not excusing the mental health slur but that’s what they called him.

The Seleucids had ruled over Judea without causing too much trouble but Antiochus IV was a tyrant and wanted to put a stop to Judaism. To be fair, he believed that the Greek way of life was much superior to any other but he imposed his will in a cruel, persecutory manner, as tyrants generally do.

He outlawed Jewish practices, making them punishable by death, and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem (the one we call the Second Temple, built after the return from exile in Babylon) by setting up an altar to Zeus as well as other abominations which I won’t go into here.

There was a Jewish revolt, led by the Hasmonean family of Modi’in (currently a modern Israeli city with over 90,000 inhabitants). The Hasmoneans are also called the Maccabees. Hashmon was the family name and Maccabee was a sort of nickname, meaning hammer, initially applied to Judah ben Matatiyahu, but eventually the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids was known as the Maccabean revolt.

A word about Matatyahu, Mattathias in Greek and Matthew in English, not that anyone spoke English in those parts: he was a priest from a distinguished family, the sons of Hashmon. His grown up sons all fought alongside their brother Judah. Their names were John, Simon, Eleazar and Jonathan.

Through guerrilla warfare against the powerful army of Antiochus, the Maccabees took back Jerusalem, including the Temple, which was thoroughly cleansed and rededicated, hence the word Hanukkah, חנוכה , which means dedication.

It would be nice to think this was a final victory but the war with the Seleucids dragged on for years, recorded in the four books of the Maccabees which you will find not in the bible but in the Apocrypha or, as Catholics call it, the Deuterocanon. They were probably written originally in Hebrew but the earliest extant versions are in Greek, like most of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Of the Hasmonean brothers, Simon survived the longest and fathered a dynasty of high priests and kings. The Seleucid Empire disintegrated and the new kid on the block was Rome, with whom the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus had good relations.  Supporters of the Hasmoneans tended to be from the priestly elite known as Sadducees and they were opposed by the Pharisees who were devout but generally more in touch with the ordinary people.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned the miracle in the Temple when the oil in the menorah burned for eight days.

The reason is this:  the books of the Maccabees don’t mention the menorah or the miracle. They are more concerned with battles, power, dynasties and realpolitik.

The story of Hanukkah as we celebrate it comes from a later source, the Talmud, written down between about 200 and 600 CE.

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b

The men who wrote the Talmud – and I think we can be sure that they were men not women – had an affinity with the Pharisaic tradition. The militaristic expansionism of the later Hasmonean kings wasn’t something they admired and, chronologically speaking, the Talmudic sages had the last word about this.

After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, there was no place for Jewish kings and high priests, but the pious traditions of the Pharisees evolved in the rabbinic literature of the first millennium: the Mishnah and baraitot, the two Talmuds of Babylon and Jerusalem and the midrashic writings which are a source of rabbinic folklore and biblical exegesis.

As the Hanukkah story isn’t in the bible, it doesn’t get read in the synagogue on the shabbat that falls during Hanukkah. The Torah reading at this time of year is always about Joseph in Egypt, but the prophetic reading from Zechariah does have a connection with Hanukkah.

Zechariah tells that an angel showed him a vision of the gold menorah in the Temple.

And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep.  And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it.  And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.”  And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?”  Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.”  Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 

Zechariah 4: 1 – 6

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we remember the Maccabean revolt and we remember the miracle of the oil in the candelabrum, the Menorah.

Each night, after lighting the candles, we say:

We kindle these lights to commemorate the wonders, the victories and the marvellous and consoling deeds which You performed for our ancestors through Your holy priests in those days at this season.

Happy Hanukkah.

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