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12/08/2023 09:49:17 AM


Senior Rabbi Benjamin Sharff


Tonight, we are going to take a break from talking about the complexities of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Much has transpired including the release of more hostages by Hamas and the release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel. Conveys of food and supplies have been allowed in, and there was a brief ceasefire, which sadly came to an end very recently.

But tonight, I wanted to take a little time to talk about another war that took place in Israel, but it was one that took place over two millennia ago. On Thursday evening we will begin the annual celebration of Chanukah. As is noted in Reform Judaism  Although according to Jewish custom Chanukah is considered a “minor” Jewish festival, today it ranks — along with Passover and Purim - as one of the most beloved Jewish holidays, full of light and joy and family celebration.

Unlike many Jewish holidays, Chanukah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is not mentioned in the Tanakh. The historical events upon which the celebration is based are recorded in Maccabees I and II, two books contained within a later collection of writings known as the Apocrypha. (Though one could argue, as some scholars have, that the book of Daniel was written during the Hasmonean revolt, but in code). 

In the year 168 B.C.E., the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers to Jerusalem. The Syrians desecrated the Temple, the holiest place for Jews at that time. Antiochus also abolished Judaism, outlawing the observance of Shabbat and the festivals, as well as circumcision. Altars and idols were set up for the worship of Greek gods, and he offered Jews two options: conversion or death.

On the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 168 B.C.E., the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus. A Jewish resistance movement – led by a priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees – developed, resisting the cruelty of Antiochus. The head of the family was Mattathias, an elderly man.  His son, Judah, became the chief strategist and military leader of the resistance. Though outnumbered, Judah Maccabee and his fighters miraculously won two major battles, routing the Syrians decisively.

Although historians debate the causes and outcomes of the war in which Judah Maccabee and his followers defeated the Syrian armies of Antiochus, there is no doubt that Chanukah evokes stirring images of Jewish valor against overwhelming odds. Other themes of the holiday include the refusal to submit to the religious demands of an empire practicing idolatry, the struggle against total assimilation into Greek culture and loss of Jewish identity, and the fight for Jewish political autonomy and self-determination.

Chanukah, which means “dedication,” is the festival that commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple following the Greek occupation of that holy place. Today, the holiday reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to keeping alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation.

But there is more to it than that. As Micah Halpern wrote for the Jerusalem post a couple of years ago, “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas. I repeat. Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.

What Chanukah is, quite frankly, is the most misunderstood holiday in all of Judaism.

There are two parts to the Chanukah story. That first part is found in Jewish sources, especially in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat. It is the story of the single crucible of oil that lasted eight days, instead of just one. It is a very short Talmudic discussion, but it is there, it is recorded history.

The second part of the Chanukah story is the tale of Judah Maccabee, the famous hero who, together with his family, led the battle against the oppressive Syrian Greeks, called the Seleucids – and won. As a tale, it’s a great story. But historically, the story of Judah Maccabee is complicated and problematic.

In fact, the rabbis edited out the story. It is not found to be in Jewish sources. Almost everything we know about this story comes from the Apocrypha Book of Maccabees 1 & 2 which was probably written centuries after the battle of Judah Maccabee and the Seleucids.

Apocrypha means hidden or secret books. These books were not put into the Hebrew Bible. They are not considered rabbinic works. They are considered Outer Books, or Sifrei Hitzonim. The story of Judah and the Maccabees is clothed in controversy.

There is no doubt that the rabbis knew about the battle against the Greek Seleucids. There is a reason explaining why the story of this battle and these heroes was left out of rabbinic history. And there is a reason explaining why it is so central and so popular today.

The rabbis shunned this battle story because, more than a battle between Jews and Seleucids, it was a battle between Jews and Jews. It was a civil war pitting Jew against Jew. It was a battle between the Hasmoneans, those Jews who rallied behind Judah the Maccabee and those assimilationist Jews who followed Hellenized Greek customs and fell under the spell of the culture of the Seleucid Empire.

The Book of Maccabees refers to the conflict as a battle between the Hassidim, the Righteous, and the Mityavnim (those who tried to be like Greeks), the Jewish Hellenists. Had the story had a happy ending, the rabbis might have embraced the tale, but that was not to be. You see, a few generations after their victory against the assimilationists, the Hasmoneans chose to combine the priesthood with the kingship. They shunned Jewish law and tradition. They became corrupt and oppressive. And as a result of their poor decisions, Herod rose to power – who was the last of the Hasmonean kings (who also welcomed the arrival of the Romans).

The rabbis could not embrace that tradition and that history. And so, the story of the revolt did not make its way into the canon of biblical or rabbinic literature.
So why is Judah Maccabee and his family’s story (become) such a central part of the story of Chanukah for us today?

Here’s why. When early Zionists were searching for models of Jewish fighters, they found the story of Judah and the Maccabees and elevated these long-ago warriors into the culture of Judaism. These Zionists leaders were not concerned with the essence of the story as the rabbis had been. They needed heroes who fought with weapons and who defended Jewish society and Jewish values. And the Maccabees fit the bill.

These same Zionist leaders scoured history and found another story not to be found in Jewish rabbinic sources. They found the story of Masada which comes to us via Josephus, the Roman historian. Those warriors atop Masada were Jewish fighters. But because they chose mass suicide over capture, the rabbis would never, could never, promote them as heroes.

The mystique crafted by those Zionists thinkers did not just transform history – it shaped the image of Israel, of Israelis and of Jews across the world. The Jewish hero, a defender, fighting against great odds, became the model of the modern state of Israel. And that legacy lives on to this day.
That is why Chanukah is such an important holiday today. Not because it coincides with Christmas and we have something to celebrate just like everyone else, but because, like the State of Israel today, the Jewish state, Chanukah embraces the model that Jews were the masters of their destiny.” 

So even though this war took place 2,000 years ago, its complexities and challenges still reverberate with us today. Hannukah is not merely a story about the oil lasting eight days. Nor is it just a story about a Jewish revolt over oppressive rulers seeking to eradicate Jewish practice. Like all wars, the story of Chanukah is messy and complicated. Which, now that I think about it, sounds strangely familiar.

So as we light our chanukiyot on Thursday evening, may we remember the lessons of the Maccabees. May we be proud of our Jewish heritage even as we may remain conflicted with some of the realities of Jewish life. Each war, we pray will be the last war, and the time of the Maccabees was no different. 

As we will sing tonight in their memory and honor with the words of Maoz Tzur:

Rock of Ages let our song,
Praise thy saving power;
Thou amidst the raging foes,
Wast our sheltering tower.
Furiously they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us
And Thy word broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.
And Thy word broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.

May our strength not fail us. To borrow from the words of Micah and Isaiah, may all their swords one day be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Let nation not lift up sword against nation. Let them study war no more. And let all be safe under their own vine and fig. 
And then, when peace is finally achieved, we can get back to the real battle of Hannukah, apple sauce or sour cream?!

Shabbat Shalom. 


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

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