From the sources by Eliezer Segal: Fuel for a festival

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – It is no easy matter to initiate a new holiday.

Although the ancient Israelites could base their festival calendar on spectacular miracles and prophetic revelations, later generations could face more difficult challenges when it came to establishing days to commemorate more recent occurrences.

We see how Jewish communities today cannot reach a consensus regarding the observance of civil or religious holidays to commemorate the Holocaust or the founding of the state of Israel. Even where a date has been determined, there is rarely much agreement about the proper mode of observance. Similar issues arise in connection with assorted war memorials, the days of Truth and Reconciliation and similar occasions.

Problems of this sort arose in the second century B.C.E. when the Jewish leadership decided to institute an annual festival to memorialize the triumph over the Seleucid persecutors and the rededication of the defiled sanctuary in Jerusalem. The main chronicles that we have of the Hanukkah saga, the First and Second Books [1 and 2] of Maccabees, were likely composed for that purpose: to convince the Jews of Israel and the diaspora to adopt this new holiday.

In fact, 2 Maccabees opens by quoting two letters that were sent from Jerusalem to the Jews of Egypt urging them to adopt the new holiday. It is not clear what the relationship is between those letters and the book’s main narrative, which was abridged from a five-volume history by a certain Jason of Cyrene.

The second of those letters is an enigmatic document that introduces several surprising details. Some of these items deviate so significantly from the mainstream account as to suggest that they were garbled in transmission; whereas other details offer valuable glimpses into how contemporary Jews regarded the religious significance of Hanukkah and its links to earlier milestones in Israel’s sacred history.

The document opens: “Inasmuch as we are about to celebrate, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the purification of the Temple, we thought we ought to let you know, so that you too might celebrate it as the Days of Tabernacles and the days of the fire, as when Nehemiah, the builder of the temple and the altar, brought sacrifices.” Other than the starting date, which coincides with that of the Rabbinic Hanukkah, there is scarcely a word in this passage that does not strike us as surprising or problematic.

Let us examine a few of these matters.

Arguably, the central point of the celebration in this version of the story consisted of the restoration of the fire to the sacrificial altar.

The focus on the purification of the Temple is indeed consistent with the general tenor of 2 Maccabees, whose narrative is focused largely on the Jerusalem Temple and the priesthood. There is less emphasis on the military exploits of the small band of Jewish warriors against the massive Greek forces.

The comparison of the new holiday with Tabernacles (Sukkot), which does not fall in Kislev, has stumped generations of scholars. Some emend the Greek text slightly so that the comparison relates only to their eight-day length. Others point to a passage that told how, during the war, the Jewish guerrillas had been compelled to spend Sukkot “like wild beasts in the mountains and in the caves” —though the same problem would presumably have applied to all the holidays during the three-year campaign.

In any case, there is no suggestion here that the newly declared holiday was yet named Hanukkah or “feast of dedication.” The alternative is “days of fire.” This resembles the modern usage “festival of lights” that derives from the rabbinic association with lamps and candles.

In reality, to understand the importance of fire, we must look not to the candelabrum (as in the familiar legend from the Babylonian Talmud) but to the altar itself. According to the Torah, back in the days of Moses an elaborate seven-day process of consecrating the priests and the tabernacle culminated on the eighth day, when “the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord.” This heavenly fire continued to burn in the Israelite sanctuaries through much of the biblical era.  The Bible also tells how the same miracle occurred at the inauguration of Solomon’s Temple in a celebration that overlapped Sukkot, when “the fire came down from heaven…and the glory of the Lord filled the house”; and then “on the eighth day he sent the people away.”

A tradition unique to the letter in 2 Maccabees stated that, when the first Temple was destroyed, some pious priests hid its most sacred furnishings—including the altar and its heavenly flame—in a deep cistern! After the second Temple was built, the descendants of those priests found in the cistern a liquid substance that, when ignited by sunlight, burst into flames on the altar. Nehemiah instructed that the remaining fluid be poured out to be absorbed into large rocks. The miracle became so famous that the Persian king established a lucrative shrine in its honour.

The text adds that Nehemiah and his companions named the flammable liquid “nephthar” allegedly from a Hebrew root designating release or purity; which evolved into “naphtha,” the Greek and Latin term for a combustible liquid hydrocarbon mixture.

The author of 2 Maccabees did not state that Judah Maccabee found that original divine fire and restored it to the new purified altar. He did however write later that they made use of fire produced from flint, which might well have derived from those rocks that Nehemiah had doused in the lighter fluid.

Taken together, all these historical and legendary details demonstrated that the new festival celebrating the Temple’s rededication was in fact an integral link in an age-old chain of events that extended from the appearance of the supernatural fire in Moses’s Tabernacle, through the temples of Solomon and Nehemiah, and their commemorations in eight-day celebrations.

And as a special bonus, they might even hold the secret of an affordable energy source.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.


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