December 22nd, 2008


Hats Off to Hanukkah

It is now the first night of Hanukkah, which is the first Jewish holiday that Gentiles like me often hear about. It's really not that important within Judaism, though, the more significant holidays being the ones mentioned in the Torah. From what I understand, it was made a bigger deal so that Jewish children would have their own holiday to celebrate in place of Christmas. It's also a bit odd to put emphasis on a festival that celebrates the triumph of the priesthood, which of course died out after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. In my own very casual study of early Jewish history, I've noticed a recurring theme of the priests trying to grab as much power as possible. They not only wanted people to worship Yahweh, but that He be the only god worshipped, and sacrifices limited to the Temple in Jerusalem. Kings who complied with this agenda were praised, and ones who didn't vilified. That's why Josiah of Judah is spoken of so highly in the Bible, while Omri of Israel (who led massive public works projects in his country) is viewed unfavorably. And there's a rather ambivalent attitude toward Solomon, who built the Temple but also allowed the worship of foreign gods. [1] Mind you, the kings' hold on power was rather tenuous even at the best of times, and forbidding the practice of all but one religion was probably not the best way to win the approval of the population. The prophets also had a hand in the development of the Jewish religion, with many of them promoting the wacky idea that burning animals might not be quite as important to God as treating each other decently, which became a huge influence on both later Judaism and Christianity. After the destruction of the Temple by Nevercouldnever [2], the system of synagogues came into being to preserve the Jewish belief system, and the religion developed into a more recognizable form. The Temple and priesthood were restored with the Persian conquest of the Babylonian Empire, but when the Greeks in turn conquered the Persians, the notorious King Antiochus Epiphanes despoiled the Temple, and started using it to make sacrifices to Zeus. Some of the Jews of this time were eager to join the new world order introduced by the Greeks, while others preferred to stick to the old-time religion. Hanukkah, as you probably know, is the celebration of the purification of the Temple after the conservative Jews took it back from the Greeks, and of the miracle of one day's worth of oil lasting eight days (as recorded in the Talmud). So, in a way, it was a triumph of one form of intolerance over another, with the reform-minded Jews caught in the middle. A lot of the Jewish revolts in the late BC and very early AD years come across that way to someone like me, who isn't totally sympathetic to Judea, Greece, or Rome. Nonetheless, the victory of the Maccabees is definitely an important event in Jewish history, paving way for the beginning of Judea's first period of autonomous rule in centuries, and the last prior to the twentieth century.

Incidentally, another blog post I read on this period in Jewish history has a title I quite like, "I ♥ Maccabees." {g} Wish I'd thought of that.

[1] And he was a sorcerer with mastery over jinn, according to Arabian folklore.
[2] Hooray for obscure Baum references!