Feature Stories Latest MA Jewish Life US/World News

Everything you never knew about Chanukah

Chanukah: The untold story
By Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org
During the eight days of Chanukah, traditional Jews add the following to their daily prayers: “In the days of Mattathias the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece set upon your nation Israel to make them forget your  teachings, and to remove them from the laws you desire, you in your great mercy…gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure.”
Sound familiar? The little history lesson in this prayer is probably very close to the story of Judah Maccabee and King Antiochus you remember from Hebrew school: The underdog heroes attain a miraculous victory over the powerful villains against all odds, winning back their religious freedom and purifying the defiled temple in Jerusalem.

Mattathias, who led the Maccabees in revolt. Credit: PD

That’s the short story. The longer version is not quite as heartwarming or morally clear-cut. Ancient historical records, especially the little known Book of Maccabees, actually tell of a bitter and bloody internal conflict that pitted Jew against Jew in a fight for political and religious domination.
Towards the end of the fourth century BCE, Greek Hellenistic culture had spread to every part of Alexander the Great’s massive empire, and Judea was no exception. Certain Jews, mainly those belonging to the wealthy elite of Jerusalem, enthusiastically embraced the offerings of this culture — Greek names and dress, the gymnasium, even the Greek gods — and curried the favor of Alexander’s heirs, the ruling Seleucids, in return for their cooperation. The poorer farming communities of the rural Judean countryside, however, resisted the changes that were sweeping the ancient world, unwilling to give up the traditional Jewish beliefs and customs of their ancestors.
The focal point of the conflict was often the high priesthood, which at the time was
the most powerful office in the land.
Tensions boiled over when Hellenized Jews paid Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes to replace the reigning high priest with a Hellenist sympathizer who was not born of the priestly line. At the time, explains famed Jewish historian Solomon Grayzel, Antiochus’ actions were economically and politically motivated, and had nothing to do with suppressing Jewish religion. There is no record of him imposing anti-Jewish policies
on the many diaspora Jewish communities under his rule. However, when Antiochus’ power play sparked an uprising in and
around Jerusalem, he reacted harshly by banning circumcision and observance of dietary laws within Judea, and erecting a statue of Zeus in the Holy Temple.
Now the growing rift in Judean society blew wide open. Hellenized Jews not only supported the repressive policy, but also helped Antiochus’ men violently enforce it in the traditional Judean villages. In response, when the traditionalists rose up under the leadership of Mattathias, their fury was directed at their Hellenized countrymen. Fearing for their lives, well-connected Hellenists called upon the Seleucid armies for protection, and it is with the ensuing battle that the well-known version of the Chanukah story begins.

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


The Maccabees & Jewish athletics
By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Basketball players from Maccabi Tel Aviv huddle up.

