Thursday, December 22, 2011


For eight nights starting on Kislev 25 the celebration of Hanukkah begins.  The holiday is commonly thought of as somesort of Jewish Christmas or even the Jewish winter solstice festival.  However, a look at the history, culture, and geography of everything related to Hanukkah reveals a rich story of humanity.

Hanukkah's Pre-History:  From Aristotle's Student to a Line in the Sand

By his death in 323 BC Alexander the Great had created, at that time, the world's largest empire.  The Macedonia Empire stretched from present-day Albania to India, from Romania down into Egypt.  With his passing the empire collapsed not back into native regimes but into feuding Greek-in-culture, Hellenistic, empires.  The two Hellenistic empires that matter to the story of Hanukkah are the Seleucid Empire, which ruled modern Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom, which ruled modern-day Egypt.

The region of Judea, the Jewish homeland, was a piece of property which both the Seleucids and Ptolemaic Egyptians repeatedly fought over.  In 168 BC Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes launched his second invasion of Egypt over rumors the Ptolemaics were plotting to win back Judea and lower Syria.  However, this time the Ptolemaics had aligned themselves with the expanding regional power: the Roman Republic.  A Roman ambassador intercepted Antiochus on his way to war, drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus, and said if Antiochus stepped out of the circle before giving Rome an answer on its demand Antiochus end the war that Rome would declare war against the Seleucids.  Antiochus got the message and withdrew.  This was the origin of the saying "line in the sand."

The War Which Made Hanukkah

Meanwhile a rumor that Antiochus was killed in Egypt spread in Judea.  A coup was launched against the pro-Seleucid Temple High Priest Menelaus (who was pro-Greek culture) by Jason (who was also pro-Greek culture).  Antiochus was advised of the situation and crushed the rebellion and instituted a policy of Hellenization which outlawed Jewish religious rites and required worship of Zeus.  His thinking was that if the Jewish religion were destroyed then Jews would be easier to control and Temple politics would stop being a source of conflict.

A rebellion originally led by a priest named Mattathias broke out.  Mattahias and his family/follwers, the Maccabees, launched a war against the Seleucids and the pro-Greek Jews.  At the end of the seven year war, which the Maccabees won, the Temple was cleansed from paganism and a day's worth of oil burned for eight days.  Since then the celebration of the miracle has been a minor holiday in Judaism.

The Maccabees founded a new dynasty which ruled Judea until the Roman conquest and founded the Pharisee school of thought which later provided the basis of non-Temple, Rabbinical Judaism.

The Catholic History Which "Saved" Hanukkah

The rebellion is recorded in the Biblical books First and Second Maccabees.  These books were originally written in Hebrew and fairly quickly, and ironically, translated into Greek.  The Hebrew copies were lost so that when scholars were actually putting the Bible together it was only found in the Greek-language Bible known as the Septuagint.  The early Church recognized the books in both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament and therefore First and Second Maccabees were declared cannon along with the other books of the Bible.

To this day the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and Oriential Orthodox consider both Maccabees books as biblical (Protestants first had the Maccabees books in a separate section of their Bibles but then these and several other books were dropped during the rise of Bible societies in the 1800s to save printing costs).  However, as Christendom gained power in both the Latin and Greek world the Jewish world began to reject all Greek influence again.  Since original Hebrew versions of both the Maccabees books could not be found they were rejected.  Jews still celebrated Hanukkah but the meaning was being lost over time.  It took Christendom to restore its meaning.  Professor Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School explains: (Hat Tip: Shameless Popery)

The Roman Catholic tradition honors these Jewish martyrs as saints, and the Eastern Orthodox Church still celebrates Aug. 1 as the Feast of the Holy Maccabees. By contrast, in the literature of the Rabbis of the first several centuries of the common era, the story lost its connection to the Maccabean uprising, instead becoming associated with later persecutions by the Romans, which the Rabbis experienced. If the change seems odd, recall that the compositions that first told of these events (the books of Maccabees) were not part of the scriptural canon of rabbinic Judaism. But they were canonical in the Church (and remain so in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions).

And so we encounter another oddity of Hanukkah: Jews know the fuller history of the holiday because Christians preserved the books that the Jews themselves lost. In a further twist, Jews in the Middle Ages encountered the story of the martyred mother and her seven sons anew in Christian literature and once again placed it in the time of the Maccabees.

Hanukkah Today: American Jewish Christmas

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes that Hanukkah, traditionally a minor holiday, is big for two reasons 1) It is close to Christmas and allows Jews to celebrate along with everyone else while doing something different to preserve Jewish identity and 2) it is a celebration with few rules unlike other Jewish holy days.

However, there is concern that Hanukkah and its meaning is being abandoned by American Jews and those in interfaith marriages.  Israel even created an ad warning that children in the United States will forget Hanukkah and celebrate Christmas instead.

Hanukkah:  Every Judeo-Christian's Holiday?

Besides its obvious Jewish base Hanukkah's appeal various, primarily American, Protestant and Catholics are starting to pay attention to the celebration.  Some Protestants are attracted to Hanukkah due to the old Anglo-Protestant tradition of Judaizing (adopting Jewish customs).  Meanwhile some Catholic intellectuals since Vatican II see the holiday as part of the universal tradition of Abrahamic faith in God.  Even Neo-Protestant (i.e. Catholic Rejectionist) Mel Gibson is planning on making a movie about the rebellion.

Meanwhile Hanukkah continues to integrate itself into mainstream culture.  Adam Sandler has sung multiple versions of his Hanukkah song while in 1996 the first animated cartoon series in the United States marked the holiday with a special: Rugrats Hanukkah.  Now the holiday, if not its meaning, has been well known to most Americans.

Happy Hanukkah!  Remember its meaning of fighting for what is right!

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