By any other name... it is still Hanukkah

What is really Hanukkah about? We all heard multiple times the traditional story of how a group of priests from Modi'in (The Hasmoneans or Maccabees) rebelled against the Greek Seleucid Empire to protect their religious freedom. How when they arrive on the 25th of Kislev to Jerusalem they enter the Temple and discovered only one vial of oil, which lasted 8 days - thus the miracle of the oil, commemorated in the letters of the dreidel "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham" ("A great miracle happened there")

Documentary history and archeology, however, paint a different picture. According to existing documents, when Alexander first died Judea ended up under control of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt. Within Judea, however, there were those who opposed the Ptolemaics and favored the Seleucids of Syria, so they staged a rebellion as a consequence of which Judea changed hands. For some years, Judeans were granted the same freedoms than the rest of the Seleucid Empire, including Freedom to practice their own religion. The Judean Elite became helenized (adopted greek customs) and managed to get one of their own to be appointed High Priest by the Imperial authorities. The Hasmoneans represented what was then called "Village Priests" - that is priests whose main function was teaching; they were far more conservative than the Helenized elite of Jerusalem. When the Helenized High Priest incorporated the worshiping of the Emperor into the Temple Service, the Village Priests rebelled, and led by the Hasmoneans initiated a guerilla war against not only the Empire but also Helenized Jews. As a result, the Greek authorities forbade circumcision and the learning of the Torah, activities they consider antithetical with Greek Rational Philosophy.

The Judean rebellion dragged on. Originally, Judah the Maccabee promised his followers that they would be in Jerusalem in time for Sukkoth to celebrate the Festival (Sukkoth was one of the three Pilgrimage Holidays). The war, however, was harder than expected and the Hasmoneans (sans Judah, who died in battle) arrived in Jerusalem on the 25th of Kislev - late for the celebration of Sukkoth. Drawing on an old tradition called "Pesach Sheni", however, they were able to justify the celebration of a "Second Sukkoth" (8 days) after cleansing the Temple. This "Second Sukkoth morphed over the years of Hasmonean rule into what we call today "Hanukkah", a celebration of the renewal of the Temple (Hanukkat HaBayit)

As per the oil, the commandment in the Bible regarding the oil for the lamp at the Temple states that the lamp must be lit at all times, preferably with pure consecrated oil - but if that is not available, regular oil would do.

As for the dreidel, it did not exist in Maccabean times. While the story of the Jews using games to hide the fact they were learning Torah might be true, the game they played was definitely NOT the dreidel, which has its origins in the Middle Ages in Germany. The letters on the dreidel apparently are unrelated to the famous "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", and are letters indicating Yiddish words for what the player needs to do... "Take 1" "Do nothing" "Take Half" and "Put one" (Nemt, Gornischt, Halb and Shtel).

Furthermore, Latkes were impossible until the XVI Century when potatoes were imported to Europe from America. It seems that at some time in northern Italy, Jews made a kind of "Fried milk" pastry very popular not only with Jews but non Jews as well. The import of potatoes apparently gave birth to our beloved Hanukkah potato pancake, eventually copied (badly) by McDonald's and renamed "Hash Brown"

So we have two very different versions of the Hanukkah Story, does it matter? does it change the meaning of the Holiday? - You bet it doesn't! Both stories have one element in common, the fight for freedom of religion and a defense of Jewish identity. The specifics may be different, but the core of the idea is the same.

The Hasmoneans fought against those who would arrogate the right to tell others how to worship or what to worship, and made a stand for freedom. That is what matters!

And remember how Jewish this holiday is... The greeks tried to obliterate us, they did not succeed, bring out the Latkes!!


Add Comment