The True Meaning of Hanukkah
Hanukkah is a celebration of a military victory waged in a complicated and harsh world.
In a recent Parents magazine piece headlined, “How to Explain the Hanukkah Story to Kids,” we are informed that, “this year more than any other is a great opportunity to take extra time to teach your family about the Jewish holiday that celebrates the power of light and miracles.” Hanukkah, Parents goes on to explain, “means dedication in Hebrew, and the Jewish holiday, also known as The Festival of Lights, represents joy.”
Joy? This kind of insufferably vacuous, anesthetized, consumerist celebration that American Jews have concocted to compete with Christmas is stripped of any genuine theological or cultural meaning. It’s a shame because, from a historical and cultural perspective, Hanukkah might be Judaism’s most fascinating holiday. It’s a story about roiling political upheavals of the ancient world, nationalism, assimilation, civil war, religious zealotry, martyrdom and corruption.
In short, the first two books of the Maccabees detail a revolt led by the patriarch Mattathias and his five sons against the Hellenistic king Antiochus, who had barred Jewish religious practice, desecrated the Holy Temple, levied high taxes and forced the population to adopt Greek rituals and norms.
The first book is written from the perspective of those in the countryside, where the Maccabees conducted a guerilla war against the Greeks while taking ample time to slaughter Hellenized Jews along the way. Nowhere in this blood-soaked tale is there any mention of oil or the “power of light or miracles,” and there is definitely very little on the topic of joy.
It is true that Hanukkah “means dedication in Hebrew” — a dedication that predates any mention of a miracle of light. It is a dedication to the installation of the Hasmonean Dynasty by the Maccabees after they finally subdued all of Seleucid’s Jewish allies, taking control of the priesthood, Jerusalem and the future of Israel.
The tale of the Maccabees taking back the Holy Temple and finding only one day’s worth of blessed oil that miraculously lasts eight days was added hundreds of years later in the Talmud. I am no religious scholar, but it very much feels like an afterthought meant to soften the tale and inject some theology.
Certainly, oil is not the point. There is little celestial interference. In the second book of Maccabees, for example, the narrator instructs Jews to remember not oil or miracles but the “woman with seven sons” — “the most remarkable of all” and deserving of “special honor.”
In this gruesome tale, our mother and her children are arrested by Antiochus, who attempts to force them all to eat pork as a test of loyalty. With the encouragement of their fanatically pious mother — sometimes referred to as Hannah — all of the brothers refuse to partake and are tortured to death in front of her. Finally, with only the youngest left, the king, shaken by the scene, implores the mother to come to her senses and instruct the child to comply. Instead, “she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage” and tells her only remaining child to suck it up. They both die, leaving Antiochus with nothing but frustration and blood.
Not exactly a parable of light and joy, and no miracles here. Then again, I admit that giving your kids one present for every child murdered by Antiochus wouldn’t have the same festive lure as, say, a dreidel per candle.
If anything, this martyrology feels more Christian than Jewish, which might explain why the Books of the Maccabees are canonical in the Catholic faith but not the Jewish one (though there are many theories on this question). Another reason for this might be that rabbis codifying the Jewish Bible weren’t keen on celebrating stories of zealotry — generally frowned upon in Judaism. Or, for that matter, stories of mass Jewish fratricide.
Christianity and Islam, of course, see themselves in universal terms. Jewish tradition is tied to a place. Ancient Jews see themselves as a nation, not as merely faith, or rather, they see no distinction. Hanukkah is, then, a thoroughly Zionistic holiday. Not exactly a popular ideology in certain quarters these days, either.
Sometimes contemporary scholars will argue, probably because the story itself is so jarring, that Hanukkah is really about “religious freedom” — as if those peasants who took up swords in the Judean foothills had entertained liberal conceptions of this idea. The Maccabee revolt opens with Mattathias slaying a Hellenized Jewish official who didn’t share his theological outlook and ends with the subjugation and ejection of the population of the last Hellenized town. Even after the Seleucids granted the Jews freedom of worship after Antiochus’ death, Judah the Maccabee continued his war to gain political power.
Hanukkah, after all, is a celebration of a military victory waged in a complicated and harsh world. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The miracle these days is that people have somehow made it tedious and uninteresting.
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