Thursday, November 28, 2013
Five Fascinating Facts about Hanukah
By Ken Spiro
Here’s some information about the Holiday of Lights that you may Not have known:
1-Hanukah was NOT a holiday invented by the rabbis so that Jewish children would get presents at the same time as Christian children got their presents at Christmas. The reality is the opposite. The Talmud explicitly states (Tractate Shabbat 21b) that the holiday took place on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev which usually falls out around the same time as Christmas, but not always. (This year for example it’s a whole month earlier and corresponds with Thanksgiving in the US!) The opposite is true. Most historians agree that we do not really know when Jesus was born but that early church fathers deliberately set the date around the time of the winter solstice in order to depaganize what was normally a period of time (the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere) that held many pagan holidays.
2-Hanukah was NOT a war for freedom from Greek occupation of Israel. By the time the Jewish revolt, lead by the Maccabees, finally took place, the Greeks had been occupying the land of Israel for more than a century and a half. The revolt only started when the pagan Greeks went after not Jews, but Judaism, banning many of the fundamental practices of the Jewish people like circumcision and Sabbath observance. Hanukah is almost certainly history’s first ideological war and had the Greeks not meddled in the religious freedom of the Jews, the Jewish people would have most likely peacefully existed in the Seleucid Greek Empire.
3-Hanukah did NOT really start out as a revolt against Greece but as a civil war amongst Jews. Before the open revolt against the Greeks began, much of the tension that led to the revolt was caused by internal strife within the Jewish community. Greek culture (sports, theater, bathhouses, etc.) was THE culture of the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. Many Jews, especially upper class Jews, were attracted to this culture, believing that it was Judaism that was outdated and Greek culture was the wave of the future.
Many of these Hellenized (fancy word for “Greek”) Jews were more Greek than the Greeks (similar to some Jews in Germany prior to the Holocaust). Their attitude toward their fellow Jews, the vast majority who remained loyal to Judaism, was often quite hostile. They believed that even force should be used to wean their fellow Jews off their primitive beliefs and practices. It is they who played a significant role in instigating the Greek attack on Judaism. Hanukah in some respects was really a civil war of Jew against Jew before it became a war of Greek against Jew.
4-Hanukah was NOT a short war. We tend to think of Hanukah as a rather brief conflict but the reality is quite the opposite. It’s true that after three years of fighting and several major victories, the Maccabean forces, led by Judah, were able to liberate Jerusalem, cleanse and re-dedicate the Temple, but the city was lost to Greeks and later recaptured by the Maccabees a second time. It was only after about 25 years of on and off conflict (during which time most of the 5 Maccabee brothers were either killed-in-action or murdered in various plots) that the Greeks finally gave up on the idea of ruling over the land of Israel and the country, under Maccabean leadership, achieved independence for a little over a hundred years until the Romans came, saw and conquered the land.
5. The story of Hanukah does NOT appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible was already a closed book many centuries before Hanukah. (One criteria for getting anything included in the Bible is that it has to be authored by a prophet and the authors of the Books of the Maccabees were certainly not prophets). The story of the Maccabees comes down to us from two sources know as Maccabees 1 and Maccabees 2.
Maccabees 1 was written in Hebrew probably during the later half of the second century BCE and most likely by a royal chronicler of the Hasmoneans (Maccabean Dynasty). It gives us a detailed account of the events leading up to the revolt, the revolt itself and the later Maccabean rulres who ruled after the revolt.
Maccabees 2, written in Greek, was also written later-probably in the latter half of the first century BCE and may well be based on an earlier extensive account written by a Hellenized Jew by the name of Jason of Cyrene who lived around 100BCE. It is a less comprehensive account that deals primarily with the early events of the revolt.
While these books do NOT appear in the Hebrew Bible, they ARE included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox editions of the Christian Bible but usually NOT in Protestant editions. (The reason they are included at all is almost certainly to create historical continuity between the end of the Hebrew Bible and beginning of the Christian Bible.)
BONUS FACT: Hanukah does NOT usually fall out on the same day as Thanksgiving. As I mentioned at the top-it usually happens around Christmas time and then next time this will occur will be in around 79,000 years!! As rare as this timing might be there are many connections between Hanukah and Thanksgiving. (Beside the fact that the word for “praise” in Hebrew is Hodu which also happens to be the word for “Turkey” in Hebrew).
The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1680 designated their first Thanksgiving as a day of praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty for their deliverance from the religious persecution of Europe and post-Harvest bounty in the New World. Maccabees 2 (10:6-8) makes it very clear that the first Hanukah was celebrated as a delayed Holiday of Succoth. Since during the actual time of Succoth that year, the Jews were fighting the Greeks and didn’t have control of the Temple – the holiday was “pushed off” until the liberation of Jerusalem. Succoth also usually takes place after the harvest and Maccabees 2 specifically mentions that this first Hanukah was specifically a festival of praise and thanksgiving for the Jewish people’s deliverance from the hands of Greeks. (This Succoth connection may also put another spin on the 8-day length of Hanukah as Succoth, together with the holiday of Shmini Atzeret is ALSO 8 days!)
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