Chanukah is now upon us. It represents a time to tell young children the age-old story about the brave, mighty and greatly outnumbered Maccabees who saved the Jews from the cruel King Antiochus, and also about the lean, mean Greeks who sought to destroy them. The story goes on to tell how, after defeating the Greeks, the Maccabees entered the defiled Temple in Jerusalem and found only one pure cruse of oil. That oil, which should have only lit the menorah for one day, miraculously lasted for a whopping eight days, until more pure oil could be produced.
So we gather for eight days, beginning with the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, to retell the story of Chanukah, which is also known as the festival of rededication.
But there's a problem with this story — and it's a big one.
According to Rabbi Robyn Frisch, rabbi educator at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, who recently spoke on the legend and lore surrounding Chanukah, it just didn't happen that way.
The Story Behind the Story
Frisch gave a lecture titled, "Chanukah: The Real Story and How Its Telling Has Changed Over the Years," which drew about two-dozen people to Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood on Sunday.
The rabbi's talk, part of the ongoing Hassel Adult Education Lecture series held at the temple, examined the facts versus the fiction behind the story told year after year during the holiday.
Frisch explained that throughout history, the Chanukah story was changed. Each person who told the story during a particular setting had his or her own agenda, and thus emphasized certain details over others or changed historical facts here and there to suit the needs of the Jewish people at the particular moment.
Unlike other Jewish holidays, the Chanukah story is not found in the Mishnah, the rabbi explained, and it's a combination of accounts from different historical sources that have become "our inherited story."
The military victory the holiday recalls comes from Books 1 and 2 Maccabees, part of the Apocrypha text, from around the year 100 C.E. Al Hanissim, the prayer recited as part of the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon during Chanukah, explains that the holiday should be celebrated to recount the miracles and victories that God has brought to the Jewish people. Centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud (the teachings of third- to sixth-century scholars in Babylonia) added the miracle of the oil to the commonly told story.
Frisch noted that the Chanukah story took on more significance as time passed; it became another example of how the Jews won over a much larger group — a theme echoed in both Exodus and in stories of Purim.
Another example of how the retelling of the Chanukah events has changed over time involves the story of Hannah and her seven sons, which is also retold during the days of Chanukah.
Hannah was commanded by the Syrian-Greeks to pray to an idol of Zeus. Her sons refused to do so and thus were slaughtered. Soon after, Hannah herself died.
Hannah's story was not emphasized until the Middle Ages, according to Frisch. She noted that during the Middle Ages — a period of religious martyrdom — the rabbis at the time told Hannah's story to present this mother as a genuine heroine, who, along with her sons, were examples of what veritable martyrs should be.
Frisch pointed out that in the United States today, the Chanukah story is most often used to highlight religious pluralism.
Ironically, however, the Maccabees weren't fighting against the Syrian-Greeks for religious freedom. Despite the oft-repeated tale of a small band of people winning a war against a more powerful enemy, the Maccabees, then known as the Hasmoneans, were religious zealots fighting against Jews (the Hellenists), who had been assimilated into Syrian-Greek culture during the Seleucid dynasty, and accepted idol-worship and other Syrian-Greek ways of life. It was actually a civil war, with the Hasmoneans waging guerrilla warfare against their fellow kind.
Most people don't realize how much tension existed among the Jews back then, said Frisch, as the Hasmoneans were unwilling to accept Jews who worshipped differently then they did.
She added that the Maccabees should not be held as models of those who fought for religious freedom.
The message to be learned, stressed Frisch, is that it's okay to practice Judaism in different ways, and "we can aspire to be more tolerant ourselves."
Though the events associated with Chanukah took place more than 2,200 years ago, the modern-day miracle, she insisted, is that "here we are, still celebrating this holiday," still telling the story.