The Maccabees Channeling Biblical Heroes of the Past

The Maccabees Channeling Biblical Heroes of the Past

In two of our recent blog postings, (“Chanuka and Shabbat” and “Kiddush HaShem Associated with Chanuka and Elsewhere”)  we discussed two aspects of the apocryphal book “Maccabees” and their relevance to contemporary Jewish life.

Another document, that while more “Jewish” than “Maccabees” and one that Sa’adia Gaon said was composed in the times of the Tannaim Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, but nevertheless only customarily read on Chanuka in Jewish communities in Italy and Yemen, is known as “Megillat Achashveirosh.” Tosafot RID on Sukka 44b s.v. Chabit opines that in those places where this text is read on Chanuka, one should not recite blessings before the reading, as one does for reading the various other Megillot on Yomim Tovim and Purim, because “there is no root of obligation at all.” A translation of Megillat Achashveirosh can be found at

An interesting detail concerning the story of the Maccabees as recounted in Megillat Achashveirosh, is the manner in which Matityahu blessed his sons before they went out to fight against the second, more intense attack by their enemies (p. 17):

Continue reading


Kiddush HaShem Associated with Chanuka and Elsewhere

Kiddush HaShem Associated with Chanuka and Elsewhere

A theme in the second book of Maccabees.

In R. Ozer Glickman’s essay for the Chanuka edition of Tora To-Go, December 2017, “Kiddush HaShem in the Public Square” pp. 21-3, he references a different part of the apocryphal book of Maccabees that we mentioned in a previous post (“Chanuka and Shabbat”). Whereas we noted how in I Maccabees, there is a presentation of the tragedy of Jews refusing to fight on Shabbat until Matityahu and his sons proclaimed that it was not considered a violation of Shabbat Law to defend onself from attack, R. Glickman refers to the following passages in II Maccabees, which he summarizes as exemplifying Kiddush HaShem and the avoidance of Chillul HaShem (R. Glickman only gives the citations of the passages; I am reproducing them below in their entirety):

Continue reading

Herzl and the Chanukia

Herzl and the Chanukia

Chanuka as it appears in the Navi, Talmud, Midrash and liturgy.

In Dr. Gavriel Cohen’s 1999 essay on behalf of Bar Ilan’s Parashat HaShavua series, “Chanuka Through the Ages”, he details the connections that are to be found in the bible and Rabbinical literature tying this festival to the completion of the Mishkan:

Yalkut Shimoni, I Melachim, #184

R. Chanina said: On the 25th of Kislev, work on the Mishkan was completed, and it was folded away until the 1st of Nisan, as it is written: (Shemot 40:2) “On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting”. Yisrael grumbled to Moshe saying: Why was it not set up immediately? Was there anything wrong with it? But the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Thought to Combine the celebration of the Mishkan with the month in which Yitzchak was born, for it is written: (Beraishit 18:6) “Knead and make [matzah] cakes!”, and they (the angels) said to him (Avraham): “I will return to you at the same date,” and thus Kislev, when the work was completed, lost out (to Nisan). The Holy One, Blessed Be He, Said: I must repay it. What did He do? (He Made) Chanuka of the Chashmonaim; and Mar-Cheshvan, as well, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will eventually Repay (for this month has no holidays).

as well as the dedication of the Second Temple:

Chaggai 2:18-23

Take note, from this day forward — from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day when the foundation was laid for the Lord’s Temple — take note, … And the word of the Lord came to Chaggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: Speak to Zerubavel the governor of Yehuda: … I will Overturn the thrones of kingdoms and Destroy the might of the kingdoms of the nations… On that day — Declares the Lord of Hosts — I will Ttake you, O My Servant Zerubavel son of Shaltiel — Declares the Lord — and Make you as a signet; for I have Chosen you — Declares the Lord of Hosts.

