Driedel, driedel, driedel, I made you out of clay....
December 15, 2004 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Today is the last day of Hanukkah. "The Festival of Lights" commemorates ... well, that's the question now, isn't it? It's a minor holiday, not found in the Torah (alleged allusions notwithstanding). The story about the candles is first found in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b), which was written over five centuries after the fact. More contemporaneous sources paint it as a fairly typical Greek-style victory celebration, and the national holiday of the Second Commonwealth. [More inside...]
posted by jefgodesky (21 comments total)
Hanukkah was a nationalist holiday for the Macabbees, who painted themselves as pious freedom fighters during the war with Antiochus. Once that war was won, however, they outraged the Jewish leaders of their time with the betrayal of a blatant power-grab: the kingship (despite lacking a drop of Davidic blood), the high priesthood (despite the fact that Aaron appeared nowhere in their family tree; nor, even Levi, possibly), and the Greek title of "ethnarch" (bestowed on Simon by the Selecuids themselves!).

The Maccabean betrayal laid at the heart of many of the sects of the Second Temple period; Qumran was founded as an "alternative Temple," arguing that the Temple had never been purified at all, because of the Maccabees' later actions. It was a constant source of contention with the Pharisees and Sadducees as well, as is reflected in several anecdotes from the Talmud.

When the Herodian dynasty founded its legitimacy on its relationship to the Maccabees, and the Romans based on the Maccabees' invitation, the festival of Hanukkah retained its significance as a nationalist holiday that could not be abandoned. By the time these forces were no longer in play, Hanukkah had become a part of Jewish tradition, and Jewish sages alarmed at Maccabean infidelity were faced with justifying an extra-Biblical celebration patterned on Greek triumphal feasts. Their answer to that challenge was typically elegant, as Hanukkah was transformed into a celebration about candles, miracles, holiness, and the touchpoint between G-d and man.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2004

So, why do I bring all this up? Well, besides the fact that I find it fascinating, and it's timely, it's as important to know where Hanukkah comes from as Christmas. I don't like the Maccabees much, and they illustrate that all monotheistic religions are equally intolerant when given the chance--even Judaism, which has simply spent more time being the victim than the aggressor, had its brief time up at bat.

But I still see a lot of value in Hanukkah; living with my Jewish girlfriend gave me a lot more insight into the holiday than I'd previously had. I still find it curious that at the same time of year, Jews and Christians celebrate the same story, with different characters filling in the archetypes. For Jews, it is the re-dedication of the Temple, the creation of a point of contact between man and G-d. For Christians, it's the birth of Jesus, the creation of a point of contact between man and G-d.

In the darkest hour, with the death and rebirth of the sun's annual cycle, we turn our thoughts to that little candle flame flickering in the dark, miraculously persevering, giving us a point where we can touch the face of G-d.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2004

Still, irregardless of bloodlines and differences between religious sects the celebration and remembrance of opposition and violent struggle against tyranny is something to be admired. Great links by the way.
posted by TetrisKid at 1:17 PM on December 15, 2004

You've only got about 15 minutes left East Coast...
posted by Captaintripps at 1:24 PM on December 15, 2004

I always found the forced conversion of the Idumean population a much bigger deal than their megalomaniac power-grab or the betrayal of the Hasidim they led, myself.

But it turns out the tyranny of Antiochus was a bit overstated, too (surprise, surprise). A lot less religion and a lot more politics, but the overriding factor was lack of understanding of cultural differences. I wrote a paper [PDF] that touched on some of this, so I'll just quote the relevant piece:

The trouble began during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus, at war with the Ptolemies as always, suspected the Jewish High Priest Onias of collusion with the Ptolemies. Acting completely within the normal realm of classical operation, Antiochus removed Onias; Onias’ brother, the much more Hellenized Jason, purchased the office from Antiochus, and was installed in his place. However, while all of this was standard procedure in the classical world, it was sacrilege in Judaism, where the High
Priest was appointed not by any ruler, but by hereditary descent. While Onias sought refuge in Egypt (suggesting Antiochus’ fears of betrayal may not have been entirely foundless), Jason sought to make Jerusalem itself a Greek polis, buying a charter and constructing a gymnasium. But in 171 BCE, the office of High Priest was purchased by Menelaus, who was not only not related to the Zadokite line, but may not have been a priest at all. Fighting broke out in Jerusalem between Menelaus and Jason, finally ending with Menelaus’ victory thanks to the intervention of Antiochus. However, when rumors reached Judea that Antiochus had died in Egypt warring against the Ptolemies, Jason rose up in revolt against Menelaus. But Antiochus had not, in fact, died. When he returned to Judea, he crushed Jason’s revolt, and, seeing that Judea—sitting strategically on his most contested border—could be lost to revolt at any time, built a fortress in Jerusalem called the Akra.

Given that Antiochus’ measures taken against Judaism occur so soon after these incidents, it is entirely reasonable to see this as a response to revolt, and an attempt to eliminate what must have seemed then to be the most treacherous element in his empire. The sacrificial cult was banned, and a cult of Zeus was installed in the Temple. Naturally, this was an intolerable situation for religious Jews. The Hasidim, who share with the modern Hasidic movement only their use of the Hebrew word for “pure”, began a revolt. This led to an explosion of latent hostilities between the rich, Hellenized urbanites and the poor, less Hellenized peasants in a conflict aimed more directly at the upper classes than the Seleucids. This popular movement, however, was quickly co-opted by the Hasmonean family, who laid dubious claims on a priestly heritage. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabee, the Jews took Jerusalem from the Seleucids. However, even though the aims of the revolt had been accomplished at that point, Judas went on to conquer Galilee and Idumea, forcibly converting the inhabitants to Judaism. His brothers continued the power-grab under the guise of religious freedom fighters, with his brother Simon being named ethnarch of the Jews by the Seleucids themselves.

posted by jefgodesky at 1:33 PM on December 15, 2004

I like what my co-worker, who portrays a 1919 Ukranian Jewish immigrant, says: this is not a religious holiday, it's a historical holiday.

