The True Story of Hanukkah

| Hanukkah By :  Benjamin D. Sommer Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Dec 4, 2010 / 5771 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

What is Hanukkah really about? There are several answers to a question like this, since the meaning of a holiday or ritual develops and grows over time. I’d like to point out a fascinating tension between two understandings of Hanukkah that becomes clear from examining two popular songs many of us sing after lighting the candles. One is the Hebrew song, Mi yemalleil. The other is the English version of the same song, which, we will see, differs from the original in striking ways.

First, let’s look at the Hebrew:

Mi yemalleil gevurot Yisra’el

Who will describe the mighty deeds of Israel?

Otan mi yimneh

Who can count them?

Hein bechol dor

See, in every generation

Yaqum ha-gibbor

A hero arises

Go’eil ha-‘am

Who saves the nation.

Shma’! Ba-yamim ha-heim ba-zman ha-zeh!

Listen! In those days in this season!

Makkabi moshia’ u-fodeh!

The Maccabee was a savior, a redeemer!

U-vyameinu kol ‘am Yisra’el

And in our days, let all the nation Israel

Yit’acheid yaqum ve-yigga’eil.

Unite, rise up, and be saved.

This is clearly a modern text. Our great-great-grandparents never imagined singing anything like it. One crucial character in the Hanukkah story is missing from it: God. In fact, the opening three words in Hebrew are borrowed directly from Psalm 106:2, but the fourth word differs: where the psalm speaks of God’s mighty deeds, our Hanukkah song speaks of Israel’s. Similarly, the words go’eil, moshia’, and podeh in Jewish liturgy usually refer to God, but here they refer to Judah Maccabee, a human hero. Israel is redeemed in this song not by waiting for God to act but through the boldness of a strong Jewish fighter.

This song is a Zionist anthem, looking back to the Hanukkah story as a blueprint for how, “in our days,” Israel can save itself. By rising up, Jews will unite as a nation, not just as a religious group. And this nation doesn’t consist of scholars and rabbis, tailors and peddlers. It is a group of people who are ready to fight.

How different the English-language version is!

Who can retell the things that befell us?
Who can count them?

“The mighty deeds of Israel” have disappeared, replaced by (gevalt!) “The things that befell us.” Instead of the Zionist view of Jewish history, this song returns to what eminent Columbia University historian Salo Wittmayer Baron called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history”—a history of suffering and scholarship, a history full of tears and Torah. Indeed, tears and Torah were exactly what the Hebrew version of the song didn’t talk about, but in the English version, they reappear:

In every age a hero or sage
Arose to our aid.
Hark! In days of yore in Israel’s ancient land
Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band.

The hero is still here, and Judah Maccabee is described as brave. But the song puts him next to a sage, and it mentions his followers’ faith as prominently as his own bravery. The combination of faith and action continues into the song’s last lines:

But now all Israel must as one arise,
Redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.

As in the original song, Israel redeems itself, but not through deeds alone—not by might, not by power. Sacrifice, a term with strong religious overtones, appears as well; significantly, this traditional-sounding reference caps the song. Religion gets the last word.

One tune, similar words, different philosophies entirely. The contrast between these two songs encapsulates a debate between two views not only of Hanukkah but of Judaism and of Jewish history. What seems like a simple little song in fact presents us with a choice: how do we define our own Hanukkah, our own Judaism?

As a religious Jew, I suppose I ought to gravitate much more to the English version. After all, with its references to faith and sacrifice, it at least hints at God’s role in the story. And its prominent mention of a sage reflects a core Jewish value. If you look at the haftarah we read in synagogue on the Shabbat of Hanukkah (Zech. 2:14–4:7), you’ll see that it subtly makes a point very similar to the English version of the song.

But I confess that the English version’s retreat from the bold Zionism of the Hebrew original makes me uncomfortable. One of the accomplishments of Zionism and of the State of Israel has been to move us beyond the mournful conception of Jewish history—the view that we are naturally victims, the belief (shared, bizarrely, by anti-Semites and Jews for centuries) that our enemies can shed our blood without any opposition. In light of all this, the move from “the mighty deeds of Israel” to “the things that befell us” is quite jarring. At our house, I feel we’ve done the traditional view of Hanukkah justice by singing Maoz Tzur, and I make clear my commitment to that view as I say Al Hanisim repeatedly during Hanukkah. This prayer (a special Hanukkah addition to the ‘Amidah or Shemoneh Esreh prayer and to the grace after meals) doesn’t even mention Judah Maccabee by name, referring instead to his priestly father, as if to focus our attention on a sage rather than a hero.

Two views of Hanukkah, two views of Judaism—in the end, it isn’t necessary to choose between them; we can recognize the validity of each. Indeed, singing both versions of the song might be one way of acknowledging that both God and the Jewish people have to act if we are to be redeemed. But for me, it seems that by singing the English version right after the Hebrew, I am repudiating the Hebrew version. I don’t quite agree with the exclusively secular Zionism of that version, but I have to admit that the secular Zionists did an extraordinary job of uniting our people and creating a state. In fact, these modern-day Maccabees were even more successful than the ancient ones. So I stick to the Hebrew song most nights of Hanukkah, giving human heroes their due, even as I give God the praise God deserves in Maoz Tzur, in Al Hanisim, and in all the other tefillot I say daily. Which Hanukkah is yours?

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.