Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.
In the Torah commentary of the Sefat Emet ("Language of Truth"), Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger describes Hanukkah and Purim as holidays that the Jewish people "merited by their own deeds" rather than received through the commandments of the written Torah. They each represent a celebration of Jewish peoplehood; and as such, they are particularly open to interpretation and reinterpretation from both secular and religious viewpoints.
Early Zionists such as Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) adopted Hanukkah in particular as a celebration of Jewish national strength. In the succeeding years, Hanukkah has received unique Israeli interpretations as a national holiday, with symbols and themes given new meanings. These popular Israeli Hanukkah songs show some of the nation’s perspectives on the holiday.
The military victory and subsequent autonomous reign of the Hasmoneans provided an important example for the early Zionists, and these historical highlights continue to be important to the modern state. Jews regard the Hasmonean dynasty as a reference point of pride–the most recent period of autonomous Jewish rule in the Land of Israel until the founding of the State of Israel.
Early in the 20th century, the song "Who Can Retell?" ("Mi Yemalel?") was written to celebrate the deeds of humans in bringing about both the victory of the Maccabees and the hoped for victory of people In modern times. This song references Psalms 106:2, which celebrates God’s mighty acts. The biblical verse was transformed into lyrics that extol the mighty acts of Israel. The Maccabees are described in the sons as bringing redemption and salvation, two acts usually associated with God.
Such a bold celebration of a human-centered, military victory can challenge both Rabbinic and Diaspora sensibilities. The talmudic Rabbis downplayed the role of military might and lifted up the role of God in their celebration of Hanukkah. In the contemporary Diaspora, celebrations of might are sometimes similarly viewed as lacking in proper humility or spirituality.
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