Post-biblical Holidays: Purim and Hanukkah

Monday, April 20, 2009

A third category of festivals was added after the Bible, in Second Temple times. For instance, one feast known as Purim, is based on the events of the biblical book of Ester. It is celebrated a month before Passover. The nature of the story in the book of Ester is about an evil official in the Persian kingdom that wanted to annihilate all the Jews because there was one Jew that refused to bow down to him, his name was Mordecai. The official was thwarted, in the last minute everything was overturned. Clearly, this was a story that resonated deeply with Jews throughout their history.

Hanukkah: the Night of Candles

Another festival, lasting eight days, is the feast of Hanukkah. It is celebrated in December. Often it falls literally on the same days that Christians would celebrate Christmas, sometimes it is a little before Christmas. Its focus is on the cultural clash between Judaism and Hellenism in the Second Temple period. An attempt was made by a despotic king, Antiochus IV, to outlaw Jewish religious practice and to impose pagan rites in the Temple of Jerusalem. This led to a Jewish uprising, led by a family of priests, known as the Hasmoneans, sometimes referred to as the Maccabees.

Their victory in 164 B.C.E. symbolizes for many the principle of freedom of religion. On Hanukkah, candles are lit. Eight candles are lit, every day one more. The first night one candle, the second two, etc. The reason for lighting candles is very interesting. If you were to ask most Jews, they will tell you a well-known fable that appears in the Talmud. That is when the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks and they entered the despoiled temple, they found no sacred oil with which to light the candelabrum, save for a tiny little portion that had enough for one night alone. They lit and the oil sufficed for eight days. So, we light the candles for eight days to remind us of that miracle.

People had, I think erroneously, pointed to that legend and claimed that it was an attempt to redirect Jewish history from the political and the military defeat of the Greeks to a more spiritualized aspect. The light, sort of a metaphor for the brilliance of the Torah. I think that it is a nice idea, but I have serious doubt whether that is the case. The rabbis themselves gave all sorts of other reasons, some of them stressing the military victory of the Hasmoneans. I think that the two components really come together.