The Hannukah issue of the Jewish Chronicle on 1 December, 1961, carried an article by Raphael Loewe on the subject, "Did Greece harm Judaism?"
Professor Loewe questioned the widespread view that Hannukah was merely a fun festival or a populist celebration of heroism. He argued that it was a serious moment for national reflection.
He brushed Antiochus aside as an egotistical nobody who played for time for political reasons, hoping to prevent the engulfing of his realm into the Roman empire.
According to Loewe, the Jews found themselves caught up in the struggle, but the real problem was neither the feelings of the Jews nor the pretensions of Antiochus. It was a cultural tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism. Loewe says the two cultures were not such implacable enemies as people imagine. The choice was how much or how little Hellenism to adopt.
Was Hellenism something new? Unlikely: Jews had long been tempted by other civilisations. Was it that Greek culture promoted idolatry? The Bible was full of idolatrous episodes. Was it that human characteristics were ascribed to the Greek pantheon? Again nothing new. Judaism had long been concerned about human terminology applied to God (the arm of God, the hand of God, the mouth of God).
Was immorality the problem? The Greeks did not invent immoral orgies or unethical excesses, and the Hebrew prophets had been attacking moral lapses for centuries.
Was the problem a lack of ethics? The fact is that Greek ethical teaching had its commonalities with Jewish ethics.
Did Hellenism threaten Jewish nationalism? The truth is that Jews had been tolerant of other ethnicities for generations. But now what Loewe called "a dramatic danger signal" shocked the Jews – perhaps the representational art of the Hellenistic world which challenged the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God. After all, the Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they admired physical handsomeness. Judaism saw all this as an expression of "avodah zarah", graven images.
What Judaism valued was not physical man but non-physical God, not "avodah zarah" but "avodah shebalev", inner virtue. What mattered was not looks but books. What mattered with God was His message.
Solomon Schonfeld’s book "The Universal Bible" says the Greeks appreciated beauty as an end in itself, whereas Jews believed in beauty for goodness’ sake. The sages say that when the Torah speaks of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen. 10:27) it is making a statement that the beauty of Greece must not overwhelm the ethics of Israel. Samson Raphael Hirsch said Yefet beautified the world whilst Shem enlightened it.
Loewe was wrong to belittle the hurt that Antiochus caused the Jews. He was wrong to brush aside the symbolism of the Greek adulation of art. The Jewish objection was not to art itself but to how it reduced Divine truth from Revelation to Reason.
Hannukah & Sukkot
There is a solid link between Hannukah and Sukkot even if it’s not immediately obvious.
The Second Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha commences with letters addressed “to their Jewish brethren in Egypt” by “the Jews in Jerusalem and those in the country of Judea”.
They describe the events that followed the desecration of the Temple and conclude, “And now, you must observe a Feast of Tabernacles in the month of Kislev“.
Sukkot in Kislev, not in Tishri?
Josephus tells a similar story. The explanation, as recorded in the halakhic works, seems to be that during the Maccabean struggle Sukkot could not be celebrated in the normal way and was postponed until after the fighting.
A Second Sukkot may have been suggested by the law in the Torah that if a person is prevented from celebrating Pesach, a Second Passover was to be kept a month later.
In the case of Sukkot-Hannukah, there were hymns and processions with garlands and branches. Our emphasis on the little jar of oil for the Temple lamp is missing from the Apocrypha and Josephus, though there was a re-kindling of the altar fire.
So the observance of Hannukah was highly reminiscent of Sukkot – and not only in general terms but in a number of specific features:
• Hannukah became an eight-day festival, emulating the eight days of Sukkot (seven days plus Sh’mini Atzeret).
• The Hallel psalms are recited in full throughout both festivals.
• Bet Shammai’s view, eight lights on the first day reducing to one on the last day – Bet Hillel began with one and increased to eight – echoes the practice of reducing the number of Sukkot offerings day by day.
• Both festivals celebrate light – in the case of Sukkot, through the "Simchat Bet HaSho’evah", the festival of the water-drawing, when Jerusalem was lit up with torches (Mishnah Sukkah 5:3).
• Both festivals emphasise "publicising the miracle" – in the case of Sukkot, deriving from Lev. 23:45, which ordains “that your generations shall know”.
• Both occasions promote hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying the commandment”. The Talmud recommends a beautiful sukkah and lulav (Shabbat 133b); it also speaks of how the mehadrin ("beautifiers") kindle the Hannukah lights (Shab. 21b).
