The True Spirit of Hanukkah

17 Dec

There’s a war on Christmas, Kwanzaa is commercialized, and Diwali… was last month. However, if you light candles in a menorah this time of year, you could be misled that it’s all about the miracle of the lights. But that’s not the true spirit of Hanukkah.

The first problem with the Jewish holiday is that it’s not in the Torah–this is what is called a “rabbinic holiday.” You light candles, but you don’t have to light them at a certain time. We give gifts because it happens to correspond with Christmas. The dreidel is a memory of a game done to hide the fact that we were studying Torah in secret.

Yours truly with my much-needed gift of beard balm.

At the end of the Talmud, they print an appendix, which includes all the stuff redacted in the Middle Ages (stuff blasting Christians). It also includes a list of all the holidays that were observed during the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty, which includes Hanukkah, Tu B’Shevat (New Year for Trees), and Marriage Day (in Israel, a chance to get young singles together). Those are just the ones that are still observed–the 3rd Celebration of establishing this section of Mishna… not so much.

Okay, I hear you say, what’s your point? This was the first Jewish Independence Day–this is how the Maccabees came to power and became the prince (and later kings) of Israel. If you read 1 Maccabees, there’s no mention of the whole miracle of the lights–it’s all about the overthrow of the Greek and the restoration of Jewish practice.

So why the miracle of lights? It appears in the Talmud because the sages really didn’t like the Maccabees. They were happy at first–after all, the Greeks had tried to eradicate our faith. However, afterwards Judah’s children named themselves kings (they weren’t from the line of David) and high priests (and they weren’t of the Zadok line of kohanim), and then proceeded to crush any opposition to their rule. They didn’t bother to just stop there–they frequently fought each other, because the role of high priest was just as politically powerful as the king, and the king didn’t want to share.

So Jews had independence, but only for about a hundred years, until another civil war brought the Romans in and they ended up occupying the country. They propped up a willing client-king, Antipater, who was the prime minister under the last Hasmonean king, who married a royal daughter and declared himself king. His son became Herod the Great, who even the sages in the Talmud (who hated him) had to admit did two things well: rebuilt the temple and reintroduced a species of bird. After his death, Israel was divided up, and most of Palestine became a Roman province.

The sages realized that people were celebrating Hanukkah, but didn’t want to glorify the Hasmoneans. So the miracle of lights was created. Which hides the true spirit of Hanukkah–Jews kick ass. A guerilla army took down a major occupying force and cleansed the temple of pagan worship. A great story… and one that gets forgotten.

Do you agree? Do you think I’m discounting the miracle too much? Let me know in the comments below!

One Response to “The True Spirit of Hanukkah”

  1. Anthony Garner December 18, 2020 at 11:43 am #

    Lovely! I know so little of Judaism but this is a lovely account.

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