Eight things that will surprise you about Hanukkah

Great truths about Hanukkah. One for each night. (As for the 'right' way to spell it, you're on your own.)

From the Rothschild Miscellany, Northern Italy, 15th-century, Israel Museum. Courtesy image

(RNS) — Almost every American Jewish family celebrates Hanukkah in some form. And yet, many American Jews find the story of Hanukkah complex, bewildering, confusing and contradictory.

That is where I come in. I am here to make it even more so.

1. There is no one right way to write Hanukkah, er, Hanukah, um, Chanukah… The wild differences in transliteration of — whatever that word is — is nothing less than an international conspiracy to drive proof readers totally crazy. So now you’ve discovered the truth. We admit it. In my career, I have seen it spelled all sorts of ways. The Encyclopedia Judaica goes with Hanukkah. So does the Jewish Publication Society. That is good enough for me, and it should be good enough for you. Of course, the only “real” spelling is the Hebrew one. Like this:

Oh, by the way, while we are on the subject: That thing with the candles that you light each night. Some people call it a menorah, though technically, that would be a seven-branched candelabra. The one with the nine candles — a shamas plus the other eight — is, of course, the Hanukkah menorah, what many Jews increasingly call a hanukkiah. In the general scheme of things, this is a relatively minor point.

2. Hanukkah started as a postponed Sukkot. Why celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights, anyway?

The Maccabees were fighting the armies of the Seleucids, which was the Syrian branch of Alexander the Great’s divided empire in the Middle East. Sometimes, we refer to them as the “Syrians,” sometimes as the “Greeks,” sometimes as the “Syrian-Greeks.”

I admit: This is confusing. But, if you were able to keep “Game of Thrones” together, you could probably get this one as well.

The Maccabees’ opponents were: “Greeks” in terms of empire; “Syrians” in terms of geographic origin; and “Hellenists” in terms of culture and worldview. The Maccabees were also fighting against those upper-class Jews who were willing to assimilate Hellenistic ways and to erase Jewish practices.

“So, those Jews were assimilationists.”

Yes, you could say that — though certainly the Jews learned to assimilate the better parts of Hellenistic culture as well. We learned how to interpret texts. We developed a well-honed taste for wisdom, and even aesthetics — all Greek to me, and everyone. And to this day, the elegant Hebrew word for “assimilate” is “l’hityaven” — “to become Greek.”

The book of First Maccabees, chapter 10, makes it clear that when the Maccabees rededicated the temple in Jerusalem that had been desecrated by the Syrian-Greeks:

The Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days like on Sukkot. They remembered how, a little while before, they had spent Sukkot living like wild animals in caves on the mountains. Carrying green branches and palm branches, they sang songs of grateful praise to God Who had brought about the purification of His own place. They voted that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these days every year.

The Jews were so busy fighting the Syrian-Greeks that they did not have the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot.

3. There was no jar of oil. “Oh, man, Jeff, don’t go totally Grinchowitz on us.”

Too late.

“Jeff, I’m rereading the passage from the book of Maccabees. It doesn’t say anything about the oil that was sufficient for one day, but which lasted for eight.”

Bingo. That story emerges in its “final” form in the Talmud, about 600 years after the Maccabean revolution. To this day, many people believe this was the Hanukkah miracle. It’s not a bad story, as it is, but it wasn’t the “real” miracle.

4. The Jews never really loved the Maccabees. “Really? After all they did?” Yes, the ancient rabbis actually resented the Maccabees — or, to be accurate, the Hasmonean kings who came forth from them. Long story short, the Hasmoneans had tried to suppress the Pharisees, who were the intellectual ancestors of the ancient rabbis. Plus, the rabbis had anti-war tendencies, and let’s face it, the Hanukkah story is a military story. So, they invented the oil story as a way of playing down the military victory, and there is something else they did as well.

They “canceled” the Maccabees.

5. The Christians “saved” the Maccabees. “What do you mean, they ‘canceled’ the Maccabees?” 

It’s true. They totally left the books of the Maccabees out of the final edition of the Hebrew Bible. Left, as it were, on God’s cutting room floor. If it weren’t for the Christians, the books of the Maccabees would have wound up in some historical garage sale.

The stories of the Maccabees contained tales of religious martyrdom, and when you consider that the early Christians were getting eaten by lions in the Roman Coliseum, they found those martyrdom tales to be, well, inspirational. So, too, they believed the Maccabees were the absolute models of chivalry and knighthood.

6. The word “macabre” comes from “Maccabee.” Centuries before anyone invented binge-watching stuff on television, the highest form of public entertainment was pageants about biblical stories. The stories of the Maccabees were very popular with those medieval crowds. You know how at the end of a movie it always says “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie?” Forget that. In these pageants, animals got harmed. So did people. Like, badly. Especially when they did the whole Maccabee show. Total gore. Hence, the word “macabre.”

7. Judah Maccabee was one of the greatest military heroes in history. But, that is not how most people remember the Maccabees these days, which is a good thing. Instead, Judah Maccabee lives on in memory as a great military strategist. His statue stands at West Point Military Academy, along with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Charlemagne, among others.

8. And, that was how we got the Maccabiah Games. In the early decades of the Zionist movement, the founders and thinkers searched the Jewish past for role models. They needed strong, physically agile Jews. Mostly under the influence of the Zionist thinker Max Nordau, they wanted to create a “muscular Judaism.”

The Zionist thinker Max Nordau (quoted in Gil Troy, The Zionist Ideas) wrote:

For too long, all too long, we have been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh. Or rather, to put it more precisely — others did the killing of our flesh for us. Their extraordinary success is measured by hundreds of Jewish corpses in the ghettos, in the churchyards, along the highways of medieval Europe. We ourselves would have gladly done without this “virtue.” We would have preferred to develop our bodies rather than kill them or to have them — figuratively and actually — killed by others …

So, in some ways, Zionism served as Hans and Franz on the old “Saturday Night Live” skit: When it came to the Jews, “We vant to pump you up!”

The Maccabees served as ready role models for that new Jewish physicality. Hence, the Maccabiah Games, which celebrates Jews in sports and athletic competition. It is the third-largest sporting event in the world, with 10,000 athletes competing.

This year, Jews face the coming of this festival of Hanukkah with a certain amount of nervousness and concern. Antisemitic acts are on the increase — shockingly so. Most of the victims of antisemitic violence are against the “visibly” Orthodox.

Nordau was right, perhaps. Jews need a certain toughness and resilience of character. May your nights be filled with light, hope and resilience for you and your family and community!

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