Thursday, December 09, 2010

When Chanuccah fell out of fashion

It's the last day of Chanuccah, so I'm going to sneak in one last festival-related post.

Prof Moshe Benovitz of the Schechter Institute has written a fascinating piece on the early(-ish) history of Channucah. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the third Century, he says, Channucah became primarily a diaspora festival, celebrated in Babylon. Back in the land of Israel, observance of it practically disappeared. The reason, he contends, was
the destruction itself, which quite naturally cast a shadow on a holiday celebrating the purification and dedication of the Temple years earlier.... This is to be expected: Is it conceivable that a mere few months after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE Jews gathered to celebrate the purification and rededication of that same Temple 234 years earlier? Is it conceivable that in the shadow of the destruction Jews would continue to joyously mark a period of independence that ended 107 yeas earlier, when all hope for its renewal has been shattered?

In Babylonia, however, where the effect of the destruction of the Temple on religious and political life was minimal, Hanukkah was thought of as a historical celebration, akin to Purim... The sense of irony which would have accompanied such celebration after the destruction of the Temple in Eretz Israel was naturally less vivid in the diaspora.
So why did the festival re-appear in Israel in the third century? Relying on some slighly creative textual reading, Prof Benovitz speculates that it had to do with the Palmyrene (Syrian) soldiers in the country, who were set upon conquering Roman Palestine, and eventually did so.
It would seem that during the Palmyrene Syrian occupation Rabbi Yohanan revived the celebration of Hanukkah in Palestine, and specifically the ritual of kindling the Hanukkah lights, as a sign of identification with the political and military struggle against the new Syrian occupying power, whose queen mocked the God Israel. This struggle reminded him of the Hasmonean rebellion against Syrian rule in Palestine hundreds of years earlier. He insisted that the Hanukkah lights be kindled until the Palmyrene troops leave the marketplace, in order to make the Palmyrenes aware of the miraculous victory of the forefathers in their earlier struggle against Syrian rule.
An interesting reminder that halachah - Jewish law - and Jewish traditions are far less static than many of us today in the Orthodox camp wish to acknowledge. And also, of the changing relevance of Chanuccah throughout the ages; far from being the simple festival some people treat it as today, it is in fact brimming with meaningful themes on which successive generations can draw (except, I suppose, 1st-3rd Century Palestinian Jews, for whom Chanuccah was simply too painful). Howard Jacobson, take note.

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