A Megillah for Hanukkah?

Many communities in the past read a scroll on Hanukkah, and the author recommends reviving a form of the custom.

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Chanting the Purim megillah (scroll) is a central part of that festival. The author of this piece examines the history of a similar custom for Hanukkah and recommends enacting a modern version of this tradition: Reading the First Book of Maccabees, an ancient work that was not included in the canonical Hebrew Bible but which has survived and is studied by many scholars nonetheless. Excerpted with permission from the website of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

 There is one custom which we would expect to find on Hanukkah that is missing–the reading of a scroll in public. After all, on Purim we read the Scroll of Esther every year in order to publicize the miracle. Why don’t we read a scroll on Hanukkah in order to publicize the miracles which God wrought for our ancestors in the days of Matityahu [the priest central to the Hanukkah story] and his sons [the Maccabees]?

The result is that most Jews only know the legend about the miracle of the cruse of oil (Shabbat 21b) and not about the actual military victories of the Maccabees.

The Scroll

The answer is that, in truth, there is such a scroll that was read in private or in public between the ninth and 20th centuries. It is called “The Scroll of Antiochus” and many other names, and it was written in Aramaic during the Talmudic period and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages. The book describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of the Maccabees and Shabbat 21b, with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis whatsoever.

The scroll is first mentioned by Halakhot Gedolot, which was written by Shimon Kayara in Babylon ca. 825 C.E.: “The elders of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel wrote Megillat Bet Hashmonay [the scroll of the Hasmonean House]…” Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) calls it “kitab benei hashmonay,” the book of the sons of the Hasmoneans, and he also translated it into Arabic. Rav Nissim Gaon (North Africa, 990-1062) calls it in Arabic “the scroll of the sons of the Hasmoneans.”

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Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

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