Whither Maccabees? The Evolution of Chanukah
By David Hartley Mark
The Maccabees were religious liberals. They fought against the status quo, boldly asserting their right to choose how they wished to worship, protesting the Syrian Greek regime’s insistence on idolatry and paganism. They did not rest until they drove the enemy from their soil, and crowned their military victory by cleansing the Sacred Shrine, which had been defiled. They were fortunate to locate a tiny bottle of oil, which miraculously burned for eight days, giving them time to crush olives from the sacred store and make fresh oil for the mighty candlelabra, the Menorah.
The Maccabees were religious conservatives. They fought against the Syrian Greeks’ attempts to change the status quo, and restored the previous modes of worship. They kidnapped Israelite male babies and forcibly circumcised them in the tradition of their forebears. Their battle was not so much against enemy Greeks, but rather the Hellenists, those among their people who adopted pagan ways. When the Maccabees achieved military victory, they celebrated the return to the Old Ways by cleansing the Holy Temple and kindling the age-old lights of the Menorah, using a sacred cruse of precious olive oil, which miraculously burned for eight nights.
The Maccabees were Jewish heroes. When their land, Israel, was invaded by pagan evildoers, they took a stand against them. The Syrian Greeks did not wish to destroy the Jews physically, but spiritually. Were it not for the Maccabees and their struggles, Judaism as we know it might have vanished. Glory to the Maccabees!
The Maccabees committed a near-fatal error in their choice of military allies. Realizing that they themselves could not overcome the power of Greece, they invited in the next, up-and-coming world power, Rome. With Roman strategic and material help, they were able to drive the Greek occupiers away.
Postwar, they had this conversation:
Maccabees: “Hey, Romans, thanks! You can go home, now.”
Romans: “Hey, Jews, nice country! We’re staying.”
Which is why the First and Second Books of Maccabees never made it into the Biblical Canon: they were too pro-Roman in tone, and the Rabbis hated Imperial Rome, which forbade Torah Study and tortured and killed rabbis for doing and teaching Torah. And the Rabbis decided which Books made it in (Genesis, Exodus) and which stayed out (Maccabees, The Rest of the Proverbs of Solomon).
By the way, the Oil Miracle does not appear in I & II Maccabees. In those books, Chanukah lasts for eight days because it’s a delayed celebration of Sukkot, which, added to Simchat Torah, equals eight days. The Maccabees were fighting in the hills and mountains, and had no time, given combat conditions, to build Sukkot. The Oil thing is mentioned in the Talmud, casually and off-handedly, in the midst of a rabbinic conversation regarding how to make Shabbat candles, and of what materials.
The Talmudic Rabbis disliked the Maccabees intensely, because of the Roman invite, and because they:
1. Went to war; as Priests, Kohanim, they should not have borne arms
2. Set themselves up as the Hasmonean kings—despite their having kept Rome away from Israelite rulership for about 100 years
Because of these reasons, Chanukah was relegated to second-class-holiday status for centuries. Only when the Zionist Movement got started, in the late 1800s, did it get new impetus. The Zionists were looking for a holiday, an excuse really, to get the pasty-faced, skinny, tubercular-lunged Yeshiva bochrim (scholars) out of the study halls and out into the fields, kicking around a soccer ball, or, better, farming or learning how to use a rifle, preparing for the eventual conquest of the Land of Israel.
Chanukah was made to order, featuring a fighting family of scholar-priest-warriors, the Maccabees. Songs were written (Maoz Tsur—Rock of Ages) and others, that extolled the sacrifice and dedication of the Maccabees, in particular, its last stanza, with its emphasis on strength, willingness to fight, and universal peace:
Children of the Martyr Race
Whether free or fettered
Wake the echoes of the songs
Where ye may be scattered
Yours the message cheering
That the time is nearing
Which will see all men free
Finally, in the post-World War II era, Chanukah gained yet another lease on life, as the “Jewish Christmas.” As a pulpit rabbi for 35+ years, I can attest that the same modern rabbis who decry what a Festival of Materialism this has become, are also thanking God and Jewish History for it—for, were it not for this relatively minor, postbiblical holiday, there would be a lot more Christmas trees in Jewish homes.
I recall seeing a picture of the Dray-Dell, a four-foot-tall giant dreidel, manufactured by the Dray-Dell Co. of Paramus, NJ, back in the 1950s, “Suitable for stacking the children’s Chanukah presents around, on Chanukah morning. Send for one, today!” Sort of a non-Christmas Tree, Jewish Christmas Tree, if you get what I mean.
Nowadays, Chanukah has morphed and expanded, to the extent that it is the only Jewish holiday most gentiles are familiar with, and they believe it to be the most important. I would state, however, that, as far as Christmas is concerned, there is more linking the two festivals that one might believe.
The fact is that the Greeks who opposed the Jews did not wish to destroy them physically; that is the theme of the Purim Story, in February. Rather, they were against Judaism, the religion; they wished for the Jews to take upon themselves Greek mores, philosophy, and beliefs. Had they succeeded, triumphed over the Jews, and assimilated them into the majority, then, when Jesus was born in 4 BCE—a mere 164 years later—he would not have been born a Jew; he would have been a Greek. And, notwithstanding the influence of Greek culture on the early Church, Christianity as we know it today might never have begun.
So, perhaps we owe more to this minor, postbiblical holiday than might appear at first glance.
That’s Chanukah: sort of a reflecting-mirror in which Jews and gentiles can see whatever image they wish. Holidays and historical origins are like that. The important thing, in the end, is that families come together to celebrate, that they light candles, eat latkes, sing the songs, and spin the dreidels—regardless of how, why, or when these customs evolved. In the end, holidays are not just dates on a calendar, or events in a dusty history book or Bible. They are people—enduring, surviving, and evolving. People laugh, and cry, and live. People.