Jewish athletes from around the world gather every four years in Israel for the Olympic-style Maccabiah Games, not to mention the annual JCC Maccabi Youth Games in America. Most Israeli professional basketball and soccer teams preface their names with “Maccabi” (perhaps most notably the hoopsters of Maccabi Tel Aviv), and the athletic teams from Yeshiva University (YU) are dubbed — you guessed it — the Maccabees.
Does all of this mean Judah the Maccabee was a superstar athlete back in the day?
Actually, history suggests just the opposite. The story of Chanukah was one in which the Jews — seeking to “Hellenize” — started to adopt Greek sports, only to have the anti-assimilationist Maccabees buck that trend as well as others that blended Jewish and secular lifestyles.
“Calling Jewish sports teams Maccabees is a contradiction in terms because the historic Maccabees were anti-sports,” YU professor of Jewish History Jeffrey Gurock told JointMedia News Service (JNS). He explained that the Maccabees’ goal was to “return back [to tradition], go away from these outside influences.”
Instead, Gurock said, the modern usage of the Maccabee moniker can be traced to 1898, when social Darwinist Max Nordau — founder of the Jewish athletic movement — coined the term “muscular Judaism” (muskel-Judenthum) at the Second Zionist Congress. Nordau believed the existence of strong and physically fit Jews could defeat the classic stereotype that Jews are physically weak and instead depend solely on their wit.
The great rabbinic figures of the Middle Ages were concerned with physical fitness, but sports remained “something foreign to Jewish culture” at the time, Gurock said. Nordau wanted to emulate Jews who fought against the world and were successful, and historically speaking, that was found most prominently in the story of Chanukah.
“The only examples we have of Jews who were strong and successful were really the Maccabees,” said Gurock, who is also the author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports” (2005).
From that point on, Gurock said the name Maccabees became a “badge of honor” for Jews pursuing sports. The same year as the Second Zionist Congress, Jews in Berlin founded the Bar Kochba athletics association, after which Jews in Eastern Europe (Galicia, Bulgaria) followed suit, according to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Russia’s Maccabi society joined the fray in 1913, and in the 1930s Poland’s Maccabi federation included 30,000 Jewish athletes in 250 clubs. Before World War II, “probably every European country from Poland on east had some sort of Maccabee team, or Maccabea club,” Gurock said, representing “an expression of Zionist pride.”
The trend continues today, with numerous Jewish sports teams calling themselves Maccabees or something similar — including the teams at YU. That led Gurock to another question: Since YU is an Orthodox institution, shouldn’t it call its teams the “non-Maccabees,” to accurately represent the anti-assimilationist protagonists of the Chanukah story? Not quite. “What we like in modern times [about the historic Maccabees] are not so much their religious values, but their success in competing against the world,” Gurock said.
Though the original Maccabees were against the concept of organized athletics, Gurock noted that they were still the first Jewish group to raise the question of “How can you be Jewish and engage in a foreign cultural activity called sports?” He explained that in ancient times, sports were associated with pagan culture and ritual rites, but in modern times, “the great challenge is to integrate that foreign cultural phenomenon called sports into Jewish culture, so that the two can live side by side, which is often a difficult task.” The Maccabees ultimately decided that mixing sports with their Jewish lifestyle would be too inconsistent, Gurock said.
“It’s not today a defiance of tradition, it’s appropriating the idea of struggle, of success and virility, and power, which is emblematic of sports,” Gurock said.
The name Maccabees fits, Gurock explained, because the university is particularly proud of its Zionist orientation.
“It’s the only place outside of Israel where before every game both the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah are played,” he said. “So what more can you say?”

Jacob Kamaras is editor in chief of JointMedia News Service (JNS).


Dreidel:  Fun Facts
By Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org
The word dreidel is Yiddish, and comes from the German verb dreihen, meaning “to spin.” Dreidel literally means “little spinner.” The first dreidel players were Yiddish speaking Jews in medieval Europe. In fact, playing with tops has been a popular pastime across Western Europe since at least the 16th century!
Many believe that the four letters on the dreidel – nun, gimel, hay, and shin – were taken from the Hebrew expression “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miraculous events of the Chanukah story in ancient Israel. Really, this meaning was added later on—the letters originally represented the Yiddish instructions for what to do when you land on each one (Yiddish and Hebrew use the same alphabet): Gimel for gantz, “whole”: take the whole pot; hay for halb, “half”: take half the pot; nun for nisht, “nothing”: don’t take out or put in; and shin for shtehl einl, “put in”: put some of your coins into the pot.
As the dreidel became a symbol associated with Chanukah, many legends began to stem from it, like this one: When Antiochus decreed that Jewish law may no longer be studied in public, righteous Jews defied him and continued to teach Torah to their children. When they saw the king’s henchman coming, groups of students would quickly hide their books and bring out their dreidels, pretending that they had merely gathered for a bit of fun and gambling.
Recently dreidel spinning has become a competitive sport! The group Major League Dreidel hosts tournaments each year in New York City and crowns a champion for the longest-lasting continuous spin.

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Kidz Kabbalat: Getting into Prayer with Young Jewish Families
Day School Round-Up
Celebration and Inspiration: Federation Annual Meeting Set for Sept. 30

Comments are closed.