Author Archives: Noam Zion

Noam Zion

About Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The Book of Second Maccabees

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The four Books of Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, they provide the historical information concerning the Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean rule. 

In contrast to First Maccabees, the book of Second Maccabees is a summary of a history written originally in Greek for Diaspora Hellenistic Jews living in the Greek-speaking area in Egypt. The Jews to whom the book was addressed were both loyal to their nation and its new Hasmonean state and yet faithful subjects of the kingdoms of the Greek dynasty of Ptolemies in Egypt. Jason of Cyrene wrote the original five-volume history of the Maccabees which was later summarized by anonymous “epitomizer” in Second Maccabees. The original has not been preserved.

The author of First Maccabees, who wrote for Judeans, sought to promote the legitimacy of the Hasmonean priesthood and its political rule. However, Second Maccabees seeks to explain to Diaspora Jews and Greeks alike that the Maccabean revolt was not the result of an inevitable clash of two cultures–Hellenism and Judaism–or of two peoples, Hellenes and Jews. The bloodshed was really unnecessarily caused by an unholy alliance between money-hungry so-called priests and irrational Greek leaders who caused the desecration of an ancient Temple and the persecution of a legally protected religion. The Jewish villains, Jason and Menelaus, threatened the peace of the city by undermining traditional Greek respect for native religious and legal practice. Greek readers, who always respected ancient traditions, were sure to condemn these Jewish innovators who wrought havoc.

In Second Maccabees there is a unique emphasis on religious martyrdom — Hannah and her seven sons, and Elazar the elderly scribe are presented as philosophers rationally defending the decision to die rather than to abandon their ancestral faith. Their deaths are seen not only as a way to sanctify God’s name, but as a way to vicariously remove the sins of Israel and to evoke a supernatural intervention by God. This new phenomenon of religious martyrdom reflects the kind of religious loyalty valued in particular in the Diaspora. Their voluntary, tortured deaths assuage God’s wrath over the desecration of the Temple by false high priests and explain Judah’s victories as God’s salvation in response to the death of the Jewish martyrs as well as God’s appropriate punishment for Antiochus IV’s insufferable arrogance(II Maccabees 9).
Supernatural intervention abounds in Second Maccabees, while religiously motivated military initiatives are emphasized in First Maccabees. (The miracle of the vessel of oil that burned for eight days is never mentioned in any of the Books of the Maccabees, and it appears only in later Rabbinic sources.) The literary style chosen by Jason of Cyrene highlights the martyrdom. It is a melodramatic Greek style that describes graphically the death of innocent children, women and old men. It seeks to shock the audience with tear-jerking violence and to inspire the reader with heroic resolve to suffer horrendous torture rather than commit idolatry.

The summary of Jason of Cyrene was created by someone seeking to legitimize the celebration of Hanukkah in Ptolemaic Hellenistic Egypt. Therefore the anonymous “epitomizer” (summarizer) provides an abbreviated history with two letters written in 142 BCE by newly independent Judea to the Diaspora Jews in Egypt. The letters call upon their brothers to observe Hanukkah as the holiday of the rededication of the Temple.

Reprinted with permission of the author from A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute and Devora Publishing.

The Book of First Maccabees

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The four Books of Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, they provide the historical information concerning the Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean rule. 

First Maccabees (written circa 134-104 BCE and describing the period of 166-135 BCE) is devoted to presenting the Maccabean dynasty, from Mattathias through his son Judah, to Jonathan and Simon who became high priests and gained political independence. First Maccabees was written in Hebrew (though it is only preserved today in Greek) for a Judean audience in a Biblical style that emphasizes how God chose the Hasmonean family to save Israel. First Maccabees is in a way reminiscent of the book of Judges (the Maccabees are “those men into whose hand the salvation of Israel was given” [I Maccabees 5:62]). Many original prayers, speeches, and poems embedded in First Maccabees reflect the strong religious feelings of the new rulers.

 The book may have been designed to legitimate the Hasmonean dynasty in the face of two internal objections rooted in the worldview reported a generation before the revolt by Ben Sira:

“Praise the God who planted the seed of the House of David!

Praise the God who chose the children of Zadok the priest” (Ben Sira/Ecclesiasticus 51:28-29).

(1) Mattathias is not a direct descendant of the Zadok family of high priests chosen in the days of David, with whose descendants Jason and Alcimus were implicated in the Hellenist reforms in the Temple.

(2) The Hasmonean dynasty of priests cannot be the descendants of King David who came from the tribe of Judah.

