On Thursday night December 10, Jewish families the world over will begin to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. And how dramatic it is: Just as the nights are starting earlier and earlier, and just as it is getting colder and colder, Jewish families gather in their own homes, light candles, and watch them burn in commemoration of extraordinary events that occurred long ago. No wonder the ritual is so popular. Fortunately, the most central, beloved ritual of this holiday—lighting that special lamp with nine candles—is rather amenable to the COVID-19 era.
Yet there’s also something peculiar about Hanukkah, at least in comparison to other Jewish festivals. When Jews celebrate Passover, in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, the home ritual is based on the Passover Haggadah, which retells the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery. When Jews celebrate the festival of Purim, commemorating Queen Esther’s thwarting of an evil plot against the Jews of Persia, Jews gather in synagogues and joyfully read the biblical Book of Esther, which details the events being celebrated. When traditional Jews commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the biblical Book of Lamentations is sorrowfully intoned. Yet when the Hanukkah lights are lit, there is no formal telling of the story. A few prayers that are traditionally recited relay the story only in simple, abstract generalizations: “The few defeated the many….” Judah Maccabee’s specific acts of gallantry go unmentioned in these brief traditional prayers.
Why is it that a Jewish tradition that thrives on reciting stories stops short of retelling this one?
Well, for one thing, the fullest accounts of Hanukkah are not found in the Hebrew Bible at all. The Talmud has a bit more to say—including the famous story of the small, miraculous cruse of oil that lasted a full eight days. But even the Talmud stops short of telling the full story: Who was Syrian Greek Antiochus? Why did he crack down on Jerusalem’s Temple? Who were the Maccabees, and how were they successful in their rebellion against their enemies? For answers to these questions, we must look beyond traditional Jewish sources, to the books 1 and 2 Maccabees, most conveniently found in editions of the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha consists of books composed by ancient Jews but preserved in early Christian Bibles. Catholic Bibles and Greek Orthodox Bibles include these books down to this day, interfiled among other biblical books. Bibles produced by Protestants do one of two things. In some instances, the books are separated out from both the Old Testament and the New Testament into an appendix—the Apocrypha. Or, just as often as not, the books are left out entirely, just as they are from Jewish Bibles. So don’t look for these books in the Bible in your next hotel room. (In my experience, you are more likely to find a copy of the Book of Mormon than a Gideon Bible with an Apocrypha.)
These days it’s not that hard to come by stand-alone editions of the Apocrypha. But this year it’s easier to come by an edition of these books with an eye toward highlighting their Jewishness: The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha (Oxford University Press), (edited by yours truly, working closely with my co-editor, Lawrence H. Wills),
First, we find a good reason why Hanukkah lasts eight days. Even more, we learn a great deal about the events leading to the establishment of the new festival. And perhaps most interesting of all, we learn why Jews may have shied away from telling this story when celebrating Hanukkah. Let me explain.
Traditional Jews may know that Hanukkah lasts eight days because that miraculous cruse of oil lasted that long. But the story begs the question: why eight days?
A brief passage in 2 Maccabees provides a meaningful explanation for why the festival lasts eight days per se:
They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year (2 Maccabess 10:6-8).
So according to this source, Hanukkah began as a belated celebration of the fall festival of booths (Sukkot). Henceforth, once Sukkot will be celebrated properly again in its own right, then Hanukkah takes on a life of its own as a new eight-day festival, also celebrated annually.
This makes a great deal of sense, especially when we recall that Solomon’s temple was dedicated on Sukkot (1 Kings 8:1–2). Traditionally-informed Jewish readers may know of other ways that Hanukkah recalls Sukkot, including the daily recitation of the unabbreviated Hallel (Psalms 113–118), read in entirety on Sukkot and Hanukkah only (the recitation is abbreviated for the other holiday of that rough length, Passover). These hints may be telling, but we must turn to 2 Maccabees 10 for the surest confirmation of this sound explanation for the eight-day length of the Festival of Lights.
As for the larger story… Well, here, I need to explain that 1 and 2 Maccabees are distinct books. Unlike 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Maccabees are not a single book cut in half, but two independent books that tell overlapping but nevertheless distinct and differing accounts of the same overall story (somewhat like establishing the story of Jesus using the Gospels of Mark and John). And more than that, while 1 Maccabees seems to have been composed in the land of Israel and in Hebrew, 2 Maccabees appears to be a Greek-language composition of the Jewish diaspora. So we don’t have a single story of Hanukkah to explore, but two stories. Readers who are curious are invited once again to explore these books directly.
Still there are a few generalities we can offer that are, more or less, true of both accounts. First, both 1 and 2 Maccabees remind us that the emergence of the Maccabees—and their eventual success—is played out on a world stage marked by internecine warfare among eastern Mediterranean Greek powers and the lurking rise of Roman power beyond. Second, both 1 and 2 Maccabees highlight something that traditional Jewish retellings (informal and formal) leave out: The rise of the Maccabees was also in response to Jewish efforts to accommodate to Greek rule by challenging traditional Jewish practices.
Here’s what 1 Maccabees has to say about events in Judea, early in Antiochus’s reign, and before Antiochus trained his eye on what was happening in Jerusalem:
In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil (1 Maccabees 1:11–15).
