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Hanukah’s two viewpoints then and now

The story of the Hasmonean (or “Maccabean”) revolt is preserved in 1 and 2 Maccabees—two very different books, in style, content, views and values. To state the most obvious differences: 1 Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew (but preserved only in a Greek translation), and it tells the story of the entire revolt, beginning with Mattathias, and on through his sons Judah, Jonathan, Simon, and ending with the rise of the dynasty under Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus. It covers the period of roughly 175–134 B.C.E.

The book of 2 Maccabees was originally written in Greek, covers only the first part of that period, from 175–161 B.C.E., following the story only during the days of Judah Maccabee.

Dr. Daniel R. Schwartz a Professor at the Hebrew University points out in an insightful article in the Times of Israel (12/25/22) that Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), one of the founders of Reform Judaism suggested in 1857 that each of the two books of Maccabees stems from a different branch of Second Temple Judaism. In his view, 1 Maccabees is a Sadducean work, and 2 Maccabees is a Pharisaic response to it.

This is part of Rabbi Geiger’s overall thesis that the Sadducees of the latter half of the Second Temple period—as described in the writings of Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature—were a continuation of the Zadokite high priests, who were prominent of the first half of that period, in the absence of Jewish sovereignty.

Geiger assumes, as most scholars still do, that the name “Sadducees,” צדוקים, derives from “Zadokites.” Rabbi Geiger argued that the Pharisees, who arose in the last two centuries of the Second Temple period competed with the Sadducee priests for religious leadership, and were not part of the priestly class. After the destruction of the Temple this group developed into Rabbinic Judaism.

The book 1 Maccabees, written during the days of John Hyrcanus (134 – 104 BCE), the son of Simon the Maccabee, is a dynastic history that recounts the Hasmoneans’ rise to power and argues that their revolt and consequent rule were justified. As the Hasmoneans were high priests, it makes sense to associate them with the Sadducees. As reported by Josephus (Ant. 13.295–296), King John Hyrcanus made an alliance with the Sadducees. The book 2 Maccabees, in contrast, is not interested in the Hasmonean dynasty.

Professor Schwartz also states that for 1 Maccabees, Judeans suffer because the wicked Greek kings and the Judeans’ nasty neighbors persecute them, and they are rescued by the valiant efforts of military heroes, the Hasmoneans.

For 2 Maccabees, in contrast, Jews suffer because their sins caused God “to hide His face” (see Deuteronomy 31:17 and 32:20, paraphrased in 2 Maccabees 5:17, i.e., to suspend his providence. They are rescued through the death of Jewish martyrs, who serve as an atonement (chapters 6–7), and God’s “wrath turns into mercy,” so Judah Maccabee can be victorious: 2 Maccabees 8:5 “As soon as Maccabaeus got his corps together, he could not be withstood by the Gentiles, the Lord’s anger having turned into mercy.”

For the diaspora Jews 2 Maccabees, whose expected readers—like Christians in the Roman empire—could not contemplate military resistance if ever oppressed, martyrdom, in the hope that it would move God to intervene, is the best they could do and, indeed, it is effective: 2 Maccabees 8:5, which was just quoted, is the turning-point of the entire story. For 1 Maccabees, in contrast, martyrs, who are killed for their adherence to Judaism, accomplish nothing.

The role of prayer in the two Maccabee books differs. In 2 Maccabees, prayer is ubiquitous, whereas it is mostly absent in 1 Maccabees. Prayer competed with Temple sacrifices as a mode of worship, and prayer did not need hereditary priests to lead it. So prayer would be a key feature of the Pharisaic 2 Maccabees, while the Sadducean 1 Maccabees would not emphasize it.

Also I would add that from a ritual point of view, lighting oil lamps at home would fit in very well into a Pharisee view that stresses the home ritual of lighting Shabbat candles, and does not need a story of a one day oil supply lasting for eight days. The only Talmudic reference to the oil lasting eight days comes in the Talmud’s Shabbat volume and Hanukah is the only religious celebration that does not have its own place in the Mishnah.

The eight days of Hanukkah are often referred to as the Festival of Lights because they also teach: Do not blame the Darkness; light a candle. The “festival of lights” is mentioned in the Gospel of John 10:22 when Jesus goes to the Jerusalem Temple to celebrate the Feast of Rededication: Hanukkah!

The origin of this term goes back to the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who lived in Jerusalem and later in Rome during the first century of the Common Era. In his history book Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes the origin of the holiday we now know as Hanukkah: “So Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices in the Temple for eight days; and they honored [the one] God, and delighted themselves with singing psalms of praise and playing harps.

“Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their [religious] customs after so long a time [of oppression], having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days.

“And from that time to this [about 250 years later] we celebrate what we call the Festival of Lights, because, it was beyond our hopes that this right [to worship] was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival.”

Indeed, the Festival of Lights should also be important for Christians and Muslims because it does not make any difference to the lamp if it is half full or half empty; but it makes all the difference to us humans in this world. As the Qur’an states: “Allah is an ally of those who believe. He brings them out from darknesses into light.” (2:257)

The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the world’s first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the terrible persecution of Prophet Muhammad and his followers by the majority of the pagan Arabs in Makka.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the theme of the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukkah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.

This is the ongoing spiritual commitment of both Islam and Judaism to the ideal: Light can even come out of Darkness.

As the Jewish family Passover Haggadah (a book that’s been revised, reprinted, and republished over 6,000 times, mostly in the last 200 years) states: Passover is a journey “from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to light, and from bondage to redemption”.

And the Qur’an states: “And We certainly sent Moses with Our signs, [saying], “Bring out your people from darknesses into light, and remind them of the days of Allah. Indeed in that are signs for everyone patient and grateful.” (14:5)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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