Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Real Tale of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the gambling holiday.
Purim is for drinking.
I’m no expert here, but let me cobble together some of the things I know about Hanukkah. When I converted to Judaism, my rabbi quizzed me about the Jewish holidays. I had to name them in sequence and discuss various matters about them. For Hanukkah, after I answered, he said, “Now tell the story everyone knows.”

“The oil lasted eight days.” If that’s all you know about Hanukkah, you know nothing. Sorry. But that can be helped. The traditional Hanukkah story adds a lot of stuff that early accounts don’t have and leave out a lot found in the early accounts. The primary early account are two books of Maccabees, which are included in the Catholic Bible (but are considered apocrypha by Protestants, as they do not form part of the Hebrew Bible). I keep meaning to re-read these around the time of Hanukkah. Today I’m just going to run from memory.

No dreidels. No lamps.
Let’s deal with dreidels first. They form no legitimate part of the Hanukkah story. Anyone who tells you that the Jews, forbidden from studying Torah under Syrian rule, used dreidels to clandestinely teach Torah is full of it, or even that Jews pretended to be gambling to hide that they were studying. It’s a pious justification for playing a dicing game during a religious holiday. You’re gambling. The four letters aren’t an initialism for “a great miracle happened there,” but are the initial letters of the Yiddish words for nothing, half, all, and put, since as you spin the dreidel, you either get nothing, take half the pot, or all of it, or forfeit to it. The dreidel comes out of medieval Germany, not the ancient Middle East.

Oh, the oil lasted eight days, how about that one? This was first told a a point further removed from the events than we are from the life of Chaucer and Richard II. The miracle of the lamp is given as a post hoc justification for the length of the holiday. Hanukkah is eight days long because the Torah says that Sukkot is eight days long. This is the one that always throws people: Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday everyone has heard of, has something to do with, “what was that called?” Sukkot.

The leaders of the Maccabean revolt promised their followers that the Temple would be rededicated in time for Sukkot. It’s a major holiday, and in this sense, “major” means “mentioned in the Torah.” It ended (this year) on the 17th of October. The war didn’t go quite as they planned. When Maccabeans gained control of the Temple, they held Sukkot late that year, and then the rededication of the Temple became an annual celebration, reminding the people of what their leaders had done.

There was another thing going on there, and in reading between the lines of the text, there’s another narrative hiding within it. There were three parties involved: the Maccabeans (rural religious traditionalists), the Seleucid Empire (the traditional bad guys of the story), and often glosssed over Hellenized Jews (the urbanites). The Seleucids sided with the Hellenized Jews. In a way, this was religious traditionalists stamping out the activities of religious liberals.

The leaders of the Maccabees became the progenitor of the Hasmonean dynasty. The traditionalists took over, although they did something that certainly angered other traditionalists: they were of a priestly family, but not the line of the High Priest, and they were not at all of the Davidic line of kings (note how in the century after the fall of Hasmonean rule, the Judeans are looking for a Davidic restoration to save them from Roman rule). They merged these offices, which was probably even worse.

Finally, to settle a family dispute, one side brought in the Romans. We know how that went. The Romans first brought in a ruler from outside the Hasmonean line (Herod), but after a few iterations of Herodian rule, just took things over themselves. Eventually, the Romans decided that the Jews needed to be deprived of their own capital and assimilated among the people of the empire (only one of those worked).

When the Talmud was written, there was a tradition of celebrating the Hasmonean holiday of Hanukkah, but why would anyone have warm feelings toward the dynasty that oppressed the Jewish people and ultimately cost them their ancestral lands? A new story was needed.

Okay, maybe this year I’ll read Maccabees.
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