A Hanukkah Guide for the Perplexed, 2016
by Yoram Ettinger
1. Hanukkah and Jewish immortality. In 1899, Mark Twain wrote: “Jews constitute but one percent of the human race…, [but] their contributions to literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are away out of proportion to the weakness of their numbers. They have made a marvelous fight in all the ages, and had done it with their hands tied behind them…. The Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians rose and then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed, made vast noise and they are gone…. The Jew saw them all, beat them all and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies…. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
2. The Hanukkah Menorah (a nine-branched candelabra) commemorates the legacy of the Maccabees. It has been a pillar of fire for the Jewish people, highlighting the prerequisites of spiritual and physical liberty, in defiance of formidable odds. The Maccabees have become a universal role-model of national and religious liberation, and the victory of tenacious optimism over pessimism and political-correctness.
3. Israel’s Founding Father, David Ben-Gurion, said: “The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history…. The Maccabees overcame one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history due to the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment ….” (Uniqueness and Destiny, 1953)
4. The US connection:
On December 2, 1993, in Billings, Montana, white supremacists tossed a brick through a window of a Jewish home that displayed the Hanukkah menorah. On the following morning, the Billings Gazette — reflecting the sentiments of local churches and civic leaders — printed a full-page menorah, which was pasted on the windows of more than 10,000 non-Jewish homes in a show of solidarity. Some Billings’ residents displayed their menorahs on Billings’ main street. The Billings’ Hanukkah gesture has been commemorated annually. A Hanukkah candle-lighting was recently held at the State Capitol in Helena, Montana.
A bust of Judah the Maccabee is displayed at West Point Military Academy, along with those of Joshua, David, Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon — “The Nine Worthies.”
John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Thomas Paine and the organizers of the Boston Tea Party were referred to as “the modern day Maccabees.”
According to the Diary of Michael and Louisa Hart, George Washington was introduced to Hanukkah in December 1777 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, as he was facing a much more formidable British military. A Jewish solider lit a Hanukkah candle, explaining its significance: a conviction-driven, tactical victory over immense odds. Washington replied: “I rejoice in the Maccabees’ success, though it is long past…It pleases me to think that miracles still happen.”
“In God We Trust” is a derivative of the Maccabees’ battle cry, which was an adaptation of Moses’ battle cry against the builders of the Golden Calf: “Whoever trusts God; join me!”
In 1921, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated: “As part of the eternal worldwide struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal worldwide interest….”
The US Postal Service has issued Hanukkah stamps, annually, since 1996.
5. The heroic, creative battle tactics of the Maccabees, were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome and other global and regional powers. The battles of the Maccabees inspired the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire from the battle against Pompey in 63 BCE through the end of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 135 CE.
6. The name Maccabee (מכבי or מקבי) is a derivative of the Hebrew word Makevet (מקבת) — power hammer. It is also a derivative of the Hebrew verb Cabeh (כבה), to extinguish. Maccabee, מכבי, is also the Hebrew acronym of “Who could resemble you among gods, O Jehovah”י כמוך באלים יי)מ). In Latin, the C is sometimes pronounced like a TZ, and Maccabee could be the Latin spelling of the Hebrew word Matzbee: the commander.
7. Hanukkah — the longest Jewish holiday — is the only Jewish holiday that commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot/Tabernacles and Shavuot/Pentecost (the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia).
8. The mountain ridges of Judea and Southern Samaria were the platform of the critical Maccabees’ battles: Mitzpah (the burial site of the Prophet Samuel), Beth El (Judah’s first headquarters), Beth Horon (Judah’s victory over Seron), Hadashah (Judah’s victory over Nicanor), Beth Zur (Judah’s victory over Lysias), Ma’aleh Levona (Judah’s victory over Apolonius), Adora’yim (a Maccabean fortress), Elazar and Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat), Ba’al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed) and the Judean Desert. When ordered by Antiochus to end the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer and Akron, Shimon the Maccabees responded: “We have not occupied a foreign land; we have not ruled a foreign land; we have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.” Shimon’s statement is still relevant in 2016.
9. Hanukkah (חנוכה in Hebrew) celebrates the initiation/inauguration (חנוכ) of the reconstructed Temple. Hanukkah (חנוכה) is education (חינוכ)-oriented. According to the First Book of Maccabees, Judah instituted an eight-day holiday on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev 165 BCE (just like King Solomon’s eight-day celebration of the inauguration of the First Temple), in order to commemorate Jewish history, in general, and the inauguration and deliverance of the holy altar and the Temple, in particular.
A key feature of Hanukkah is the education/mentoring of family members. The Hebrew word, Chanukah, חנוכה, consists of two words, Chanu-Kah ( חנו-כהin Hebrew) which means “they camped/rested” (חנו) and 25 (כ=20, ה=5), referring to the Maccabees’ re-consecration of the Temple on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.