Friday, December 19, 2003

Last evening we lit the first candle. For it was the first night of Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday that has become a major one over the years. There are candles to be kindled and potato latkes to eat. But just what does this eight-day celebration celebrate?

Answer: A successful Jewish revolt against a Syrian empire ruled by the Seleucid dynasty of Greek kings some 2,200 years ago.

Well, not exactly. The revolt was not so much against the Syrian emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, as against an attempt to impose Hellenistic culture on ancient Judaea.

Well, not exactly. It’s not noised about, but this now celebrated revolt against the Syrians was something of a civil war between those Jews who proposed to adopt more of the fashionable Greek culture and those who viewed its games and gods as a desecration, and fought for the old ways, the hallowed practices and beliefs. This festival really commemorates a military victory — of tradition over assimilation, of fundamentalists over modernists.

Well, not exactly. The military aspects of the struggle are scarcely mentioned in today’s celebration of Hanukkah. The focus has shifted over the centuries. The very name Hanukkah, or Dedication, refers to the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by pagan rites.

After all, the holiday isn’t named after any particular battle or campaign or hero. It isn’t the Feast of the Maccabees, who led the revolt. Therefore the real theme of Hanukkah is the rededication of the Temple.

Well, not exactly. The essential ritual of the holiday has become the blessing over the Hanukkah lights, one for each night of the eight-day festival. The festivities now center about a Talmudic tale relating how the liberators of the Temple found only enough pure oil to burn for one day, but it lasted for eight — enough time to prepare a new supply. We’re really celebrating the miracle of the lights.

But what is all this about light and candles? What about the heroes who are remembered during Hanukkah — Judah Maccabee and his father Mattathias? Are not their deeds what Hanukkah really celebrates?

Well, yes, but not exactly. Their exploits are referred to in prayers and rituals only by indirection. Heroic feats are transmuted in the glow of the candles; they become acts of divine intervention.

The blessing over the candles recited each night of the holiday goes: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old.” Once again, it is He who delivered us; freedom is a divine gift.

The words inserted into the daily prayers during Hanukkah refer not to victories but to miracles. Our liberator was God alone: “And thereupon thy children came into … thy holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praises unto thy great Name.”

Hanukkah isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament. The story of battles and victories has been relegated to the Apocrypha. A mere military victory rates only a secondary place in the canon. It is not celebrated for its own sake but for what it reveals.

A violent confrontation is lifted out of history, and enters the realm of the sacred. A messy little guerrilla war in the dim past of a forgotten empire has become something else, something that partakes of the eternal. For only the spiritual victories last.

The central metaphor of all religious belief — revealing light — now blots out all the imperial intrigues and internecine warfare. And that may be the greatest miracle of Hanukkah: the transformation of that oldest and darkest of human activities, war, into a feast of illumination.

There is more than a single theme to this minor but not simple holiday. One can almost trace the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, its yearnings and fulfillments, its wisdom and folly, its holiness and vainglory, by noting which themes of Hanukkah have been emphasized when in Jewish history.

So does history say more about the time in which it is written than the time it describes. The historical message changes from age to age. The past we choose to remember may be the best reflection of any present.

But if there is one constant message associated with this holiday, it can be found in the weekly portion of the Prophets chosen to be read on the Jewish Sabbath. And over the centuries, the scripture for the Sabbath of Hanukkah has remained unchanged: Zechariah 4:1-7, with its penultimate verse:

“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.”


• Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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