The Heroism of Hanukkah

Vayeshev | Hanukkah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 4, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

On the surface, the haftarah for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah (most years there is only one) seems like a self-evident choice. Its dominant image is the seven-branched candelabrum which illuminated the Temple sanctuary. Hanukkah is commemorated by the kindling of lights in our homes. The theme of sacred light forms an unforced link between a biblical text and our only post-biblical festival (till our own day).

Both deal, likewise, with the centrality of the Temple in ancient Judaism. The prophet Zechariah comforted and encouraged the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia in 538 B.C.E. when it fell under the enlightened rule of the Persians. Though Cyrus had permitted them to resurrect their razed Temple and even promised material assistance, the exiles soon grew discouraged in the face of resistance at home and abroad. This is the context of the prophet’s vision: the completion of the Temple will come about not by political influence or military measures but by faith alone. God’s will is the determining factor.

In 164 B.C.E. Judah Maccabee restored sacrificial worship in that same Temple on the 25th of Kislev, exactly three years to the day since it had been desecrated. The first religious persecution, which had not only proscribed the practice of Judaism but enforced its violation, was nearing its end. To enshrine that rededication forever in Jewish memory, Judah, in the manner of a typical Greek potentate, decreed an annual eight-day thanksgiving festival beginning on the 25th of Kislev.

In fact, one might argue that the choice of our haftarah anticipates (or follows) the well known talmudic explanation for the institution of Hanukkah. When Judah regained control of the Temple, he found only one small vessel of uncontaminated oil (signified by the seal of the high priest). But it was enough to allow the candelabrum and eternal light to burn for eight days (B.T. Shabbbat 21b). No delay was necessary in the ritual till new oil could be produced. Hence, a festival of lights lasting eight days.

Yet the connection between haftarah and Hanukkah is not at all seamless. Beneath the surface one detects an attitude of ambivalence, if not estrangement, which accords with abundant evidence that the Rabbis viewed the Maccabees as problematic. The point of the prophet is to minimize the role of human initiative: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the God of heaven’s hosts (Zechariah 4:6).” As a commentary on Hanukkah, the haftarah intones the potency of God’s love and loyalty, next to which the courage and ingenuity of the Maccabees are of little consequence.

Equally discordant is the division of powers sanctified by Zechariah’s vision. While religious authority abides in the figure of Joshua, the high priest, political leadership is invested in Zerubbabel. God delivers a message to each respectively, thus preserving the dichotomy between priest and king that obtained in the days of Solomon’s Temple. Even Moses in the wilderness had left cultic duties to his brother, Aaron, rather than usurp them to consolidate all power in his own hands. Yet that is precisely what the Maccabees did as the Syrian threat receded.

In the year 140 B.C.E., a year after he had finally destroyed the detested Greek citadel in Jerusalem, Simon, last of Mattathias’s five sons to remain alive, had himself elected “by a great assembly of priests and people and leaders of the nation and elders of the country” as high priest, general and governor of the Jews, “until a true prophet should arise (I Maccabees 14:28, 41).” Again in Greek fashion, copies of the decision affirming this unprecedented concentration of power were prominently displayed in the Temple and deposited for posterity in the national archives.

I suspect that the choice of Zechariah for Shabbat Hanukkah delivers a muted reprimand by the Rabbis for this blatant departure from tradition. By overreaching in their quest for power, the Maccabees had tarnished the nobility of their uprising against apostasy. Years later, according to a garbled story in the Talmud, the Pharisees broke with Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.), the most bloodthirsty of the later Hasmonean rulers: “The crown of political authority is enough for you; leave the crown of the priesthood to the seed of Aaron (B.T. Kiddushin 66a).”

Reservations about the Maccabees emerge from still other sources. In a consistent pattern, the Rabbis downplayed their military exploits. They denied the First Book of Maccabees, which recorded this in great detail, a place in the biblical canon, despite the fact that it was authored in Hebrew by a friend of the court early in the reign of John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.). As the memory of the Maccabees was allowed to fade, the miracle of divine intervention filled the void. The passage inserted into our liturgy mentioned only Mattathias by name (as high priest, which he wasn’t) and attributed victory exclusively to God. And the kindled light (usually just one per household) stands by a door or window so that passersby might also take note of the miracle.

Clearly, then, a festival without biblical sanction that exulted in might of arms discomforted the Rabbis. The Bible itself had never singled out Joshua’s conquest of Canaan as worthy of religious commemoration. Nor did the Rabbis hesitate to eliminate other Maccabean victories from the calendar that had been designated by a special scroll (Megilat Taanit) as days on which it was forbidden to fast or give a eulogy, which would adulturate their joy with sadness.

What served to perpetuate the memory of Hanukkah was not Maccabean activism but Jewish passivity. The Syrian assault on Judaism, according to the historian Elias Bickerman, promoted by the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem eager to integrate Judaism into the Hellenistic world, produced for the first time the phenomenon of religious martyrdom. Faced by the choice of violating Jewish practice or being tortured, Jewish pietists resolutely moved to sanctify God’s name in suffering and death. Some who had taken refuge in the hills of Judea refused to defend themselves if attacked on Shabbat. The Second Book of Maccabees recounted at length the martyrdom of a ninety-year old man and of a mother and her seven sons who would not compromise their faith by eating the meat of a pig. With more persecutions to follow, these tales of religious heroism circulated to stiffen Jewish resolve to resist. They also inspired the Christian martyrs of the early Church, which canonized both the seven brothers and the first two books of the Maccabees (there are four altogether). In this transformation, Hanukkah became a monument to the ultimate power of the human spirit, a beacon of light in dark times, in which the words of Zechariah gained ever greater meaning.

Shabbat shalom ve-hag urim sameah,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yeishev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.