• Both festivals are connected with the dedication of the Temple. The building of the sanctuary began just before Sukkot. By 25 Kislev, which was later the date of Hannukah, the project was completed. The enemy chose to desecrate the Temple in Kislev in order to insult the Jews and undermine the anniversary of the dedication of the Temple. No wonder that there was such great Jewish rejoicing when the rededication took place on the same date that had always been so important in the Jewish calendar.
• Both are messianic festivals, symbolising the time to come when the whole world will serve the One God. Hannukah stands for the freedom to believe and worship; Sukkot yearns for all the nations to sit together in the messianic sukkah.
What weird and wonderful theories people have. A Jew from Glasgow told me in all seriousness that Judah the Maccabee was a Scotsman, like Macbeth and MacDonald. A Cheder teacher even summoned up the ingenuity to link the Maccabees with the Biblical cave of Machpelah…
The word Maccabee is not found in the Bible or Talmud; It derives from Greek and comes in the Apocrypha, where I Macc. 2:14 and II Macc. 2:19 refer to "Judah known as Maccabeus".
The sages are often reluctant to admit that a word has a foreign origin; they suggest that Maccabee is the initial letters of a Biblical verse (Ex. 18:11) or comes from a Hebrew root that means "to extinguish".
There is a theory that it is from Makevet, a hammer, because "hammer" is a metaphor for a strong leader.
Aaron Kaminka thinks that the name is a corruption of Machbanai, who was one of David’s warriors and embodied lion-like strength, speed and valour (I Chron. 12:13).
It is not certain that Judah called himself Maccabee; he is more likely to have been simply Yehudah ben Mattityahu. The rabbis preferred to call Judah’s group "Hasmoneans", from the town of Chashmon (Josh. 15:27).
Adam had his own Hannukahat the beginning of human history.
According to the Talmud he noticed that the days were getting shorter and darker and he thought it was his fault because he had eaten forbidden fruit, so he fasted and prayed for eight days in repentance for his sin. When he saw that the days were getting longer and brighter he rejoiced and celebrated by means of an eight-day festival.
In later generations, heathens followed but grossly distorted Adam’s festival and turned it into a mid-winter time of idolatry and paganism.
Did you know there were seven Hannukahs?
When as small children we asked what the name "Hannukah" meant, we were told it meant "Dedication", for after recapturing the Temple from the heathen enemy the Maccabees put it in order and rededicated it to its sacred purposes.
The sages surely thought hard and long before fixing on the name "Hannukah". They must have discarded a number of alternatives, finally choosing the name used from the dawn of Jewish history to denote a feast of dedication.
The Midrash says there are seven Hannukahs:
1. The Hannukah of the creation of the world, when God completed His work and launched man on the arena of history.
2. The Hannukah of the Tabernacle in the time of Moses, when the princes of the tribes brought offerings to the Sanctuary.
3. The Hannukah of the First Temple, erected and dedicated by Solomon.
4. The Hannukah of the Second Temple, erected by exiles who had returned from Babylon.
5. The Hannukah of the wall of Jerusalem, completed in the days of Nehemiah.
6. The Hannukah celebrated by the Maccabees.
7. And the Hannukahof the time to come, when the world will be illumined more brightly than on all the Chanukahs of ages past.
Each of the first six Hannukahs has a symbolic meaning, particularly relevant for an age when principles are discarded and values devalued.
The Hannukah of creation tells man that, God-like, he should devote his energies to constructive ends.
The Hannukah of the Tabernacle suggests that, like the princes of the tribes, man should bring his best to every worthwhile cause.
The Hannukah of the First Temple declares, "Set aside time and place for worship, joining heaven to earth as your prayer ascends upwards."
The Hannukah of the Second Temple, built by returned exiles, tells man to work for the day when all men will be free and none shall be subject to harassment or hatred.
The Hannukah of the wall of Jerusalem, which gave security to the City of God, shows man how to find anchorage in time of fear and uncertainty: "Find protection," it says, "in the encompassing Providence of God!"
The Hannukah of the Maccabees, possible because the few stood up against the many, assures man that he need not be afraid to stand up and go it alone against the negative tendencies of the age.
The culminating Hannukah, when the messianic end of days will dawn, is one which we can begin to build now, without delay. The first step in building it is to learn to live at peace with yourself. The second is to learn to live at peace with your fellow.
The Messianic Hannukah will arrive when we succeed in making the earth a temple of peace.
This is what we pray for in Ma’oz Tzur – the day "when You will cause all slaughter to cease," and man "shall complete with song and psalm the dedication of the altar".
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com