The Unknown Chanukah Megillah

December 16, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Chanukah and Purim are often compared. But the differences are substantial.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

In particular, without Megillat Esther there would be no Purim, whilst Chanukah without its Megillah is not only possible but taken for granted.

Yet there is actually a Megillah for the festival.

Known variously as “Megillat Antiochus” (“The Scroll of Antiochus”), “Megillat Beit Chashmona’i(m)” (“The Scroll of the House of the Hasmoneans”) and “Megillah Y’vanit” (“The Greek Scroll”), it is a post-Biblical compilation in 76 verses, originally in Aramaic, in deliberate imitation of the style of the Scroll of Esther.

Presumably, the authors hoped their work would achieve the status of Megillat Esther on Purim, but the dream was never realised, for reasons we shall explain.

The theme of the book is the Hasmonean victories, ending with the destruction of the Second Temple. It is more legend than objective history.

Thus there is a conversation between the Maccabean brother Yochanan and the Syrian governor Nicanor.

Yochanan had come storming to the governor’s mansion in protest against the slaughter of a pig on the Temple altar.

He started by speaking peaceably, promising Nicanor he would do whatever he was asked.

Nicanor said, “Then take a pig and sacrifice it on the altar; you will be rewarded with crimson robes and royal favour”.

Yochanan said, “But anyone hears what I have agreed to, they will stone me!” So Nicanor ordered that the room be cleared.

Once the bodyguards had left, Yochanan took the dagger he had concealed in his cloak, stabbed the governor and flung him fatally wounded into the Temple court, pleading with God not to punish him for committing murder.

One might have thought the Jewish people, once they heard of this deed, would have been proud. One might also have thought that all the valiant exploits of the Maccabees family would have become a popular theme of acclaim throughout the centuries to come.

But the stories were suppressed and the military skills of the Maccabees played down because they would encourage militant nationalism, not spirituality. History would have acknowledged human military might, not Divine intervention.

The miraculous discovery of the sacred oil would not have become known, or at best it would have been smiled at as the pious imagination of unworldly believers. So the authors of Megillat Antiochus were never to see their book become an authoritative part of Jewish observance.

Who did write the book?

There are several theories. Sa’adia Ga’on (9th century) thought it was the Maccabean brothers themselves, with a final section added later.

The Ge’onim thought the authors were the Schools of Shammai and Hillel.

Haham Moses Gaster argued for a 1st century BCE date; others believed the book derived from the 7th century CE.

The first known text in our possession is in a siddur from Salonika, published 1568.

It did actually reach the synagogue bimah on Shabbat Chanukah in Italy and Yemen, and amongst some Sefardim. It is not used by Ashkenazim, though the Baer Siddur from 1868 Germany includes it.

However, because the book is not Biblical no b’rachah could be said, and the Megillah remains a little-known curiosity.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. 

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