Cohen also notes the two basic explanations for the reason for observing the Chanuka festival altogether:

The liturgical passage inserted in the Amida and Birchat HaMazon during the Chanuka festival:

In the days of the Chashmonai, Matityahu son of Yochanan, the High Priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous power of Greece rose up against Your People Yisrael to make them forgetful of Your Tora, and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your Will, then did You in Your Abundant Mercy Rise up for them in the time of their trouble; You Pleaded their cause, You Judged their suit, You Avenged their wrong; You Delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of them that occupied themselves with Your Tora: for Yourself You Made a Great and Holy Name in Your World, and for Your People Yisrael You did Work a Great Deliverance and Redemption as at this day. And thereupon Your Children came into the inner sanctuary of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the Holy Place, kindled lights in Your Sacred Courts, and Appointed these eight days of Chanuka in order to give thanks and praises unto Your Great Name.

and why the holiday is ritually commemorated by lighting the Chanukia:

Shabbat 21b

What is Chanuka? The Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev, for the eight days of Chanuka, one may not eulogize the dead or fast. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they contaminated all the oil there. When the Chashmonaim were victorious over them, they searched and found but one jug of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact, and it contained only enough oil to light the lamp for one day. A miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days. The next year these days were decreed a time of celebration, praise and thanksgiving.

Chanuka in the writings of Theodore Herzl.

But what was of greatest interest to me was Cohen’s presentation of the associations that the originator of Zionism, Theodore Herzl (see ), made between Chanuka in general and the Chanukia in particular, in light of the life many of the Western European Jews in his days:

“Die Menorah” in Die Welt, 31;12 1897 (For the incredible background of this story, see Paula Stern’s article in The Times of Israel )

Deep in his soul, he began to feel the need of being a Jew. His circumstances were not unsatisfactory; he enjoyed ample income and a profession that permitted him to do whatever his heart desired. For he was an artist (see the biography in Wikipedia, cited above). His Jewish origin and the faith of his fathers had long since ceased to trouble him, when suddenly, the old hatred came to the surface again in a new mob-cry. With many others, he believed that this flood would shortly subside. But there was no change for the better. In fact, things went from bad to worse

(it seems that the Dreyfus trial [ ] constituted the last straw for Herzl);

and every blow, even though not aimed directly at him, struck him with fresh pain, until little by little, his soul became one bleeding wound. These sorrows, buried deep in his heart and silenced there, evoked thoughts of their origin and of his Judaism, and now he did something he could not perhaps have done in the old days because he was then so alien to it. He began to love his Judaism with an intense fervor

(a sentiment motivated by “Sinat Haman” rather than “Ahavat Mordechai, but “MiToch SheLo LiShma, Ba’in LiShma.)

Although in his own eyes he could not, at first, justify this new yearning, it became so powerful at length that it crystallized from vague emotions into a definite idea which he needed to express. It was the conviction that there was only one solution for this Judennot (Jewish distress)– the return to Judaism. When this came to the knowledge of his closest friends, similarly situated though they were, they shook their heads gravely and even feared for his reason. For how could that be a remedy which merely sharpened and intensified the evil? It seemed to him, on the other hand, that their moral distress was so acute because the Jew of today had lost the poise which was his father’s very being. They ridiculed him for this when his back was turned – many even laughed openly in his face. Yet, he did not allow himself to be misled by the banalities of these people whose acuteness of judgment had never before inspired his respect, and he bore their witticisms and their sneers with equal indifference. And, since, in all other respects, he acted like a man of his senses, they suffered him gradually to indulge his infatuation, which a number of them soon began to call by a harsher term than idee fixe (obsession). He continued, however, with characteristic persistence, to develop one idea after another from his fundamental conviction. At this time, he was profoundly moved by several instances of apostasy, though his pride would not permit him to betray it.

As a man and as an artist of the modern school, he had, of course, acquired many non-Jewish habits and his study of the cultures of successive civilizations had left an indelible impression upon him. How was this to be reconciled with his return to Judaism? Often doubts assailed him as to the soundness of his guiding thought, his idée maîtresse (main or guiding thought), as a French thinker calls it. Perhaps this generation, having grown up under the influence of alien cultures, was no longer capable of that return which had perceived to be their redemption. But the new generation would be capable of it, if it were only given the right direction early enough. He resolved, therefore, that his own children, at least, should be shown the proper path. They should be trained as Jews in their own home.

