Separating Myth and History
An Israeli Perspective on Hanukah Maccabees.jpg

By Yoram Meltzer


Translated from the Hebrew by Hilit Surowitz 

Hanukah is historically a minor celebration on the Jewish calendar. Its significance increased due to the variations of secular and religious customs and stories associated with it throughout history. Over the centuries, Jews have fashioned the holiday so that its meaning and celebration reflect the values and needs of the community. Hanukah, originally a celebration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid King, has become a celebration of the ideals of sovereignty, independence, religious freedom and, most recently, coexistence.

The initial events connected to Hanukah took place when the land of Israel was under Seleucid rule and was influenced by Hellenistic-Greek culture. The Hanukah story explains that the Seleucid King Antiochus IV plotted against Jewish religious practice, wasted the Temple’s treasury, and forbade Jewish sacrifice. In response to the King’s decrees, the Jewish zealot Mattathius, and his sons, led a revolt. Leading them was Judah, soon to be known as Judah Maccabee. In a string of battles fought over three years Judah defeated Antiochus’ army, and in the year 164 he succeeded in liberating Jerusalem from foreign rule and purifying the Temple. The day on which Hanukah is celebrated marks Judah’s dedication of the alter and the renewal of Temple sacrifice.

The story and celebration of the miracle of oil is a much later construction, added at least two centuries later. According to the story from Hasmoneans, when Judah went to liberate and purify the Temple there was a sole canister of oil which remained that could only provide light for one day. But a miracle occurred and the oil (and light) lasted for eight days—thus the eight-day celebration of Hanukah. Though rabbis created this legend later, the nationalistic aspects of the Maccabean victory were historically celebrated. These secular facets of the holiday focus on the Maccabean victory, which symbolizes the victory of the oppressed minority over the ruling majority, and the return of independence to the land of Israel. Whereas the religious story narrates these events as a result of divine miracles, the nationalistic perspective attributes this to the heroism of humans. It is through this narrative of human valor that Hanukah gained importance throughout history. For example, during the Middle Ages in Europe, as a result of the persecution of Jews, the importance of Hanukah was amplified. Hanukah became a symbol and a celebration of resistance to foreign rule and the forced conversion of Jews.

Naturally, the awakening of nineteenth century nationalistic movements, specifically Zionism, turned the focus of Hanukah to the ethos of the Maccabees as freedom fighters. In this presentation of the holiday, the rabbinic perspective of divine miracles was muted. Hanukah took on special significance in the early days of the Yishuv, an early Zionist settlement in Palestine where, in 1889, the holiday was first celebrated in Yishuv schools, and over the next two decades readings were added to the traditional holiday candle-lighting ceremonies. In 1906, the new city of Tel Aviv celebrated a large-scale Hanukah party.

These days, Hanukah is recognized by its candle-lighting ceremony, holiday games, and communal celebrations—these traditions all developed over the centuries following the Maccabean victory. The origins of the ritual of lighting Hanukah candles remain a mystery. Some scholars connect it to the fire holidays celebrated by various people of the region during this time of year, wherein the shortest day of the year, December 22nd, takes place. Many people of antiquity, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, had the custom of lighting fire in order to aid forces of light to drive away the forces of darkness. Today, a single candle is lit on the “Hanukkiah” (the candelabra used specifically for Hanukah) on the first evening of the holiday; each subsequent eve, a candle is added until at the end of the holiday there are eight candles lit. Accompanying the candle lighting are the playing of games and singing songs.

The contemporary celebrations of Hanukah are part of a legacy of holiday traditions, which celebrate the Maccabees, their revolt, and later, the sage’s story of the miracle of oil. Hanukah continues to develop and transform in response to Jewish culture and needs. In some countries, such as the United States, Hanukah has taken on greater importance as it provides a parallel winter celebration to Christmas. In other communities, Hanukah is celebrated during the winter holiday period giving hope for peace and coexistence. For example, beginning in the 1990s, the city of Haifa began holding an annual festival recognizing Hanukah, Christmas, and Ramadan during the final week of December. This festival, called “The Holiday of Holidays,” celebrates unity and the diversity of the community by bringing together the city’s three major religious groups and its secular community to rejoice.

Though Hanukah is one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Bible, today it is one of Judaism’s most recognized festivals. Its messages of liberty, freedom, and independence have allowed the holiday to find vibrant expression and innovation in every age.

Separating Myth and History: An Israeli perspective on Hanukah was adapted from the Hanukah entry by Yoram Meltzer in New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Age—An Encyclopedic View; in 5 volumes; Editor in Chief: Yirmiyahu Yovel; Initiator, director, and, editor: Yair Tzaban; General Editor: David Shaham. Keter Publishing House, Israel—2007. Prepared by Lamda—Association for Modern Jewish Culture with the participation of the Jerusalem Spinoza Institute; Financed mainly by The Posen Foundation and supported also by The Keshet Foundation, The Ministry for Science Culture & Sport, The Rabinovitch Foundation Tel Aviv, The National Lottery. The English-language version of New Jewish Time is underway; a Russian version is planned.

 Artwork credit: Illuminated manuscript, 1 Maccabees and Flavius Vegetius Renatus, 1190-1200. Netherlands.

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