REFLECTIONS ON CHANUKAH, 2005
By Yoram Ettinger
The following are not my original ideas, but rather the ideas of a number of Jewish thinkers:
1. ORIGIN OF THE NAME, CHANUKAH: THE HOLIDAY OF EDUCATION. According to the first book of The Maccabees, Yehuda (who succeeded Mattityahu) ordered the Jewish People to observe an eight day holiday on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, in order to commemorate the INAUGURATION (CHANUKAH in Hebrew) of the holy altar and the Temple, following Syrian desecration. A key feature of Chanukah is EDUCATION of the family (The Hebrew word for education is CHINUKH, spelled with the first four of the five letters of Chanukah). The Hebrew word, Chanukah, consists of two words, CHANU (they rested/stationed) and KAH (25), which refers to the fact that the Maccabees re-consecrated the Temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev (purging it from the idolatries installed by the Seleucids). Some have suggested that the celebration of Christmas on December 25th and the celebration of the New Year 8 days later (January 1) have their origin in the 25th day of Kislev (which always “accompanies” December) and the 8 days of Chanukah as well as the eight days of circumcision.
2. ORIGIN OF THE NAME, MACCABEE. Yehuda’s middle name was Maccabee, derived possibly from the Hebrew word MAKEVET (The Power Hammer), which described Yehuda’s tenacious fighting capabilities. It may have derived from the Hebrew verb CABEH (to extinguish), which described the fate of Yehuda’s adversaries. Another possible interpretation of the name is that MACCABEE is the Hebrew acronym of “Who could resemble you among Gods, Jehovah” (“Mi Camokha Ba’elim Adonye” in Hebrew).
3. HOLIDAY OF LIGHT AND REMEMBRANCE. The first day of Chanukah – the holiday of light – is on the 25th day of Kislev, the month of miracles (e.g. Noah’s Rainbow appeared in Kislev). Moses completed the construction of the Holy Arc on the 25th day of Kislev, as was the date of the laying the foundation of the second Temple by Nehemaya. The 25th (Hebrew) word in Genesis is LIGHT (“OR” in Hebrew). A Jewish metaphor for the Torah is light. The 25th stop of the People of Israel – on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land – was Hashmona (same root as Hasmoneans in Hebrew). Chanukah commemorates the victory of Light (Maccabees) over Darkness. While light stands for remembrance, darkness (Chashecha in Hebrew) stands for FORGETFULNESS (Schichecha in Hebrew, spelled with the same Hebrew letters as Chashecah/darkness).
4. CHANUKAH DEMONSTRATES THAT WISDOM IS SUPERIOR TO KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING. Jewish definition of intellect and Jewish history demonstrate the superiority of Khokhma (faith in divinely inspired wisdom, morality and capabilities) over Beena (human understanding and interpretations) and Da’att (human intelligence/knowledge). The Greek/Syrian culture was based on the superiority of human knowledge and (tenuous) moral standards. The Greeks/Syrians felt constrained, and therefore threatened, by Jewish faith in divine (permanent) morality. Chanukah demonstrates the victory of divine morality over convenience-driven human definition of morality.
5. EIGHT DAYS OF CHANUKAH REPRESENT DIVINE CAPABILITIES AND OPTIMISM. The ancient Temple Menorah consisted of seven branches, which commemorated the seven days of creation. The Chanukah Menorah has eight branches, reflecting the additional level of divine capabilities over and beyond human expectations: The victory of the few over the many and the lasting of one day supply of oil for eight days. Some have suggested that the 8 day celebration was designed to make up for the holiday of Tabernacles, which could not be celebrated by the Maccabees due to the war. The shape of “Eight” represents infinity: No end to divine capabilities to enhance human fortunes, as evidenced by the survival of the Jewish People against all odds. The root of the Hebrew word for “eight” (Shmonah) is “oil” (Shemen), which is also the root of “Hasmonean” (Hashmonayim).
6. A LESSON TO ISRAEL’s LEADERSHIP: Simon the Maccabee – who succeeded Judah and Jonathan the Maccabees – responded to an ultimatum by the Assyrian/Greek Emperor Antiochus (Maccabees A, Chapter 15, verse 33: “We have not occupied a foreign land; We have not ruled a foreign land; We have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.” Thus responded Simon the Maccabee to Emperor Antiochus’ ultimatum to end “occupation” of Jaffa, Jerusalem, Gezer, Ekron and Gaza.
7. THE ORIGINAL “REBELLION AGAINST TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD”. The Maccabees were a tiny minority – condemned by the “pragmatic” Jewish establishment – upon launching their rebellion against an oppressive super-power. They were referred by Jewish “intellectuals” as “the enemies of peace” and “extremists.” They prevailed due to their principle-driven, determined and can-do state-of-mind. They have demonstrated the victory of the few over the many, right over wrong and truth over lies. The Maccabees have become a role-model for America’s Founding Fathers, including Paul Revere and the organizers of the Boston Tea Party.
8. ORIGIN OF “GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH” and “Live Free Or Die”. The Maccabees’ sacrifice and political Incorrectness has preserved and inspired today’s Jewish religion, language, culture and sovereignty. They followed in the footsteps of Abraham, Pinchas the High Priest, Joshua&Calev, King David and Elijah.
9. HISTORICAL CONTEXT. Alexander The Great – who held Judaism in high esteem and whose Egyptian heir Ptolemy II translated the Torah to Greek – died in 323BC. Consequently, the Greek Empire disintegrated into five, and thirty years later into three, kingdoms: Macedonia, Syria and Egypt. The Land of Israel was always militarily contested by Syria and Egypt (and Gaza was always the main invasion route!). In 198BC, Israel was conquered by the ancient Syrians. In 175BC, a new king assumed power in Syria, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies, who viewed the Jews as pro-Egyptians and held Judaism with contempt. In 169BC, on his way to Syria from a military victory over Egypt, he devastated Jerusalem, massacred a large number of Jews, forbade the practice of Judaism (including the Sabbath, circumcision, etc.) and desecrated Jerusalem and the Temple. The rebellion against the Syrian (Seleucid) kingdom featured the Hasmonean (MACCABEE) family: Mattityahu, a priest from the small town of Modi’in, and his five sons, Yochanan, Yehuda, Simon, Jonathan and Elazar. The heroic (and tactically creative) battles conducted by the Maccabees, were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were hired often as mercenaries by Egypt, Rome and other global and regional powers.
10. CHANUKA-PASSOVER-PURIM. The heroes of Passover and Purim had no choice but to defy their enemies. The Maccabees refused physical peace in return for spiritual assimilation and a sellout of the cradle of Jewish history. They were willing to pay any price for the protection of their values and heritage. Chanukah symbolizes the victory of conviction and roots over short-term convenience and over opportunism/cynicism (currently known as “pragmatism”).
11. NO FREE LUNCH FOR SOVEREIGN PEOPLES. Chanukah serves as another reminder that free people must be ready to fight – and sacrifice – for the right to be sovereign and free, especially in violent and unpredictable neighborhoods.