Tuesday, August 9th | 12 Av 5782

December 9, 2020 6:09 am

A Hanukkah Guide for the Perplexed

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


Yitzhak Shamir lighting Hanukkah candles with his wife. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Historical context. Hanukkah, the holiday of light, is narrated in the four Books of the Maccabees, The Scroll of Antiochus, and The Wars of the Jews. The Greek Empire was split into Greece-Seleucid/Syria-Ptolemaic/Egypt following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), who held Judaism in high esteem. In 175 BCE, the Seleucid/Syrian Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes claimed the Land of Israel, and suspected that the Jews were allies of his Ptolemaic/Egyptian enemy. Therefore, he aimed to exterminate Judaism and convert Jews to Hellenism. In 169 BCE, he devastated Jerusalem, massacred Jews, and prohibited the practice of Judaism.

A 166/7 BCE rebellion was led by members of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family, which included Mattityahu the priest and his five sons Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan, and Eleazar, who established Jewish independence until 37 BCE.

The success of the Maccabees on the battlefield was consistent with the Jews’ reputation as superb warriors, who were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome, and other global and regional powers.

When ordered by Emperor Antiochus (Book of Maccabees A, 15:33) to end the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer, and Akron, Shimon the Maccabee responded: “We have not occupied a foreign land. … We have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.”

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David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Founding Father, first prime minister, and a modern-day Maccabee, wrote this of Hanukkah: “The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history, not merely a political-military struggle against foreign oppression. … Unlike many peoples, the meager Jewish people did not assimilate. The Jewish people prevailed, won, sustained and enhanced their independence and unique civilization. … It was the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment, which enabled the Hasmoneans to overcome one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history.” (Uniqueness and Destiny, pp 20-22, David Ben-Gurion, IDF Publishing, 1953).

Hanukkah and the Land of Israel. The mountain ridges of Judea and Southern Samaria (especially the Land of Benjamin) were the platform of critical Maccabees’ military battles: Mitzpah (the burial site of the Prophet Samuel, overlooking Jerusalem), Beth El (the site of the Ark of the Covenant and Judah the Maccabee’s initial 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), Eleazar (named after Mattityahu’s youngest Maccabee son), Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat), Ba’al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed), Te’qoah, Mikhmash and Gophnah (bases of Shimon and Yonatan), the Judean Desert, etc.

Hanukkah is the only ancient Jewish holiday that commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle.

Hanukkah’s optimism. The first of eight candles of Hanukkah is always lit when ushering in longer daylight hours, symbolizing bolstered optimism. Hanukkah’s nine-branched candelabrum — including a “helper/Shamash” candle — highlights spiritual and physical liberation against formidable odds, energized by faith, value-driven tenacity, patriotism, optimism, and adherence to historical, cultural, and religious roots in defiance of convenient political-correctness.

Hanukkah commemorates the victory of light (Maccabees) over darkness, and remembrance over forgetfulness. The Hebrew spelling of darkness — חשכה — consists of the same letters as forgetfulness — שכחה.

Hebrew significance of Maccabee. The word Maccabee (י מכבorמקבי ) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for sledgehammer (מקבת), describing the Maccabees’ overwhelming fighting capabilities. It may also be a derivative of the Hebrew word for extinguishing (כבה), which was the fate of most of the Maccabees’ adversaries. It is a Hebrew acronym of the Maccabees’ battle cry — מי כמוך באלים י’: “Who could resemble you among Gods, O Adonai.” The four Books of the Maccabees were written in Latin, which sometimes pronounces c like tz. Therefore, the origin of the Hebrew word Maccabee could be the Hebrew word Matzbee — commander.

Hanukkah’s first of eight days is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, the Jewish month of miracles (e.g., Noah’s Rainbow appeared in Kislev). Moses completed the construction of the Holy Ark on the 25th day of Kislev, which also was the date of the laying of the foundation of the Second Temple by Nehemiah. Moreover, the 25th stop of the People of Israel — during the Exodus from Egypt to the Land of Israel — was Hashmona (the same Hebrew root as Hasmoneans). Also, the 25th Hebrew word in Genesis is “light,” which is a Hebrew metaphor for the Torah.

Yoram Ettinger is a former Israeli ambassador and commentator.

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