However, the narrative of First Maccabees implicitly answers these objections:

(1) The author describes Mattathias’ action and his rallying call, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Law and who remains faithful to the Covenant, follow me”( I Maccabees 2:27).He uses terms directly analogous to Moses and the Levi tribe at the Golden Calf and Pinchas the zealous priest. They both attacked public desecrators of Jewish worship. In the Bible both the tribe of Levi and Pinchas himself are rewarded for their zealous action by being granted a special status in the Temple worship. Pinchas is even promised what most commentators understand as the high priesthood. Similarly, in Mattathias’s case, zealous action in the face of desecration earns the volunteer the dynastic right to the priesthood for their children after them.

(2) Second Maccabees legitimates the political claims of the Hasmonean dynasty by describing at length the people’s assembly that ratified Simon’s claim to the high priesthood and the governorship. The Greek Syrians acknowledge Simon’s claim by granting him the “purple cloth and the gold clasp,” while the Jewish people immortalize their agreement to Simon’s rule by engraving the agreement on brass tablets set in pillars on Mount Zion. Yet Simon never claimed to displace David’s house, therefore he never took the title “king” and left the agreement as a temporary one “until the true prophet will come.” (I Maccabees 14:41) First Maccabees also emphasizes the international recognition accorded the Hasmonean declaration of independence by quoting no less than nine royal documents from Greek Syria, Rome, and Sparta. (This concern for legitimacy recalls the Zionist concern to obtain the Balfour Declaration, November 2, 1917, and the United Nations recognition on November 29, 1947.)

Interestingly enough, First Maccabees plays down the religious and political civil war that the Maccabees fought with the Zadokite priests and the Hellenizers. Rather it emphasizes the unity of the people around the inspiring religious figure of Judah the Maccabee who is described as a heros (military warrior) and soter (savior of his political community). The true villain is Antiochus IV — the emperor who seeks to homogenize his empire’s many ethnic and religious groups into one loyal Hellenistic kingdom. (“The king ordered all his kingdom to become one people.” [I Maccabees 1:44])

Probably the author of First Maccabees supported the Hasmonean court and believed his book continued the biblical tradition of Chronicles.

Reprinted with permission from A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah published by the Shalom Hartman Institute and Devora Publishing.

How Passover Customs Have Changed and Developed Over Time

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Who Pours the Wine?

On Passover the Rabbis asked us to play a double role — remembering our slave status by eating the bread of poverty and bitter herbs, yet reiterating the freed status that we achieved on this very night in Egypt. How does one behave in a style befitting a free being?

The Rabbis took their cues from Greco-Roman citizens, a privileged minority whose freedom and dignity were displayed in their participation in elegant symposia [meals that featured intellectual discussion]. Aristocratic dining meant reclining on cushioned couches, sipping excellent wines with hors d’ouevres dipped in appetizing sauces eaten from one’s finest silver and ceramic dishes while conducting a leisurely intellectual exchange of views according to a well-known format set by the host. (The term “school” derives from the Greek word for leisure, “schole“).

On seder night, the Rabbis require this format from even the poorest Jews. Practically speaking, this means that the community tzedakah [charity] fund must provide at least four cups of wine for needy men and women. All must be able to celebrate their freedom with the same basic material comforts, because “all Israel are regarded as children of kings.” For that reason it is customary that someone else pour your wine for you, just as aristocrats are served while reclining.

However, we must note the vigorous dissent from this custom by Rabbi Y. M. Epstein (Poland, 19th century). He feared it would lead to what a contemporary might call blatant sexism or the exploitation of women to pour wine for the men:

“It is haughty and arrogant to order one’s wife to serve him wine. After all, he is no more obligated to drink wine than she. Therefore, we ask that everyone pour for him or herself.”

Why Recline?

One of the Four Questions is “Why on seder night must we eat reclining, while on all other nights we may eat either reclining or sitting up?” Clearly the question presupposes a social world in which, as in the Greco-Roman nobility, meals were often taken while the guests reclined on their left arms on couches, leaving their right hand free to dip and taste. At each couch was a small table with individual portions, like today’s seder plate.

However, since the European Middle Ages, it is no longer the way of nobility to recline. In fact, eating while reclining on pillows is the way of the sick. Avi HaEzri led the Ashkenazi tradition in declaring the commandment to recline obsolete and no longer binding (Rabbi Eliezer Ben Joel, 12th-century Germany).

All things considered, we commend the view of Rabbi Y. M. Epstein that everyone should be provided with a pillow precisely because it is an outmoded and outlandish custom. For the point of the seder is to introduce changes into the meal, so the children will be roused to ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” By the same token it would be ideal for everyone to have his or her own seder plate.

How Many Matzot?

Though most contemporary rabbis sanction the use of three matzot at the seder, the Gaon of Vilna (18th century) insisted that only two matzot be used.

For the two-matzah tradition, matzah is primarily a recollection of poverty. While on all other holidays we eat from two whole loaves, here we eat from one broken matzah and one whole one. [At Yahatz, one matzah is broken in two, with one part set aside or hidden.] The seder re-enacts our common suffering, out of which we generate our solidarity and our moral commitment to the stranger and the deprived. The concern for the outsider breaks into our family banquet symbolically in the form of a broken matzah marring our sense of wholeness.