It is only after this that Antiochus enters the scene, taking the side of the Jews who have, according to 1 Maccabees, abandoned the covenant. Now you may be asking, “Remove the marks of circumcision?” That may be possible—look up “epispasm” and try not to wince. Here’s another possibility: In the Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, Daniel Schwartz suggests that 1 Maccabees 1:15 may mean that Jews then abstained from circumcising their sons (cf. 1:48), following the orders of these radical Jews who opposed Jewish traditional practices (cf. 1:61). 1 Maccabees later narrates that the situation was rectified by the rising Maccabees, who ensure that all such boys were duly circumcised (2:46).
The account in 2 Maccabees is much more detailed—we are given names of sinful High Priests, including Jason and Menelaus, and we are told tragic stories of Jews, including a mother and her seven sons, who would sooner die than consume prohibited foods. According to 1 Maccabees, there were some early groups of Jewish rebels who refused to fight on the Sabbath, and perished accordingly (1 Maccabees 2:29–38) until the Maccabean patriarch Mattathias decided to change the law and permit defensive warfare on the Sabbath (2:39–41). 2 Maccabees, curiously, says nothing about this—despite its narrative of these years being longer and more detailed on the whole.
Despite their differences, 1 and 2 Maccabees agree on one fundamental point that is usually glossed over or not mentioned at all in traditional Jewish retellings of the Hanukkah story: The Maccabees fought not only against foreign oppressors—especially the Seleucid king Antiochus IV—but also against Jewish assimilationists who were aligned with Antiochus. In other words, the Maccabean revolt was also, as is often the case with rebellions, a civil war.
Maybe with this information we can come to understand two things at once. First, once we get the fuller story, we can appreciate why ancient Jews shied away from reciting these books or even otherwise elaborating on the details of the revolt when celebrating Hanukkah. How can one celebrate a one-sided victory in a civil conflict? Would the defeated or their descendants want to celebrate their loss? In the effort of encouraging all Jews (even those who had taken the losing side) to celebrate the new festival, lapses in historical memory may have served a use. So the civil war goes unmentioned; the holiday celebrates only the defeat of the foreign enemies.
This approach may help us understand the related fact that the books of the Maccabees are not in the canon. Had ancient Jews wanted to recite a story of Hanukkah during the festival, perhaps one or another of these books—or some other—might have made it into the canon. If the thinking had been otherwise—for the reason suggested above or for some other reason—then all the more there’s every reason to exclude these books. There are, of course, other reasons too why ancient Jews may have rejected these books: Perhaps the books (and the holiday) were perceived to be too recent. And at least 2 Maccabees, which was composed in Greek, would never have been a good candidate for inclusion in a Hebrew edition of the Bible to begin with.
While excluded and forgotten by Jews, these books—along with many others—were preserved, thankfully, by Christians. This is how we have the Apocrypha. For early Christians, Greek was no object: The Gospels were in Greek, too. For early Christians, recent writings were no object: All the writings of the New Testament were relatively recent. And for early Christians centuries ago as well as today, the stories of the Maccabean martyrs are seen as important precedents for Jesus and other early Christian heroes who chose premature violent death over military resistance. Each of these books holds interest for Christians, but each holds interest for Jewish readers as well.
And there’s much more beyond the books of the Maccabees. The ancient Jewish Book of Judith tells the story of an ancient Jewish widow who heroically led her Israelite town to victory over an enemy (imagine the Book of Esther meets the Book of Maccabees in a setting out of the Book of Judges). The Book of Tobit tells a charming tale of a long-suffering righteous man securing, at long last, a happy marriage for his son to a woman too-often promised to the wrong man. The Apocrypha includes an expanded form of the Book of Esther—with artful prayers and disturbing dreams highlighting the drama. Also included is the Wisdom of Sirach, an extended collection of wise sayings (longer than Proverbs and Ecclesiastes combined), which concludes with a particularly rich poetic praise of biblical heroes: a readable, teachable 12-chapter tour of Israelite valor. And the Jewish Annotated Apocrypha has also included the Book of Jubilees. This book retells the first portion of the Torah (from Genesis 1 to Exodus 12), interspersing the narratives with laws. So Jubilees disagrees with the Torah in two ways: First, the earliest biblical figures are presented as receiving legal revelation; second, the laws of Jubilees often disagree with the Torah. For instance, in Jubilees, Noah is told how the calendar is supposed to work, and the described calendar includes a year of 364 days (52 weeks; see Jubilees 6). Jacob’s sons were warned against intermarriage (e.g., chapter 29), and Levi is told explicitly that he will be the ancestor of Israel’s future priests (chapter 30). The Book of Jubilees was composed by ancient Jews—quite possibly around the time of the Maccabean era. But the book was preserved in Ethiopic—by Ethiopian Christians, and it is that circumstance that justifies its inclusion in the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha is available, for the first time, in an English language edition with an emphasis on Jewish tradition. Perfect for Jewish readers, and also appropriate for all readers interested in reading these works in the context of the people who wrote them. Edited by Lawrence M. Wills, and by Jonathan Klawans, the author of this post.
While we will never know for sure why Jews excluded these books and why Christians preserved them, the good news is that we have these books today. Whether you are Jewish or not, whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, if you choose to explore the Apocrypha around Hanukkah time, 1 and 2 Maccabees is a perfect place to start.
Jonathan Klawans is Professor of Religion at Boston University. He specializes in the religion and religious texts of ancient Judaism.
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