(Historically, this did not occur for Herzl’s three children—see e.g., )

Hitherto, he had permitted to pass by unobserved the holiday which the wonderful apparition of the Maccabees had illumined for thousands of years with the glow of miniature lights. Now, however, he made this holiday an opportunity to prepare something beautiful which should be forever commemorated in the minds of his children. In their young souls should be implanted early a steadfast devotion to their ancient people. He bought a Menora, and when he held this nine-branched candlestick in his hands for the first time, a strange mood came over him. In his father’s house also, the lights had once burned; in his youth, now far away, and the recollection gave him a sad and tender feeling for home. The tradition was neither cold nor dead – thus it has passed through the ages, one light kindling another. Moreover, the ancient form of the Menora had excited his interest. When was the primitive structure of this candlestick fashioned? Clearly the design was suggested by the tree – in the center the sturdy trunk, in right and left four branches, one below the other, in one plane, all of equal height. A later symbolism brought with it the ninth branch, which projects in front and functions as a servant.

What mystery had the generations which followed one another read into this form of art, at once so simple and natural? And our artist wondered to himself if it were not possible to animate again the withered form of the Menora, to water its roots, as one would a tree. The mere sound of the name, which he now pronounced every evening to his children, gave him great pleasure. There was a lovable ring to the word when it came from the lips of little children. On the first night the candle was lit and the origin of the holiday explained. Then wonderful incident of the lights that strangely remained burning so long, the story of the return from the Babylonian exile, the second Temple, the Maccabees – our friend told his children all that he knew. It was not very much, to be sure, but it served. When the second candle was lit, they repeated what he had told them, and though it had all been learned from him, it seemed to him quite new and beautiful. In the days that followed, he waited keenly for the evenings, which became even brighter. Candle after candle stood in the Menora, and the father mused on the little candles with his children, until at length his reflections became too deep to be uttered before them. When he had resolved to return to his people and to make open acknowledgment of his return, he had only thought he would be doing the honorable and rational thing. But he had never dreamed that he would find in it a gratification of his yearning for the beautiful. Yet nothing less was his good fortune. The Menora with its many lights became a thing of beauty to inspire lofty thoughts. So, with his practical hand, he drew a plan for a Menora to present to his children the following year. He made free use of the motif of the right branching arms projecting right and left in one plane from the central stem. He did not hold himself bound by the rigid traditional form, but created directly from nature, unconcerned by other symbolisms also seeking expression. He was on the search for living beauty. Yet, though he gave the withered branch new life, he conformed to the law, to the gentle dignity of its being. It was a tree with slender branches; its ends were molded into flower calyxes which would hold the lights.

The week passed with this absorbing labor. Then came the eighth day, when the whole row burns, even the faithful ninth, the servant, which on other nights is used only for the lighting of the others. A great splendor streamed from the Menora. The children’s eyes glistened. But for our friend, all this was the symbol of the kindling of a nation. When there is but one light, all is still dark, and the solitary light looks melancholy. Soon, it finds one companion, then another, and another. The darkness must retreat. The light comes first to the young and the poor – then others join them who love Justice, Truth, Liberty, Progress, Humanity, and Beauty. When all the candles burn, then we must all stand and rejoice over the achievements. And no office can be more blessed than that of a Servant of the Light.


R. Binny Lau, at the conclusion of his third essay on Parashat VaYeishev (see ) (there are years when Chanuka and Parashat VaYeishev coincide), in stark contrast to Herzl’s presentation of the Menora as something that should only address the Jewish future, writes as follows:

Jews have survived all of the periods of their history, holding on to what bespeaks their identity, and declaring before their Patron: “Haker Na” (Make known, now/please”; a reference to Tamar’s provocative statement before Yehuda, in Beraishit 38:25). The days of Chanuka bring us to remembrance of the distant times of the Hellenists who desired to disconnect us from the “signet, cords, and staff” that are unique to us. This is a holiday that has been commemorated throughout the Diaspora, by all generations. The Chanuka lights survived the destruction of the Temple, the Hadronic persecutions, the Crusades, the Spanish expulsion, and succeeded in piercing even the darkness of the Holocaust. With such a guarantee, it is possible for us to pray that the light of our sun continue to shine, causing all of the shadows to be dissipated.

