A Very Great Thing Happened Here

The Feast of Lights begins at sundown tonight. A rather humorous modern take on the miracle of Hanukkah says, “OK, your phone is down to ten percent and it lasts eight days, until you can find a plug. That’s Hanukkah.”

[Waits for sighing and head-shakes to finish.]

In a way, Hanukkah goes back to Alexander the Great, and the generals who divided his empire after his death. The Greeks recognized that the Children of Israel had an ancient religion (as the Romans would also do, later.) However, they didn’t appreciate certain Jews insisting that their way was the only way and the that Greek administrators could just stay out of the way.

At first the Greeks did, until the question of taxes came up. To make a complicated story short, some Jews balked at paying taxes that went to pay for Gentile religious sacrifices, among other things. The Greeks, under Antiochus, decided to force the matter by making the Seleuicd empire unified in law, taxes, and religion. That meant eliminating minority outliers like Judaism, especially once the Romans started meddling in the region as well.

The result was the Maccabee Revolt, and the need to purify the temple in Jerusalem after the Greeks defiled it. One of the things needed was ritually pure oil for the sacred lamp. Enough was found for one night. It lasted for eight, until sufficient oil could be found, ritually purified, and brought to the temple. This is the miracle of Hanukkah, the sign that G-d was with His people still.

Hanukkah wasn’t a major observation on the Jewish calendar, not like Christmas was/is for Christianity.  Since the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, it has taken on more meanings for contemporary Judaism, and although not as central as the High Holy Days and Passover, it has gained a new importance.


11 thoughts on “A Very Great Thing Happened Here

  1. Yep, interesting ‘twist’ if you will… And NO cell will ever last 8 days… sigh 8 hours maybe…

  2. Didn’t they have to make the oil ritually pure, which took a full week and a day?

    Not that it makes it any less amazing, and ‘8’ still has the symbolic meaning that’s something like infinity, enough and more, etc.

  3. Jewish rulers of ancient Israel and Judea faced a chronic geopolitical problem: They were between Egypt and whoever was ruling Mesopotamia. There were no good choices, only temporarily less bad choices of which empire to affiliate with—on the occasions when they had any choice at all.

    The way this pattern played out after Alexander the Great died is where the Hanukkah story fits in. Ptolemy (one of Alexander’s generals) and his descendants ruled over Egypt – and over the Jewish homeland. This dynasty was relatively tolerant of Jews and Judaism.

    Another of Ptolemy’s generals ran the region centering on Mesopotamia; he founded the Seleucid dynasty. After a struggle with the Ptolemies, the Seleucids took over rule of the Holy Land. By then, Greek culture had taking wealthy and sophisticated Jews by storm. These mostly urban elites deplored their poorer and/or rustic brethren. Some Jews considered the new culture to be so superior to Judaism that, in order to be allowed to work out nekkid in the gymnasia (the center of social and business life,) they underwent surgery to reverse their circumcisions and embraced idolatry during the Seleucid period. The traditionalists, bitterly clinging to their spears and religion, disagreed. The elites asked for help from the Seleucids, who were only too happy to enforce the religious uniformity decrees. Unexpectedly, under the leadership of the Maccabees, the Seleucids were driven back.

    Once they won, the Maccabees realized they couldn’t go it alone; they needed a great power affiliation. The Seleucids were not happy with them, the Ptolemies were losers. But at this time there was a third major player: Rome was on the march. The Maccabees let the Roman camel’s nose under the tent flap. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    In celebration of a day’s worth of the remaining day’s worth of ritually purified oil miraculously lasting long enough to light the (seven branched) menorah in the Temple for the eight days it took to prepare more oil, we light an eight branched Hanukkiah, and eat starches fried in oil. Starchy root vegetables, for example, though the potato hadn’t yet arrived on the scene.

    Jews were not just in the outer reaches of the Roman empire, but in Italy itself. Courtesy of one of Edda Servi Machlin’s cookbooks, here’s one of the things they ate to celebrate Hanukkah:

    Edda Servi Machlin’s Fritelle di Hanukkah 
    * 2 1/2 cups unbleached flour + more to flour work surface
    * 2 envelopes active dry yeast
    * 1 teaspoon kosher salt
    * 2 teaspoons anise seeds, crushed
    * 1 cup dark seedless raisins
    * 1 cup warm water
    * 2 tablespoons olive oil + more for frying
    * 1 1/2 cup honey
    * 1/4 cup lemon juice or to taste
    Instructions: Combine 2 1/2 cups flour with the yeast, salt, anise seeds and raisins. Gradually add warm water and olive oil until a pliable dough is formed. Turn out on a floured surface and knead 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. Shape dough into a ball on a floured board, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour, until more than doubled in bulk.
    With the palms of your hands, deflate dough and pat to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Oil the blade of a long, sharp knife and cut dough into 36 diamond shapes. Let rest, uncovered, 15-20 minutes.
    In a wide, shallow pan, add 1 1/2″ of oil. Heat until the temperature reaches 365° on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry in batches so as not to crowd pan, turning once, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
    Meanwhile, heat the honey and lemon juice in a small saucepan and allow to boil for 3 minutes. Place drained fritters on a serving platter and pour the hot syrup over them.
    Serve as soon as possible, with plenty of paper napkins.

    • A lot of groups saw Rome as the temporary lesser evil. Alas for a lot of groups, Rome didn’t have the same opinion.

      Judea was a lot like Poland – stuck between powerful imperial neighbors and lacking serious natural defenses. That’s not a historically happy place to be.

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