Nature and Jewish Religion: Thoughts for Hanukkah

Most biblically ordained Jewish festivals have a double significance: they have one meaning associated with nature and another meaning associated with Israelite history. The Sabbath commemorates creation, but it is also called zekher litisiat mitsrayim , a commemoration of the Exodus. Passover is the festival of spring and the festival of Israelite freedom; Shavuot is both a harvest festival and the day on which the Torah was given; Sukkot celebrates the ingathering of produce as well as being a reminder for all generations “that I caused the Israelites to dwell in booths  when I took them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).

Hanukkah Exotica: On the Origin and Development of Some Hanukkah Customs*

Most of the laws of Hanukkah are related to the lighting of the menorah or hanukkiya [note]In the Diaspora, the Hanukkah lamp is called a menorah; in Israel it’s called a hannukiya. Technically speaking, the menorah is the seven branched candelabrum which was used in the Tabernacle and in the Temple in ancient times (Exodus 37:17-24; Numbers 8:1-4) and should not be used to describe a Hanukkah lamp.

Second Temple Judaism and the Hannukah Story

The Second Temple period of Jewish history begins with the edict of Cyrus in 538 BCE marking the end of the Babylonian exile. The Persian Empire provided the means and opportunity for restoring Jewish autonomy and rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. This experience of support and recognition heralded almost three and half centuries of political cooperation with the various forces that dominated the Mediterranean basin.

A Hidden Lesson of the Hanukkah Story

This year, the weekly portion of Vayeshev occurs during the holiday of Hanukkah. It seems that, after the fact, this is no accident, because there is a common denominator between the holiday of Hanukkah and the Torah reading of Vayeshev. It can be summed up in a saying of Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel: “All the good of Israel and its survival depends on its unity” (commentary to Judges 21:5).

We were all taught as children that the Maccabees were “the good guys” and the Greeks were “the bad guys”. This is undoubtedly true, as we read in the First Book of Maccabees (1:41-50):

Then the king [=Antiochus] wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs… And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. He directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid… sacrifices… in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and feasts…, to build altars… for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised… And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.

But, according to the Second Book of Maccabbees (Chapters 4-6), the decrees of Antiochus were the result of the senseless hatred among the Jewish leaders at the time, who plotted ceaselessly against one another. Indeed, that story reads like a plot from “Dallas” or “Dynasty”. Jason grabbed the High Priesthood from his brother Onias; Menelaus grabbed it, in turn, from Jason. Onias slandered Menelaus to the authorities, who retaliated by having Onias murdered. Jason then tried to capture Jerusalem by force. As a result, Antiochus thought that the Jews were revolting against him. He captured Jerusalem, killed 80,000 Jews, plundered the Temple, outlawed Jewish practices and defiled the Temple – all on account of the senseless hatred mentioned above.

The lesson of Parashat Vayeshev is the same. If not for the senseless enmity between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph would not have been sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Children of Israel would not have been enslaved there for 400 years. As we read in the tractate of Shabbat (10b):

Rav said: a person should never favor one son over another, for on account of two sela’s weight of wool, which Jacob gave Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers’ descent into Egypt.

History repeated itself in the year 70 c.e., as we have learned in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b): “…but the Second Temple in which they engaged in Torah and mitzvot and acts of loving kindness – why was it destroyed? Because of senseless hatred”. And so we learn from the legends of the Hurban found in the tractate of Gittin (56a). It is related there that there was enough food and wood in Jerusalem for a siege of twenty-one years. The Sages wanted to make peace with Romans while the rebels wanted to fight against them. When the rebels saw that they could not convince the Sages, they burned all of the wheat and barley and a famine ensued. Indeed, this story is confirmed by the stories related by Josephus Flavius (Wars IV, 6, 1-2; V, 1, 1-6).

Our Prophets and Sages understood the danger of disunity and they therefore stressed time after time that unity leads to redemption. In Parashat Vayigash, which tells the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers, the Haftarah is taken from Ezekiel 37. In it, the prophet predicts the reunification of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (v. 16-22):

… take a stick and write on it ‘Of Judah’…and take another stick and write on it ‘Of Joseph – the stick of Ephraim’ … Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick in your hand…Thus said the Lord God: ‘ I am going to take the Israelite people from among the nations… and gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them a single nation in the land’…

And so we have learned in Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber, Nitzavim, pp. 48-49):

… if a person takes a bundle of reeds – can he break them at the same time? But if he takes one at a time, even a child can break them. And so you find that the people of Israel will not be redeemed until they are one bundle…

The State of Israel is now in the midst of an election campaign leading up to elections on January 28th. Election campaigns tend to emphasize disunity. Each candidate and each party want to show how they are different and better that the other and how the other will “divide Jerusalem” or “destroy the State of Israel” or “give the terrorists a State”. During this period of intense disunity, we must remember the lessons of Hanukkah, of Joseph and his brothers, and of the destruction of the Second Temple: disunity leads to destruction and exile; unity leads to redemption. May we remember this lesson as we light the Hanukkah candles. Happy Hanukkah!

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

Were the Maccabees Religious Extremists?

In The Jerusalem Report (December 20, 2001), Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Conservative Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, debates Reconstructionist Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz, of Temple Bnai Israel in Willimantic, Connecticut. The rabbis debate whether or not the Maccabees were religious extremists.

A Halakhic Reaction to the Intifada

In a few weeks we shall observe the holiday of Hannukah, which celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. From a moral point of view, this was a simple war – a foreign invader against the people of Judea, the many against the few, the impure against the pure. The Maccabees killed and defeated thousands of Greek soldiers and nobody would express doubt about the justice of their actions.