Many Jews, even those who do not observe any Jewish practice other than Yom Kippur and Passover, observe Hanukah, mostly because their children want gifts, but they have wrong ideas about the history relating to the holiday. Even most observant Jews have wrong ideas, as do many non-Jews. Dr. Howard Rubenstein published a fascinating book about the history of Hanukah called “Maccabee: An Epic in Free Verse. Based upon the Books of Maccabees.” The book is very readable. One should not be turned off by the words “free verse.” In fact, Rubenstein’s free verse is easier to read than the average novel written for the general population, and is more interesting. I recommend the book.
The truth about Hanukah
- Hanukah is spelt in different books in different ways. The difficulty in spelling is due to the rendering of the Hebrew in English letters. The Hebrew name begins with the eighth letter of its alphabet, a khet, a guttural sound that does not exist in English and which is difficult for people who did not use this sound in early life to pronounce. Some English spellings of the holiday name write Chanukah. But the difficulty with this spelling is that ch is usually pronounced as in the words child, chance, and chosen, which is unlike the sound of the Scholars render the khet as an H with a dot under it or kh as in Tanakh. The use of just an H is a simple unscholarly usage.
- The term “Maccabees” does not appear in the plural form in any of the four books of Maccabees or any source of the period. The name Maccabee, meaning “hammer” was used exclusively for one person Judah, who lead the revolt against the Syrian Greeks after the death of his father Mattathias.
- Similarly, the name Hasmonean does not refer to Mattathias’s entire family but only to him. We do not know why he was called Hasmonean. Scholars offer different ideas for this name and Maccabee. Mattathias died shortly after he led the revolt, appointing Judah to succeed him
- Mattathias began the revolt in 167 BCE. The rededication of the temple by Judah and his followers occurred in 165 BCE. Contrary to the idea of many people, the revolt did not end in 165. It continued until the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Each of Mattathias’s sons were involved in the fight. The last surviving son, Simon, led the Judeans until he died 30 years after the onset of the revolt. After the problems with the Syrian Greeks, the Judeans had similar problems with Rome, ending when Rome destroyed the Jewish State and temple in 70 CE and Masada in 73 CE.
- The story of a miracle that when the Judeans came to the temple, they found only enough oil for a single day to use in the temple candelabra is a late invention. What happened when the Judeans rededicated the temple is told in the books Maccabee 1 and 2. The version in these books was recorded near the time of the event. The Judeans recalled that they were unable to celebrate the eight-day holiday of Sukkot during the war and decided to celebrate it now. They also decided to recall this rededication of the temple annually for the same eight days. The first mention of the legend of a single cruse of oil appeared for the first time in the Middle Ages in Megillat Ta’anit 9.
- There are four books called Maccabees. Jews did not place any of them in the Bible. Christians included the first two which told the story of Hanukah in their Bible. The third book of Maccabees is a fictional story similar to the Purim story. The fourth book is a philosophical treatise praising reason over emotion. This book tells the tale of a mother and seven sons where the boys are murdered when they refused the Syrian Greek demand that they eat pork. When their mother saw all seven murdered, she committed suicide. The mother’s name is not given in the book, but in the sixteenth century a Spanish Catholic editor gave her the name Hannah. The Roman Catholic Church made saints of the mother and her sons.
- The campaigns by Mattathias and his sons leading Judeans against much larger forces of Syrian Greeks is the first recorded war for religious liberty and respect for differences between people. It was a resistance to the intolerant who insist that their religion is the only true one and it is therefore deserving universality.
- Howard Rubenstein tells in free verse what occurred after the death of Simon, the last surviving brother of Judah Maccabee, the last son of Mattathias, who ruled Judea.
John, the son of Simon,
went on to do
many great deeds in Israel.
For war came again to Judea.
The gentiles’ determination
to conquer the land
and destroy the children of Israel
did not cease.