Monday, December 26, 2005

Happy Hanukah -- some factoids

For those wanting a serious but easily readable account of the history of the period surrounding Hanukah, I recommend the short but spectacularly clear and impressively researched, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees by Elias Bickerman. It's a classic in the field. Out of print currently, but available second hand.

And just a refresher on who the Seleucids were - the enemy that the Maccabees fought off during the holiday that came to be known as Hanukah. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his Empire split and in the following decades eventually sorted itself into four main section. Ptolemy, one of Alexander's former cavalry General, took Egypt and the Levant - producing the line of Kings that most famously ended with Cleopatra. Cassander, the son of Antipater, who had governed in Macedon and Greece during Alexander's absence - and who ended up killing Alexander's mother and wife and legitimate son - ruled in Macedon and the majority of Greek states, Lysimachus, the son of Alexander's general, ruled in Thrace and Asia Minor.

And after a series of battles to establish his control extending for 18 years, Seleucus I, pictured below, ended up with control of the area from Syria to the Indus River, which today comprises Iraq, Iran and the west of Pakistan.

On a related archaeological note, Ancient Modi'in was the home of the Hasmoneans, the heroes of the Hanukah narrative. Yet no one knows today precisely where ancient Modi'in is located.

The two most likely sites are Titurah Hill in current Modi'in, and an Arab village named Umm al-Umdan. Um al-Umdan contains the ruins of an impressive Hasmonean era synagogue, one of the earliest yet found, which continued in use, with a mikveh, until the time of the Bar Kochba period in 135. The synagogue ruins show that that the town possessed more religious significance at the time than one would suspect from the size of the village.

Titurah Hill, in contrast, is a far larger excavation site. The kind of site that could support the type of monumental architecture that the Hasmoneans liked to build. And there is one other factor as well.
On a clear day you can see the sea from there. From Umm al-Umdan, as well as another site mentioned as possibly being Hasmonean Modi'in, this is not possible. This fact accords with the description in Maccabees I, chapter 13, about the burial plot built by Simon son of Mattathias for his family. According to the description, the burial structure was tall and impressive. It included seven small pyramids and large columns with attractive carving that the sailors could see as well. In other words, from the hill one could see the sea. According to a description written hundreds of years after the death of the Hasmoneans, the burial plot remained in place for a long time afterward. It is described in manuscripts from the Byzantine period, by historian Eusebius in the fourth century CE, and on the sixth-century Madaba map. Crusaders who came to the Land of Israel during the 12th and 13th centuries also reported seeing it. But about 400 years ago, the reports about the Hasmonean graves ended.

Ari Shafran also has a piece in the JPost on the meaning of Hanukah.
Hanukka is not a Biblical holiday; it is based on an historical occurrence that took place after Biblical times. But it is the focus of a substantial amount of Jewish thought and lore, particularly in the mystical tradition...

[A]ccording to Jewish tradition, the victory celebrated on Hanukka was only superficially about the routing of the Greek-Syrian Seleucid Empire's forces from Judea. More essentially, it was about the routing of the Greek assimilationist inroads into Jewish life. To the rabbis who established the holiday, a greater enemy than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals.
For an easy visual that just might summon the required disdain and contempt, imagine to oneself an entire horde of Tony Kushner, Adam Shapiro and Noam Chomsky types, all of them flaunting their literal (rather than symbolic) reversed circumcisions, execising naked at the gym and prepared to swear that their way was the best way forward for the Jews.

Okay, I'm mostly kidding there. Er, mostly.

Back to the article.
For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty and the study of Torah, they convinced some Jews to embrace their world-view. They installed not only a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in Jewish hearts. And Hanukka stands for the uprooting of that attitude, for the recognition that Jews are, and must be, different.

Which is why Hanukka's observance does not involve a special feast - as does Purim's, when the threat against us was physical - but rather only the lighting, and gazing at, the ethereal light of candles. The battle of Hanukka was, in its essence, a spiritual one. Light represents Torah. And Torah - its study and its observance - is the essence of the Jewish people. "A bit of light," as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, "banishes much darkness."
Well, I think Shafran goes overboard a bit in this explanation. In historical terms, the army and the apparatus of the state that the Jews had to fight against was massive - a tiny nation against a local superpower. While the assimilationists, no doubt, were deeply troubling, the real immediate problem was the spiritual oppression caused by the military power.

In later years, after the rabbinic arose, the rabbis were of course free to re-interpret this threat however they wanted to, an interpretation that no doubt shifted depending on the threats that the Jewish people were at that time facing, whether external or internal.

However, I do like Shafran's drusha about why Hanukah, rather uniquely, has no feast, but is a holiday represented by the lighting of candles at night, giving off an ethereal light. To represent the spiritual connection still aflaunt. It starts off a slender thread, but one candle. Yet by the end of the holiday, it's a large cluster of lights. A rather beautiful image.


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