Do you want to read a Chanukah story?

December 23, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple


The Chanukah story is not nearly as simple as people think.

It began, according to a 1963 article by Reuben Gross in the American magazine “Jewish Life”, not in Antioch but Jerusalem.

The First Book of Maccabees, regarded as quite a good historical source, traces the conflict back to internal events within Judaism.

Jewish assimilationists advocated following the ways of the gentiles for the sake of peace and social acceptability. They argued that resistance would only bring disaster.

In order to persuade their coreligionists to go along with the Greeks, they encouraged Greek sporting contests and erected Hellenistic places of amusement in Jerusalem, expecting Jews to be attracted even though it meant “selling themselves to do evil in the sight of God”.

This anti-assimilationist account of the controversy must have been written by one of the orthodox party who deplored the abandonment of the old paths.

There do not seem to be any responses in writing from the progressive party, who probably felt that people would not need tracts when they had toys.

Where does King Antiochus come in?

Happy that at least some of the Jews appeared to be supporting his policies, he sent messages throughout the kingdom setting out the laws, practices and cultural mores he wanted. He even brought in the troops to prod and hurry up the Jews in the movement towards Hellenisation.

He was delighted to have some Jewish allies to help him along.


The first verse of “Ma’oz Tzur” says “l’et tachin matbei’ach” – “When You ordain battle”.

A British Chief Rabbi, Joseph H Hertz, changed the text to “l’et tashbit matbei’ach” – “When you cause battle to cease”. Hertz presumably thought the original wording was too militant.

The issue is wider than one hymn; it raises the general question of what place Judaism has for violence. Is violence inevitable?

The answer in a perfect world will be no. In a not-yet perfect world, it seems to be if we can’t (yet) eradicate it, we have to find a way to reduce and eventually eliminate it.

In 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was killed, an American rabbi, Morris Adler, said in a memorial tribute: “We shall not answer violence with violence, raise fist against fist or wield club against club.

“But we shall so reinforce our resolve, firm our determination, steel our will, that even the men of darkness and violence will recognise that their force and brutality cannot prevail against our inflexible and invincible purpose to realise fully the American promise and hope.”

Challenging, inspiring words. But the man who uttered them in Detroit was himself shot in his synagogue on the Sabbath by a demented youth, and he died without regaining consciousness.

His message is more than ever relevant in our age when terrorism stalks the world.


We have a se’udah (festive meal) on Purim, so why not do likewise on Chanukah?

In his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, Moses Isserles (the Rema) quotes a certain Rabbi Avraham of Prague who says there is a sort of mitzvah but not an obligation to have a banquet on Chanukah.

Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik cites a Midrash on Parashat B’ha’alot’cha that says that God’s original plan was to have the dedication of the altar (in the time of Moses) in the Tabernacle on 25 Kislev but circumstances made it necessary to move it to Rosh Chodesh Nisan.

The month of Kislev objected strongly to the change, and God consoled the month by saying that in time to come the altar would be rededicated on 25 Kislev, the original date.

However, though there would be a happy atmosphere and fasting and eulogies would be forbidden, it would be up to the people of Israel to decide what character to give to the day, including whether to have a full banquet.


Chanukah might well be the beginning of martyrdom in human history.

According to Arnold Toynbee, who cannot be accused of great partiality towards Jews and Judaism, the first human group to lay down their lives for their God may have been the Jews who were martyred for their faith at the time of the Maccabean revolt.

The need to show one’s unambiguous loyalty to God even at the price of one’s life has tragically punctuated Jewish history throughout all the centuries since that time. The records of martyrdom up to and including the Holocaust make sad but impressive reading.

The rule is that in an emergency Jews may compromise Jewish observance – for example, Shabbat or kashrut – but with three exceptions. Not even in an emergency, not even to save one’s life, is it permitted to transgress the laws against murder, idolatry or immorality.

The Chanukah story illustrates Jewish willingness even to sacrifice life in order not to undermine these cardinal principles.

The Hebrew phrase for the willingness to die for God is “Kiddush HaShem”; at the time of the Holocaust, however, great rabbis decreed that there were times when determinedly staying alive was also a form of “Kiddush HaShem”.

In the light of claims arising out of supposed ideological martyrdom on the part of members of another faith, it must be stated and emphasised that in Jewish ethics and teaching martyrdom does not, can not and must not include murdering other people.

If an individual or community is in dire straits and their faith in God is directly challenged by an enemy who tries to impose idolatry, there may be no choice but to suffer death for one’s beliefs. However, murder is murder and our ethics can never justify murdering people, even ostensibly in the name of God.

Chanukah, the occasion when martyrdom began, is an appropriate moment to restate these sacred principles.

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