Fact vs. Fiction; Truth vs. Myth

Oh,  how much I miss the years when I taught biblical history at the university.  In more than 20 years, an estimated  3,000 students sat in my classrooms (lecture halls), taking copious notes which I always hoped were never published.

After my retirement, I was made aware that 16 of my former students had become rabbis, 11 had become university professors, and at least one to my knowledge, Dr. David Owen, had achieved international renown as a biblical archaeologist and later, the  chairman of  the Department of Near East studies and Biblical history at Cornell University, one of America’s famed Ivy League institutions of higher learning.  In addition, he is the author of more than 150 published articles and books, including seven volumes of ancient cuneiform texts, Assyrian and Babylonian languages

The student has surpassed the professor by a thousand percent!

He keeps in touch with me very frequently via e-mail, even now from his “home” in China.

Two adult women who live close by to me were former students in 1959 but won’t allow me to publish their names. Women are more conscious of revealing their age than are men. I have no shame in admitting that I am now approaching the age of 86!

Jews, like other cultures, thrive upon myths to justify religious customs.

One of those myths is the story of the miraculous cruse of oil, sufficient for burning for one night but which burned for eight nights, giving birth to the tale of why Jews kindle  lights for the eight nights of Chanukah.

Fact …   Chanukah is the only holiday and story which is nowhere written in the Jewish Bible of 24 accepted volumes. The Jewish Bible, Tanach, was codified in Jamnia (Yavneh) centuries later.

One of the great scholars of the history of that period was Professor Elias Bickerman who detailed it in his volume “From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees: Foundations of Postbiblical Judaism”.

Following the death of the Macedonian monarch, Alexander the Great, in the year 324 Before the Common Era (BCE), his empire was divided between the Ptolemy generals of Egypt and the Seleucid generals of Mesopotamia. Tiny Israel was often caught up in the fray between the fighting of both sides.

In 200 BCE the Jewish militia helped the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, to overthrow the Ptolemaic garrison from the Jerusalem citadel, after which time, the Seleucids under all future Antiochian rulers became the masters of Israel.

While no mention of it is recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, the Books of the Maccabees were translated into the Septuagint, the Greek version of the bible,  and were ultimately included in the Apocrypha of the Christian New testament. But it is not written in any of the Jewish religious texts and was only preserved by oral transmission from generation to generation.

In December of the year 167 BCE, the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes issued the order that the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem be desecrated and that pigs should be slaughtered on its sacred altars.

In addition, he outlawed the observances of the Jewish religion and made the Jewish ritual laws of circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and New Moon festival, and the study of the Torah capital offenses punishable by death.  Only the Greek Hellenistic god Zeus could be worshipped.

It was at this juncture that the Jewish priest of Modin, Matityahu of the Hasmonean family, together with his five sons, urged a revolt.

The Hellenistic  Jews did not object to speaking the Greek language, of reveling in Greek culture, in dressing as the Greeks.  It was only when their Jewish religion was prohibited did many of them rise up to Matityahu’s cry:  “whoever is for the God of Israel, let him follow me”.

Shortly after his father’s death, one of his sons, Judah, known as the Maccabee from the Hebrew word for hammer, became the leader of the Jewish nation.

After long and fierce battles, the Greeks were driven out of Israel. To commemorate the victory of the few over the many,  the Jews’ first task was to clean their defiled holy Temple.

A flask of oil, sufficient to light the Temple seven-branched Menorah for one night, was discovered and the Temple lights shone once again in glory.

The tale of the alleged miracle has passed to every single Jew for more than two thousand years. But as I had often taught in the university classes, what is sufficient for one night cannot sustain for eight nights.

Why then is Chanukah celebrated for eight nights?

Fact…not fiction. Truth… not myth. While the Temple had been defiled, Jews were unable to celebrate the festival of Sukkot, the biblical commandment requiring all Jews to observe the eight day Festival of Booths or Tabernacles.

Thus, when the Temple had been purified the priests and levites opened the doors of the holy Temple and celebrated the eight day festival of Sukkot which should have been observed two months earlier.

It was then decreed that Chanukah, which means “dedication” or “re-dedication” should be observed for eight nights throughout all generations to celebrate the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple.

Thus, the information which I transmitted to generations of my students.

And how did they “repay” me for this inspired interpretation?  No Chanukah gelt  (coins). Only potato latkes, fried pancakes in oil,  or “sufganiyot”, jelly donuts fried in oil to remember the “miracle” of the oil.

I dedicate these words to all my former students, those still living, scattered across the continents of a colder world than once we knew, who made the years of my life happier and fulfilled.

Myths are legends. Facts are truth. We Jews possess both.

Ora v’simcha b’chag ha-oorim.  Let us have light and joy on the Festival of Lights  . And please…… pass me another jelly donut ! More calories. More joy. Todah rabah. Warm thanks.

“Class dismissed !”

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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