HANUKKAH The Festival of Lights' Darker Side
Throughout Jewish history (until modern times) Jews have rarely written "history". They were concerned with Halakha (Jewish Law), spirituality, mysticism and ethics. The only ancient history of the Jews was written by Josephus, A Jew who became associated with the Roman Empire.
An interesting intersection between Jewish law and "history" occurs with respect to the Festival of Hanukkah. In the first Code of Jewish Law, the Mishna, which was composed by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the 3rd Century C.E., the Laws of
Hanukkah are conspicuously absent. The only reference to the festival occurs in the Talmud - three hundred years later. And even there, it appears as an aside - in the discussion about which oils may be used to light the Sabbath candles. The discussion then proceeds to discuss if these limitations on which oils were permissible, apply to the Hanukkah candles. How do we explain the fact that such a popular holiday was deleted from the first Code of Jewish Law?
The answer is that the history of Hanukkah and its aftermath is a checkered one - and that accounts for its absence in the Mishna. You see, that in the Biblical and Post-Biblical period it was customary (even, law) that the Kingship came from the tribe of Judah, and the Priesthood from the tribe of Levi. The Maccabees, contrary to Jewish precedent, usurped both Kingship and Priesthood. Rabbi Judah the Prince came from the tribe of Judah, and "dissed" the Maccabees by omitting this newly established holiday from his Code. Additionally, the Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty was rife with internecine (mutually destructive) fighting for four generations. This dynasty even murdered hundreds of Pharisees who were in the opposition party. The Rabbis, who were heirs to the Pharisees, also took exception to the assimilationist policies of the Hasmoneans, especially in the generations after the first generation of the Hasmoneans. (Note, for instance, that the names of the initial Maccabees were Mattityahu, Judah, and Jonathan - good Hebrew names - while later generations carried the names Aristobulus, Antigonus, and John Hyrkanus - Greek/Roman names.
Hanukkah finally found its acceptance in Jewish Law, but not without a significant change. The emphasis on the heroic victory of the Maccabees was minimized, and the miracle of oil was replaced as the real significance of the holiday.
Hanukkah - and its checkered history - remind us that usurpation of power, unfettered and ruthless authority and constant in-fighting are unacceptable - even when done by patriots whose intentions were good, and some of their accomplishments exemplary.
(Where in the liturgy is this Darker side of Hanukkah alluded to?)
Beryl and I wish you a Hag HaUrim Sameah.
RABBI Shmuel Mann