The candles and darkness thing is a wonderful confluence, and even beyond the point of man/God, it calls to mind the seasonal traditions of Solstice that date to even earlier times than monotheistic religions do. The return of the sun, the lengthening of the days, has been a celebration for a wide variety of cultures. Indications are that monotheistic religions simply found it made sense to add the abstract (return or arrival of light in the world) to the religious (God, abstractly concieved as light or enlightenment). But the theme of winter lights runs through many November-December festivals...So don't forget Solstice, Divali, and Eid-al-Fatr -- and many others I'm unaware of, I'm sure.
posted by Miko at 1:35 PM on December 15, 2004

I've heard Rabbi Mark Gelman (he and Catholic priest Tom Hartman make up the so-called "God Squad") bitch (kvetch?) about Hannukkah on Imus in the Morning...says it's a two-bit, low rent holiday that gets far more emphasis than it deserves because of its proximity to Christmas.
posted by 1016 at 1:38 PM on December 15, 2004

Still, irregardless

*shudders. throws up.*
posted by jpoulos at 1:51 PM on December 15, 2004

Happy Hanukkah!
posted by languagehat at 2:03 PM on December 15, 2004

posted by naxosaxur at 2:07 PM on December 15, 2004

You know, this is the first year I really deëmphasized Channukah as a holiday. I had my gelt, I lit my candles, I even opened the box of presents from my mother; but I didn't place too much importance on it.

It's weird, after the childhood of having Channukah be explain to the goyim about Judaism time at school, to sit back, have some good food (brisket and latkes), some good drink and leave it at that. Hell, I even mangled the last prayer a few times and it was no big deal.

Looking through the historical perspectives offered up above (and minus my belief in being The Hammer incarnate) I think I might try to put a more historical spin on it next year. Like I do at Passover, I'll get all the friends together and we can reënact the whole scene, with funny voices and costumes and all.
posted by Captaintripps at 2:10 PM on December 15, 2004

Naxosaur, the Jewish calendar marks days from sunset to sunset. Yesterday night, the last day of Hanukkah began at sunset. It just ended here on the east coast. So yes, last night was the last night, and today was the last day.

Crazy lunar calendars....
posted by jefgodesky at 2:14 PM on December 15, 2004

Time to put up my hero Judah Maccabee until next year.
posted by redneck_zionist at 2:14 PM on December 15, 2004

Minor holiday, American affectation to give the kids something comparable to the celebration of Xmas (ie, the presents) or not, this cultural Jew is exceedingly nonplussed at the reports of Mel Gibson's plans to make his next movie about the Macabees.
posted by billsaysthis at 2:16 PM on December 15, 2004

posted by Captaintripps at 2:19 PM on December 15, 2004

jefgodesky, dude, you are sooo obviously trying to score points with your g/f . i bet she's a metafilter reader.
posted by canned polar bear at 2:38 PM on December 15, 2004


You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?? If so, I will point out that I was quoting the tagline of a previous MeFi post on the subject, not actually wishing anyone anything. (I must admit I went into the Search box thinking I'd find we had had annual Hanukkah posts, but that does not appear to be the case. In general, I wish people would not feel compelled to put together posts on anniversaries/holidays unless they're very obscure anniversaries/holidays; this, however, is an exceptionally well done post, so I ain't complaining.)
posted by languagehat at 2:56 PM on December 15, 2004

All holidays are in flux, some minor ones growing major, some majors (like Armistice Day) petering out. Holidays just reflect "the present definition of the sacred" -- P. Bourdieu.

Vis a vis Miko's observation, all these festivals of light at the darkest season of the year (N. Hemispherically, anyway), consider too Loy Krathong of Thailand.
posted by Julie at 3:32 PM on December 15, 2004

Armistice Day, Nov. 11th, did not peter out: it got renamed Veterans' Day after WW2. Oh, and Memorial Day started as Confederate Memorial Day (we have a Confederate Memorial over by the UofL, and there was a nifty equestrian Lee+Jackson statue across from where my Mom lived before she went into the Home). And Labor Day was a diversion/rip-off (I heard by Henry Ford) of the International Workers' Day, i.e. May Day. And for me, of course, every day is Hallowe'en -- the only religious holiday in this post.

And hey. Good post, jefg_desky. You scholar and gentleman you.
posted by davy at 4:17 PM on December 15, 2004

On Saturday my parents attended the bar mitzvah of a neighbor's son. The rabbi, since it was the middle of Hannukah, took this opportunity to retell this story of triumph over Hellenistic culture. Of course, there was something about that approach that made it somewhat ironic. The boy's name? Alexander.
posted by rustcellar at 6:24 PM on December 15, 2004

You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me??

Languagehat: oh hey'll no, i wasn't talking to you!! i was talking to jefgodesky, as his fpp was phrased "Tonight is the last night of Hanukah" (which is wasn't). But by happenstance, my comment unfortunately fell directly below yours. I would never scream at you in caps-lock, and only use my 'indoor voice' when addressing the great LH. Btw, thanks for pointing me to that initial Hanukah post. i never even caught it, and it was indeed a good read...as is this post, too.
posted by naxosaxur at 2:04 PM on December 16, 2004

« Older squick-o-matic   |   Felichan Esperanto Librotago Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments