Saturday, 20 December 2008

Mis-Nagid On Chanuka

Today, there are many profound Jewish sceptic blogs.

A few years ago, there were even more. Mis-nagid is a legend. The blog may be gone and his posts deleted, but his spirit and name lives on. This is my tribute to the legend: a post Mis-Nagid's I managed to find after much searching on the internet. I found it 8 months ago and have kept it ever since to post on Chanuka. Chanuka is all but here. Now settle down and hear the words of the profound.

Thus spoke Mis-nagid:

Frum Fantasy or How a Legend Spawned an Industry

The frum world is thoroughly suffused with fantasy and ignorance. Frum people know pathetically little about their own history and practices, and what they do know is usually wrong. In general, frum institutions never teach any history at all, or at least nothing that deserves the name. Most yeshiva bochurim have no idea what was going on in the world at the same time as any Jewish event. All "history" is seen through the gauze of fantasy. The frum view of the history of world revolves around Jews and includes lots of myths, which makes for a witch's brew that has little to do with real history.

The root cause of this lack of rigor in understanding the past is the need for ignorance. After all, if you ask "What was going on in the rest of the world during Noach's Great Flood?" you may be surprised to find out that great (undisturbed) civilizations in Egypt and China were already writing stuff down, and never mentioned any flood. As the frum dogmas are not grounded in reality, so too the history must be kept floating above the ground, never attached to anything of substance, lest it come tumbling down to earth.

Chanukah, one of the few Jewish holidays based on a true historical event, is, ironically, no exception to this. Grab a frum person and quiz him or her: In what year was Chanukah? Who was Antiochus? Who were the Yevonim? Who were the Chasmonoyim? How long did the war last? You'll get the most pathetic answers (if you get any), because frum people have no sense of history. Shoot, most frum people don't know what the word "frum" means, or where it comes from! [*]

There is one aspect of frum Chanukah that truly brings this sense of ahistory into sharp relief. Case in point: the Bais Yosef's Kasha. To those of you lucky enough to be uninitiated in the frum cult, this peculiar obsession of frum Chanukah takes the form of a question. The Bais Yosef asked, "If the oil could have lasted for one day, but lasted for eight, only seven of them can be termed miracles. So why celebrate eight (rather than seven) days?"

This "difficulty" occupies a special place in the frum universe; it's a "true" classic. Gallons of ink were poured to answer this stupid question. Virtually every frum commentator since his time has had a crack at it. There's even a very large sefer consisting of nothing but answers to this one question. However, every single one of those answers is wrong -- completely, utterly, and totally wrong.

Before I get to the correct answer, let's understand why they're wrong. Don't worry, I don't have to refute them all, one at a time. The reason they're off-base is simple: it's a legend. The story of the miraculous oil was made up approximately six hundred years after the events of Chanukah. Of course the rabbinical legend has inconsistencies -- it's fiction. There's no point in trying to "fix" them. It's like reading Curious George and trying to explain how so few balloons could lift a monkey of George's heft.

Now, to the real answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha.

Due to their aforementioned lack of history sense, most frum people have no idea that there are books written from the era of the Maccabees. Nor do they know that these books make no mention of any miracles. Ask a frum person what is says in the two[**] Books of Maccabees, and they'll say "Books of Maccabees?" I'll not get into why those books are invisible from the frum world, but I'll note one piece of irony. Virtually every frum child knows the Chanukah story of Channah and her seven sons. Where's the story from? The Book of Maccabees 2.

Were you to read the actual history of Chanukah, when you get to the part about the rededication [chanukah] of the Temple, you'd find the following:

10:5 Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu [Kislev].
10:6 And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts.
10:7 Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also [lulavim, hadassos, aravos], and sang psalms [Hallel] unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.
10:8 They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.

That's right, the very first Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot. Sukkot traditionally required going to the Temple, but on the correct date for Sukkot, the Temple was still under Seleucid control, so it was not celebrated properly. The Maccabees cleverly scheduled the Temple's grand reopening on the anniversary of its sacking, and celebrated Sukkot like it's supposed to be. It was especially poignant due to the fact that the transient and ephemeral living embodied in the story of Sukkot was so resonant with them, having just spent so long hiding in mountains and caves.

