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Hanukkah: “Ask Two Jews, Get Three Opinions”

Robin Alexander

Posted on December 6, 2018 09:13

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Every year my friend performs in the First Baptist Church pageant in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It is so spectacular (real live camels, ice skating rink on stage, aerial dancers) that PBS videotapes and broadcasts it every year. I’ve only seen it twice, because... frankly, it’s always the same story. Not necessarily so with Hanukkah.


I googled the above phrase; there are 11 entries. I’ll summarize: Talmudic rabbis meticulously recorded debates and multiple positions on every line of Torah. Abraham and Moses both argued directly with God. It’s what we do; which is why Jewish education is based on questioning.

My theory is that ancient Israeli learning replicated the Socratic method (cooperative, argumentative dialogue) starting with the Hellenic period; which brings us to the roots of Hanukkah.


What’s with the lights?

Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday, deriving fame from its proximity to Christmas. Interestingly, both holidays feature lights during the darkest time of the year. But the lights of Hanukkah are central to the story.

Or are they? (Suspense).

In one short passage, the Talmud describes Hanukkah as commemorating the Temple re-dedication with a one-day supply of consecrated oil, miraculously burning for eight.

But this story was actually concocted six centuries later when the real reasons for the celebration were considered somewhat embarrassing.



Circa 322 BCE, Alexander the Great conquers the Persian empire, placing Israel under the Macedonians who celebrate all things Greek (Hellenism).

The cosmopolitan priestly class becomes wealthy and Hellenized; the rural farmers do not. (Tension).

Alexander dies, the empire is divided, and Israel (renamed Judaea) falls to the Seleucids, eventually led by Antiochus circa 175 BCE.

Antiochus needs money to invade the neighboring Egyptian empire; priestly factions pay him off to install their fave. Civil war erupts. Empires clash. It’s rumored that Antiochus has died in battle, but he returns.

Humiliated in defeat, Antiochus now craves Jewish conversion. He implements a series of “evil decrees” with the help of a corrupt priest (Menelaus), hoping to Hellenize the Jews, piece by piece.

When the Jews are ordered to worship Zeus /sacrifice a pig, guerilla warfare ensues led by the Maccabean family, and eventually, they win. An eight-day re-dedication of the Temple follows. Oil is not a part of the story. What!?!



Why did Talmudic rabbis switch focus from a Maccabean military miracle to a god-is-amazing-oil-related miracle? Opinions galore - top three:

One: After defeating the Greeks, the Maccabees started their own dynasty (Hasmonean), but it was weak and corrupt. Super awkward.

Two: The Hasmoneans maintained independence for several centuries with the help of the rising bully on the block, the Romans! Jewish-Roman relations went disastrously wrong (destruction of Temple, brutal suppression, slavery), further tainting the Hasmonean dynasty.

Three: The rabbis didn’t believe the Maccabees had a right to rule in the first place, as they were not descended from David.


We learn …

Talmudic rabbis were not above spin.

What could oil-burning-for-eight-miraculous-days symbolize? Jewish resilience perhaps; a light that refuses to burn out? Nice.

The real story is dramatic and relevant: strife between civil and religious factions; class warfare; the dangers of collaborating with a remote superpower.

For me, the story resonates because it may be the earliest recorded uprising against religious oppression.

Just my opinion.

Robin Alexander

Posted on December 6, 2018 09:13


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Source: Vox - All

And how a minor holiday about a religious uprising became the symbol of Jewish America. Hanukkah, which started on the...


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