R. Lau contends that only when one has a strong appreciation of the past, can religion and its symbols be meaningful for the future.

Chanuka and Shabbat

Chanuka and Shabbat

Contemporary Chanuka observance.

The minor festival of Chanuka has become for Jews an eight-day commemoration of military (the defeat of the Syrian-Greeks by a small band of determined fighters) and ritualistic (a cruse of oil lasting well-beyond normal expectations for lighting the Temple’s Menora) miracles. The occasion is marked by the recitation of Hallel, special Tora readings, additions to the Amida and Birchat HaMazon, festive meals characterized by particular foods (Sufganiot [doughnuts] and Latkes [potato pancakes] both fried in liberal amounts of oil), dreidel-playing, and, particularly when children are involved, the exchange of gifts.

A sober aspect of Chanuka that is often overlooked.

However, there is an aspect of Chanuka that is intensely Halachic and summons up associations with martyrdom and Halachic observances at all costs, themes that appear to run counter to the manner in which we currently mark the festival.

The Book of Maccabees (one of the Apocryphal books of the bible that was deliberately omitted from the Jewish canon, and describes the historical events of the era, thereby paralleling Megillat Esther, which serves as the basis for the Purim celebration) describes Matityahu’s leadership—he is compared to Pinchos; see BeMidbar 25:7-13– in refusing to be intimidated by the government’s program to substitute pagan practices for Jewish observance, and consequently instructing observant Jews to come with him to a remote area where it was hoped they would be able to practice their religion as they pleased:

Continue reading

Reading with Empathy, and “Parental” Models

Reading with Empathy, and “Parental” Models

Viewing the annual reading of each of the Parashiot with “fresh, personal eyes.”

In today’s short FB Devar Tora ( ), Sivan Rahav-Meir dedicates her comments to R. Moshe Tzvi Neria, Z”L, whose twenty-second Yahrzeit occurs this evening by quoting two of his insights regarding Parashat HaShavua in general, and Parashat VaYeishev in particular.

One of the things that R. Neria advocated, according to Rahav-Meir, was that each time we approach the Parasha, regardless of how many times we may have previously read this particular section of the Chumash and thought that we understood it, to view ourselves as much as possible as the Avot and Imahot themselves, literally “to get inside their heads,” as they were experiencing the various situations that are recorded in the Tora:

Continue reading

Did Yosef Cry When Tossed into the Pit by His Brothers?

Did Yosef Cry When Tossed into the Pit by His Brothers

A curious lacuna.

In Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s profound book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (Schoken Books, New York, 2009), the author twice references an apparent anomaly in the story of Yosef being placed in a pit by his brothers:

Beraishit 37:18-24

18 And they (the brothers) saw him (Yosef) afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. 19 And they said one to another: Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams. 21 And Reuven heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: Let us not take his life. 22 And Reuven said unto them: Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him–that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father. 23 And it came to pass, when Yosef was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; 24 And they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.

Zornberg notes that it would be expected that Yosef “did not go quietly” when set upon by his siblings. Yet no mention is made of Yosef saying anything or making even the slightest sound! The brothers were not at all disturbed by what they had done to the point where in the next verse, they are described as returning to their normal activities:

Ibid. 25

And they sat down to eat bread…

Yet, twenty-two years later, when the disguised Yosef ordered first that they all be incarcerated for espionage and then one brother would be held hostage while the others return to Canaan, it appears that they suddenly recalled that their brother had in fact pleaded with them for his life, but they had not responded in any way:

Ibid. 42:21

And they said one to another: Indeed, we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore, is this distress come upon us.  

Continue reading

Asking Questions as the Essence of Jewish Intellectual, Spiritual, and Emotional Life


Asking Questions as the Essence of Jewish Intellectual, Spiritual, and Emotional Life

Judaism and asking questions.