Furthermore, the book opens with a letter to the Jews in Alexandria, telling them to celebrate this new holiday:

1:9 And now see that ye keep the feast of tabernacles [Sukkot] in the month Casleu [Kislev].

That is the correct answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha. The reason Chanukah is eight days (instead of seven) is because it was a delayed Sukkot, which has eight days. It was always eight days, and the rabbis made their legend match the extant practice, leading to the slight inconsistency noted by the Bais Yosef.

Before I close this post, I'd like to add a piece of speculation. The Mishna nevers discusses Chanukah, even going so far as to give a grave warning against reading the Books of Maccabees (Sanhedrin 10:1). In the only Gemara to discuss Chanukah, history gets three lines, while ritual minutaie get more than three pages. However, there is one interesting link in this rabbinified version of Chanukah that may hint at their knowledge of its true origins.

In the discourse on how to light the Chanukah candles, two opinions are proffered. One says to start with one candle on the first night and add one each night, until you are lighting eight on the final night. The other says to start with eight and remove one each night. Where it gets interesting is the reason offered for the latter position. The justification given is that the candles represent "parei hechag," the bulls of the holiday. By this he means the bulls offered on Sukkot. As recounted in the Torah, those bulls were offered in decreasing number each successive day.

The commentators struggle to explain why that Sukkot practice is relevant to Chanukah lights. Some of them are almost amusing in their tortured logic. I'd like to offer a possibility; that this could be a partial remnant of the earlier explanations for the custom of the Chanukah lights.

email me: [mis-nagid_AT_hush_DOT_com]

[*] It's a Yiddishization of the German "fromm," meaning pious. Admit it, you didn't know that.
[**] The other Books of Maccabee aren't about Chanukah, and are somewhat misnamed


Mis-nagid said...


Anonymous said...

Mis-naggid - come back to us! You really were the greatest Jewish skeptic blogger. Sure you've got more to say.

jewish philosopher said...

"China were already writing stuff down"

That's not true, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read and well written as was the last post about your girl.
Best of luck in being happy.

Assassin Actual

abandoning eden said...

more fun facts about chanukah;
the whole maccabi thing? And how they were fighting against the greeks who banned judiasm? (thus the legend of dreidel games played to hide their minyans)

So what really happened is that there were a whole bunch of jews who embraced hellenism, and wanted to massively reform judaism and be a lot more secular. Then the orthodox jews started fighting with them over who got to pick the kohen gadol. This turned into a civil war. The greek rulers took the side of the reformist jews, and to try and help them out, banned the religious practices that the orthodox people did, which the reformist people were trying to do away with. The orthodox people eventually won the civil war.

So basically channukah is a celebration of orthodox people winning over people like us. JP should be really into this holiday I guess. :)

Anonymous said...

Abandoning Eden,

I'm sorry, but merely inverting whatever you learned in an Orthodox day school does not make you right, or more intelligent.

A better description of the events surrounding Hannukah would be a Jewish civil war about what to borrow from the Greeks. After all, the Maccabees borrowed quite a bit from the Greeks, including the seemingly silly notion of commemorating dates that were important to them. (If you doubt the revolutionary aspect of this change, please name the date of any of King David's victories).

Finally, Hannukah was no more a victory of the "Orthodox", than the Six-Day War (in 1967 C.E.). Instead, both were Jewish victories, and if one chooses to see the hand of God in them, then so be it.


Mark said...

"The story of the miraculous oil was made up approximately six hundred years after the events of Chanukah."

While it's true that the Gemoroh was composed around 600 years after the story of Chanukkah, the miracle of oil is mentioned in Megillat Taanit, which was compiled earlier. What makes the MT mention complicated, is that MT has two parts: the original aramaic, which was probably written down in the first century, and the later additions in hebrew that expound on the aramaic. The miracle of the oil is recorded in MT word for word as in BT shabbos 22b. I would assume that the BT took it from MT, although I'm not sure when the hebrew additions to MT were composed.

If anyone knows of a book or article that discusses the time of composition and authorship of MT, please let me know. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

my understanding of why maccabes is not taught in yeshivos is that the original aramaic/hebrew texts have been lost, and all that remain are the greek versions and their translations. at least that is the reason ive heard...

a leidiggier

EN said...

Sukkos is really seven days in eretz yisrael so your logic still doesnt make sense

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

Anonymous said...

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

- David