First scroll: Genesis 41:1 to 44:17
Second scroll: Numbers 7:48-53
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 to 4:7
My previous diary commented on the primary Torah reading. This diary will focus on Chanukah (or however you want to spell it!)
The second Torah reading is read every Chanukah. The portable temple the Israelites have built in the desert is ready for dedication. On each day of dedication, the leader of one of the tribes brings gifts and animals for sacrifice. Each tribe brings the identical gifts. In fact, the Hebrew is verbatim, except for the opening words and closing words identifying the day, the tribal leader, and the tribe. As this Shabbat is the seventh day of Chanukah, we read (Numbers 7:48-53):
On the seventh day Eli'shama the son of Ammi'hud, the leader of the men of E'phraim. His offering was one silver plate, whose weight was a hundred and thirty shekels, one silver basin of seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a cereal offering. One golden dish of ten shekels, full of incense. One young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering. One male goat for a sin offering. And for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Eli'shama the son of Ammi'hud.This portable temple sufficed for centuries - until the reign of Solomon, when the first Temple was built. I Kings 5:15 through the end of chapter 7 provides the details of the construction project. We are told, at I Kings 7:1 that the project took seven years to complete. And chapter 8 details the dedication ceremony. Significantly for later Jewish history, and for the Chanukah holiday we now celebrate, Solomon's dedication ceremony took eight days - I Kings 8:66.
Chanukah has two stories, historical and mythical. The history is found in the First Book of Maccabees, which covers historical events from 175 to 134 BCE. The book is part of the Catholic Bible, but was not canonized by the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, nor by Luther and the other founders of the Protestant churches. Although until recent decades the Catholic Church has not been kind to the Jewish faith, we Jews owe a debt of gratitude to the Church for preserving this historical account of the First Chanukah.
The Book of Maccabees opens with Alexander the Great's conquest of Israel, followed by Alexander dividing his kingdom on his death bed. Later, there "came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king." 1 Mac 1:10. Antiochus reconquers Jerusalem (it had apparently reverted to Jewish control after the death of Alexander) loots the temple, slaughters many Jews, and then forbids Jews from practicing their faith:
Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they should forget the law and change all the ordinances. "And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die."1 Mac. 1:41-50. They burnt Torah scrolls; anyone found with a Torah, or observing any Jewish precept, "was condemned to death by royal decree." 1 Mac. 1:56-57. Yet the text makes clear that many Jews adopted the new religion, some males even underwent surgery to undo their circumcisions.
The rebellion, likely the first rebellion for religious freedom, was begun under the leadership of Mattathias, and, after his death, under the leadership of his son, Judah Maccabee. Like our own American Revolution, the war was as much a civil war against Hellenistic Jews as against foreign occupiers. But the army of Judah Maccabee triumphs and captures Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
Then said Judah and his brothers, "Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." So all the army assembled and they went up to Mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins.1 Mac. 4:36-38. So the Jews repaired the temple, rededicated it, and Judah Maccabee decreed that the eight days of rededication - consciously replicating Solomon's eight day dedication ceremony - and beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, would forever be celebrated as Chanukah:
Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken. Early in the morning on the 25th day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. Then Judah and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the 25th day of the month of Kislev.1 Mac. 4:47-59. Notice something missing? That's right, not a word about the so-called miracle of Chanukah in a historical account written only a few decades after the recounted events. The story of the miracle of the light would not be written down until nearly 400 years later, in the Talmud, Shabbat 21b
What is the reason for Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th day of Kislev the eight days of Chanukah begin, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient [oil] for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit the lamp therewith for eight days. The following year these days were declared a Festival with the recitation of Hallel (hymns of praise) and thanksgiving.Several points:
First, the fruits of the military victory for which our ancestors originally celebrated Chanukah didn't last very long. In chapter 8 of First Macabbees, Judah Macabbee, now the new Jewish king, invites the Roman army to protect Israel by occupying the country. Once the Roman army arrived, they would not leave until the conquest by the followers of Muhammed, over 700 years later. Twice the Jews rose in rebellion, twice they failed to defeat the great superpower of that era, and, after each of the two wars, the Romans slaugtered Jews in mass, and forced many others into slavery. By the time the rabbis penned the above paragraph, the victory of the Macabbees, while still celebrated every year, was both a distant memory but was also a symbol of hope in the face of Roman persecution.
Second, it is likely that the miracle of the tiny cruse of oil burning for eight days never happened. Had it occurred, such a miracle would surely have appeared in the contemporary account. Did the rabbis make it up? Probably not - probably it was a legend that was passed down through several generations. So why did they write this paragraph? Why did they transform the celebration of a military victory into a commeration of a miracle that almost certainly never happened?
Here are my thoughts. The rabbis, in writing these few pages of Talmud - Shabbat 21a through 24a, and in decreeing that second reading in the Torah from the book of Numbers - obviously intended that the observance of Chanukah not be forgotten. Other pages in the Talmud reference obscure military victories from earlier centuries on which fasting and mournful prayers are forbidden - these battles are otherwise forgotten today. But the rabbis, in these 7 pages of Talmudical text, transformed the purpose of Chanukah and ensured that it would be observed as long as there were Jews. They decreed that every Jew, on each of the 8 nights of Chanukah, not only light his or her menorah but to place the lit menorah in the window "to advertise the miracle" and to shine that light into the outside darkness. Those lights shining into the darkness represent beacons of hope - that light will triumph over darkness. May this holiday inspire us to bring light to our nation, to renew our struggles against bigotry, ignorance, unemployment, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a selfish few.
Finally, despite the relentless war we liberals supposedly wage every year against Christmas, George Frederick Handel's immortal oratorio celebrating the birth and resurrection of Jesus, Messiah, is performed by orchestras and choirs in every major community, and played on every classical music radio station this time of year. But Handel wrote a second oratorio for this holiday season - musically as great a work as Messiah - but it seldom gets performed or played. I close with this selection from Handel's Judah Macabbee:
Oh never never bow we down
To the crude stock of sculptered stone;
We worship God and God alone.