In today’s short FB Devar Tora ( ), Sivan Rahav-Meir discusses another aspect of R. Adin Steinsaltz’ provocative essay on Parashat VaYeishev  (Talks on the Parasha, Shefa-Maggid, Jerusalem, 2015, pp. 73-9) (I have already addressed two of these themes in earlier posts: “Tzaddikim Looking for Peace of Mind”, and “Tora Study as a Microcosm of the Experience of the Human Condition”)

A Rabbinic source that dashes the possibility of combining righteousness with sanguinity in light of the experience of Yaakov and others.

The catalyst for R. Steinsaltz’ ruminations is the sardonic Midrash that RaShI cites towards the beginning of his commentary on the Parashat HaShavua:

Continue reading

The Test of Yosef in Light of the Binding of Yitzchak

The Test of Yosef in Light of the Binding of Yitzchak

Why compare literarily Yosef’s trial with Akeidat Yitzchak?

In R. Amnon Bazak’s second essay for Parashat VaYeishev, “Nisyono Shel Yosef VeAkeidat Yitzchak” (Nekudat Peticha: Iyunim Ketzarim BePeshuta Shel Parashat HaShavua, Machon Tzomet, Alon Shevut, 5766, pp. 44-5), he compares the challenge that Yosef overcame with regard to the overtures of Mrs. Potiphera, with the climactic test of Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s faith, Akeidat Yitzchak. R. Bazak’s premise is: if parallels can be established between these two incidents, Yosef’s ability to resist his mistress’ attempts to be intimate with him are that much more ennobled via their calling to mind in the listener/reader the earlier test that is usually considered the ultimate trial of faith and loyalty in Jewish tradition.

(The extent to which the Binding of Isaac has been made a central part of the Jewish liturgy, not only during the Ten Days of Atonement, but throughout the year—it appears to all Siddurim as part of the Birchat HaShachar [morning blessings] section of daily services—reflects how important it is considered for Jewish belief and observance. The spiritual quality of Mesirat Nefesh [giving over one’s very life (for religious purposes) is exemplified literally by Yitzchak’s being prepared to sacrifice himself, as well as Avraham’s readiness to sacrifice his future, the son that he had longed for and waited many years until Yitzchak’s conception and birth.)

Continue reading

Parents Imparting Values to their Children

Parents Imparting Values to their Children

The potential long-term effects of parental upbringing in terms of personal values and principles.

In today’s short FB Devar Tora regarding parenting, Sivan Rahav-Meir reflects upon Yosef’s actions vis-à-vis the constant importunes of Mrs. Potiphera, in light of a comment by R. S.R. Hirsch.

Yosef’s formative moral challenge once he is away from “home.”

The Tora describes how over time, the wife of his master made daily overtures towards Yosef to be intimate with her, and when he finally refused in the most absolute terms, the spurned woman accused Yosef of attempting to abuse her and as a result, he suffers imprisonment:

Continue reading

Yehuda and Yosef’s Alienation from the Jewish People Prove Temporary

Yehuda and Yosef_s Alienation from the Jewish People Prove Temporary

Both Yehuda and Yosef suffer significant reversals of fortune arising from the same event.

In R. Binyamin Lau’s third essay for Parashat VaYeishev, “’LeMi HaChotemet VeHaPetilim’—Yeridat Yehuda VeAliyato” (Etnachta: Kriyot BeParashat HaShavua, Vol. 1, Yediot Acharonot, Tel Aviv, 2009, pp. 104-7), he turns our attention to the chapter in the Parasha that describes Yehuda’s actions subsequent to the sale of Yosef (Beraishit 38).

R. Lau points out that a textual parallelism between the roots of the verbs at the beginning of the descriptions of what transpires with respect to the experiences of Yehuda and Yosef after the latter’s disposal by his brothers, is to be understood not only geographically, i.e., a journey from a higher elevation to a lower one, but also psychologically and status-wise:

Ibid. 39:1

And Yosef “Hurad” (was brought down) to Egypt …

(from his position as the most beloved child of his father, and the son of the favored wife)

Continue reading