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Rabbi Morrison on Parashat Miketz

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There are very few references to Hanukkah in classical Jewish literature. One of them is found in the talmudic tractate of Shabbat. Soon after discussing the lights for Shabbat, the Talmud talks about the Hanukkah lights, followed by other ritual practices. The closest thing to any history in the Talmud is the famous story of the oil lasting for eight days. It is noteworthy that while other Jewish holidays have entire tractates of Talmud named for them, there is no separate tractate for Hanukkah.

The actual history of Hanukkah is found in the two books of the Maccabees, which, interestingly enough, did not get entered into the Tanakh. These books are found in a separate ancient literature called the Apocrypha and were transmitted as intertestamental books in the Christian tradition. It is in this literature that we read of the ruling rendered by Mattathias (Matityahu) that one is commanded to defend one’s life by waging war on Shabbat, a notion that previously was unheard of. By the talmudic period, a few hundred years later, it was taken for granted that saving life supersedes all the rules and restrictions of Shabbat.

There are many theories that describe the temperament of the Maccabees. One conjecture is that there were three simultaneous groups of Jews: Hellenistic Jews who adopted the Syrian-Greek lifestyle; pious Jews who observed the letter of the law, thus refusing to fight and defend their lives on Shabbat; and the Maccabees, who represented an authentic approach to Judaism that affirmed the centrality of safeguarding life, thereby enabling future Shabbatot and generations for the Jewish people.

As we celebrate Hanukkah, may we appreciate not only the familiar legends and practices, but also develop a fuller understanding of the history and the challenges that faced our Maccabean ancestors. These lessons may be instructive for contemporary Jewry.

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