While even the three-matzah tradition includes one broken matzah, it chiefly emphasizes the seder as a Thanksgiving Dinner. The three matzot recall the minimal thanksgiving offering describedin the Torah (Leviticus 7:12). That offering wasshared within a community of friends and relatives; the hosts praised God who had redeemed them from illness, imprisonment, or danger (Psalm 107:22). On Pesach, families retell how their children were threatened by Pharaoh and how they suffered degradation and injustice in Egypt. While sharing the thanksgiving offering of matzah, they sing Hallel to thank God.

The two-matzah tradition makes this evening resemble a communal “Solidarity-with-the-Poor Box Lunch,” while the three-matzah tradition is reminiscent of a family “Thanksgiving NightBanquet.”

The Afikoman

The Mishnah explicitly forbids “completing the Pesach seder with an afikoman” (Pesachim 10:8).But in today’s parlance we always consummate the seder meal with the eating of what we call “the afikoman”–a piece of matzah. How on earth can we explain this? What does the Greek term “afikoman” mean?

To the Talmudist Rav it was clear: “Afikoman” is the Greek custom of going around from house to house on the night of a celebration. This procession (“komon”) held after (“epi”) the formal symposium, involved dropping in at friends’ homes and probably joining them for dessert. However, on seder night in the days of the Temple, one was allowed to eat only with one’s pre-arranged dinner partners (havurah) who had subscribed to the sacrifice of that Pesach lamb in advance. The lamb was offered in their name and no one could join their dinner gathering as an afterthought.

Therefore, on Pesach the Rabbis forbade the Greek practice of a post-symposium procession from group to group, an “afikoman”that might lead people to eat from a Pesach sacrifice not meant for them.

So how, we may ask, did the Greek “epikomon” become today’s matzah? The Talmudists Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan understood the word “afikoman” to mean “dessert.” They read the Mishnah this way: “It is forbidden to eat afikoman (i.e., dessert) after eating the Pesach lamb” since that is the last and most important item on the menu, and its aftertaste should remain in our mouth all night.

Later the term afikoman was applied to the special dessert that was mandated at the seder –matzah eaten in lieu of the bite of Pesach lamb that concluded the meal in Temple times.

Reprinted with permission from A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Believing In Miracles

Reprinted with permission from
A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah
published by the Shalom Hartman Institute and Devora Publishing.

The Rabbis speak of two different kinds of miracles that the menorah proclaims. We must decide whether to believe in and propagate either. 

The Miracle of the Oil

The miracle recalled in the Talmud speaks of a cruse of oil that burned for eight days instead of one. That is a supernatural miracle violating the laws of nature. Taken literally, it promotes a belief in supernatural intervention. It may even denigrate human effort. Perhaps that kind of belief explains why Lubavitch Hasidim refused to wear gas masks during the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel in 1991 when chemical warheads were feared.

However, David Hartman argues that the miracle of oil is only a symbol that arouses human faith. When human beings are willing to believe that more is possible than meets the eye, then they will invest in historical projects like the Maccabean Revolt and the Declaration of the Independence of Israel in 1948 even against all odds. Our presupposition that a cruse of oil cannot burn for eight days, that it is a natural impossibility, is only a symbol of the mistaken belief in the historical impossibility of change.

The Miracles of the Few Against the Many

Even if we cannot embrace the miracle of the cruse of oil, the Rabbis offered a different kind of miracle to celebrate. The Rabbinic prayer for Hanukkah, Al Hanisim, ignores the miracle of the oil and speaks of a general phenomenon possible in every generation whereby God helps human beings to bring about miraculous rescues from historical oppressors. This belief in God’s miracles does not undermine human effort but causes it to redouble. The miracle is “natural” within the realm of historical possibility, yet inconceivable and unattainable by oppressed peoples who don’t believe in its possibility.

In the Exodus from Egypt, God initiates the miracles for a passive, despairing people of slaves. However, on Hanukkah, first the martyrs like Hannah and then the zealots and the warriors initiate the redemptive process. In a world where God seems eclipsed, where there are no supernatural signs and no prophets, where the leading priests accepted Hellenism as a boon, the Maccabees bear witness to another dimension. They evaluate the world differently and they believe in a Divine power whose hidden will becomes manifest. The Rabbis celebrated the political and military manifestation of God’s miracle in the Maccabees’ victory.

Haneirot Hallalu: These Hanukkah Lights We Light

This article is reprinted with permission from A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration published by the Shalom Hartman Institute and Devora Publishing.

Haneirot Hallalu — literally “These Candles” —  is sung after the Hanukkah candle-lighting. The song declares that the candles are holy and that their sole purpose is to commemorate the events of Hanukkah. Unlike the Shabbat candles, they may not be used as a source of light.

