Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hanukkah: The Story Before Christmas

A few years ago I gave a menorah to my dad for his birthday for fun and ever-since then we've been celebrating Hanukkah as part of our holiday celebrations. It may seem different for a Gentile family to celebrate a Jewish holiday in the midst of our Christmas celebrations, but somehow Hanukkah is deeply connected to the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is a more ancient form of Advent---but whereas Christian Advent celebrates the awaiting and arrival of the miracle of God's Incarnation in baby Jesus, Hanukkah is a remembrance of God's past miracles. This is most evident in the blessings over the Hanukkah lights:

Blessing over Candles

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe

asher kidishanu b'mitz'votav v'tzivanu
Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us

l'had'lik neir shel Chanukah. (Amein)
to light the lights of Chanukkah. (Amen)

Blessing for Chanukkah

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe

she'asah nisim la'avoteinu bayamim haheim baziman hazeh. (Amein)
Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time

Shehecheyanu (first night only)

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe

shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amein)
who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season (Amen)

The Hanukkah story is as follows:
The story
See also: Hasmonean

Around 200 BCE Jews lived as an autonomous people in the Land of Israel, also referred to as Judea, which at that time was controlled by the Seleucid king of Syria. The Jewish people paid taxes to Syria and accepted its legal authority, and they were free to follow their own faith, maintain their own jobs, and engage in trade.

Traditional view
By 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the Seleucid throne. At first little changed, but under his reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BCE Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. As was the normal practice of the Hellenic religion when sacrificing to the Greek gods, pigs were sacrificed on the altar to Zeus.

Antiochus' actions proved to be a major miscalculation as they provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi ("Judah the Hammer"). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers to celebrate this event.[10] After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

Hanukkah lamp unearthed near Jerusalem, c. 1900.The version of the story in 1 Maccabees, on the other hand, states that an eight day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon rededication of the altar, and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil.[11] A number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day celebration was that the first Hanukkah was in effect a belated celebration of the festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.[12] During the war the Jews were not able to celebrate Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret properly; the combined festivals also last eight days, and the Sukkot festivities featured the lighting of lamps in the Temple (Suk.v. 2-4). The historian Josephus[13] mentions the eight-day festival and its customs, but does not tell us the origin of the eight day lighting custom. Given that his audience was Hellenized Romans, perhaps his silence on the origin of the eight-day custom is due to its miraculous nature. In any event, he does report that lights were kindled in the household and the popular name of the festival was, therefore the "Festival of Lights" ("And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights").

It has also been noted that the number eight has special significance in Jewish theology, as representing transcendence and the Jewish People's special role in human history. Seven is the number of days of creation, that is, of completion of the material cosmos, and also of the classical planets. Eight, being one step beyond seven, represents the Infinite. Hence, the Eighth Day of the Assembly festival, mentioned above, is according to Jewish Law a festival for Jews only (unlike Sukkot, when all peoples were welcome in Jerusalem). Similarly, the rite of brit milah (circumcision), which brings a Jewish male into God's Covenant, is performed on the eighth day. Hence, Hanukkah's eight days (in celebration of monotheistic morality's victory over Hellenistic humanism) have great symbolic importance for practicing Jews.

Modern perception
Most modern scholars argue that the king was in fact intervening in an internal civil war between the traditionalist Jews in the country and the Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem.[14][15][16] According to Joseph P. Schultz:

Modern scholarship on the other hand considers the Maccabean revolt less as an uprising against foreign oppresion than as a civil war between the orthodox and reformist parties in the Jewish camp.[17]

These competed violently over who would be the High Priest, with traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Onias contesting with hellenizing High Priests with Greek names like Jason and Menelaus. [18] In particular Jason's Hellenistic reforms would prove to be a decisive factor leading to eventual conflict within the ranks of Judaism.[19] Other authors point to possible socio/economic in addition to the religious reasons behind the civil war. [20]

What begun in many respects as a civil war escalated when the Hellenistic kingdom of Syria sided with the Hellenizing Jews in their conflict with the traditionalists. [21] As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices the traditionalists had rallied around. This may explain why the king, in a total departure from Seleucid practice in all other places and times, banned the traditional religion of a whole people.[22]

The Hanukkah story comes from I and II Maccabees in the Christian Apocrypha. So how else is Hanukkah related to Christmas---well without the events that Hanukkah is based on there would be no Christmas, because there would be no Judaism as a backdrop for Jesus to grow up in. So when we Christians participate in the Jewish celebrations of Hanukkah, we experience an alignment with Jesus' spiritual ancestry. See also: What Hanukkah and Christmas Have in Common. Oh and Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike!

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