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Saturday, August 2, 2014

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What Chanukah teaches us about Jewish history

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Ah, the smell of frying latkes clinging to our clothes, the temptation to eat one more sufganiyah. Nothing says Chanukah like food. However, there is also a holiday attached to this feast-ival, one that has interesting questions attached to it. Here are two, plus a minhag.

First question: in all the texts on this celebration, where are the Maccabees?

We pride ourselves on being a people bound by our history. We should turn then to the historical, rather than the aggadic. As Yosef Yerushalmi has written in his book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, “It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and thus forged a new world view whose essential premises were eventually appropriated by Christianity and Islam.”

If we accept this, then we must also accept that we do not merely mythologize our history, but acknowledge both the good and the bad. So it should be with Chanukah.

So, when we recite, “In the days of Matityahu, son of Yochanan the High priest,” we throw history out the window. The Maccabees – later the Hasmonean dynasty – were not high priests and indeed had risen up not just in opposition to the Greeks but also to the Hellenizing Jewish elite of the country, including the High Priest Menelaus. The rabbis of the Mishnah were at pains to write those Hasmoneans out of history, since, once in power, they took over not just the high priesthood, to which they were not entitled, but also the kingship, reserved for descendants of the Davidic line, which they were not.

As the Hasmoneans became Hellenized, the Pharisees and the later rabbis did all they could to downplay their military victories and re-imagine Chanukah as the result of the miracles done for Israel by God. Hence the candles represent eight days of miraculous light in the rededicated temple until new, consecrated oil could be prepared.

Second question: where are the women in the story? Here I cite Rivy Poupko Kletenik, whose class on the topic “Judith the Obscure” I recently attended. I am using her translations and her conclusions. Any errors are mine.

Who lights the Chanukah candles? The Talmud Shabbat 23a, mandates: “A woman definitely lights, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, women are obligated in the Chanukah candles, for they, too, were in that miracle.” Rabbi Yehoshua’s opinion is repeated in Talmud Megilla 4a.

The Rashbam in the Tosefot explains that “the critical part of the miracle was done through [the women’s] hands, in Purim through Esther, in Chanukah by Yehudit.”

According to Rivy Kletenik’s analysis, the apocryphal story of Judith migrated in the Middle Ages into the miracle of Chanukah, based on the phrase “they too were in/included in the miracle.” In the story, Judith goes to the camp of a besieging army led by General Holofernes. She induces a drunken slumber in him and beheads him. She returns to the besieged city and announces her deed, which then is proclaimed to the now leaderless army. They flee, and the Israelites are saved!

Thus did a Jewish historical novel (perhaps the first) migrate into Chanukah.

That inclusion of a woman in the miracle of Chanukah, long stretch or not, is a delightful new learning for me.

Finally, a minhag. The commentators gave women another gift: it became custom for women to refrain from work while the candles were burning. (Note to self: get longer-lasting candles.) That is a custom I will be incorporating into our celebrations from this point on.

As we enjoy both our customs and our history, this is a welcome holiday, coming as it does at the darkest time of the year, filling our homes with light, joy and gladness – and presents for the kids.

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