READ: Hanukkah Song and Music Guide

The halakhic [Jewish legal] warning “Haneirot Hallalu” is derived from the late Talmudic Tractate Soferim. The point is to warn the family not to use the light of these 36 Hanukkah candles (lit over eight days, not counting the shamash, or helper candle).

In fact, some versions of this section include exactly 36 words after the opening phrase: “Haneirot Hallalu,” which can be understood playfully as “these candles are LU [or rather, the Hebrew letters lamed and vav] = 30 + 6.” The Hebrew and Greek letters function also as numbers, so words can be translated into numbers using a system called “gematria.”

The holiness of the candles derives from their being dedicated to recalling the divine miracle of rescue from the Greeks and the lighting of the Temple menorah at the original rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees. Unlike Shabbat candles, which are meant to light up the meal at the table and to create a peaceful, sociable atmosphere, Hanukkah candles are placed at the doorway or windowsill as symbols for passersby.

READ: What You Need to Know About the Hanukkah Story

Since this is their purpose, unlike other lamps in the house, their light may not be used. As the Shulchan Aruch [the standard code of Jewish law] rules: “One may not use the Hanukkah candle even for another holy task like studying Torah [or making havdalah on the Saturday evening during Hanukkah]. However, some rabbis [from Provence, France] permit secondary holy uses.”

How to Play Dreidel

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The Hebrew word for dreidel is sevivon, which, as in Yiddish, means “to turn around.” Dreidels have four Hebrew letters on them, and they stand for the saying, Nes gadol haya sham, meaning A great miracle occurred there. In Israel, instead of the fourth letter shin, there is a peh, which means the saying is Nes gadol haya po — A great miracle occurred here.

READ: A Synopsis of the Hanukkah Story

Playing with the dreidel is a traditional Hanukkah game played in Jewish homes all over the world, and rules may vary. Here’s how to play the basic dreidel game:

1. Any number of people can take part.

2. Each player begins the game with an equal number of game pieces (about 10-15) such as pennies, nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, matchsticks, etc.

3. At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center “pot.” In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot.

4. Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the side it lands on, you give or get game pieces from the pot. For those who don’t read Hebrew, some dreidels also feature a transliteration of each letter. If yours doesn’t, use the photo below as a cheat sheet:

dreidel sides letters

a) Nun means “nisht” or “nothing.” The player does nothing.

b) Gimel  means “gantz” or “everything.” The player gets everything in the pot.

c) Hey means “halb” or “half.” The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one).

d) Shin (outside of Israel) means “shtel” or “put in.” Peh (in Israel) also means “put in.” The player adds a game piece to the pot.

5. If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either “out” or may ask a fellow player for a “loan.”

6. When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!

READ: Where To Find Hanukkah Song Lyrics and Recordings

We suggest that if you use money to play the game, ask players to donate part or all of their winnings to tzedakah  (charity). You can ask parents to match these contributions. This way everyone wins and you can share the Hanukkah gifts with those in need!

Reprinted with permission from A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute and Devora Publishing.

The First Hanukkah

In addition to the victory parades of the ancient Maccabees that celebrated their political independence, the original holiday also took the form of a Temple rededication ceremony. In the Second Book of the Maccabees, which quotes from a letter sent circa 125 BCE from the Hasmoneans to the leaders of Egyptian Jewry, the holiday is called “The festival of Sukkot celebrated in the month of Kislev,” rather than Tishrei, which usually falls in September. Since the Jews were still in caves fighting as guerrillas on Tishrei, 164 BCE, they could not properly honor the eight-day holiday of Sukkot (and Shemini Atzeret), which is a Temple holiday; hence it was postponed until after the recapture of Jerusalem and the purification of the Temple.

This — not the Talmudic legend of the cruse of oil — explains the eight day length of Hanukkah. The use of candles may reflect the later reported tradition of Simchat Beit HaShoava (water-drawing festival),the all-night dancing in the Temple on Sukkot, which required tall outdoor lamps to flood light on the dance floor of the Temple courtyard.

They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs [palm branches waved on Sukkot]…they offered hymns of praise (perhaps, the Hallel prayer) to God who had brought to pass the purification of his own place. (II Maccabees 10:6-7)

The connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah (as the Rabbis later called this holiday) goes beyond the accident of a postponed Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is the holiday commemorating not only the wandering of the Jews in the desert in makeshift huts but the end of that trek with the dedication of the First Temple (i.e. the permanent Bayit/ Home of God in Jerusalem by King Solomon circa 1000 BCE).

King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month…for God had said, ‘I have built a House for my eternal residence.’ (I Kings 8:2, 12)

Thus the Maccabean rededication celebration is appropriately set for eight days in the Temple.

Reprinted with permission of the author from A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute and Devora Publishing.