One of the enduring puzzles of the Hanukkah holiday is the scant attention paid to it in the Talmud: it receives only passing mention in the Mishnah (the Talmud’s earlier stratum), and most of the comment on it in the Gemara (the later stratum) is confined to a single two-page discussion. By contrast, even the similarly minor holiday of Purim gets its own tractate. But while the rabbis seemed content to downplay Hanukkah, the liturgical poets of the same era composed numerous prayers (piyyutim) celebrating it. Examining the works of Galilean poets from the 5th through 7th centuries, Ophir Münz-Manor writes:
[Liturgical poetry] in some senses is even more useful than rabbinic literature for understanding Jewish society in Palestine [during this time]. Unlike rabbinic texts, which for the most part were intended for a limited community consisting primarily of learned men, piyyutim were aimed at a much more diverse audience of male and female synagogue-goers. . . .
The [poets of the 6th and 7th centuries] composed lengthy piyyutim for Hanukkah. The bulk of these are dedicated to the inauguration [ḥanukkah] of the tabernacle in the wilderness [as described in the books of Exodus and Leviticus]. . . . When we reach the [famed 7th-century poet] Eleazar ben Kalir, we find that the events and practices of Hanukkah itself begin to play a more prominent role.
Like his predecessors, Eleazar composed several poems that focus on the dedication of the tabernacle. Yet . . . he found a way to weave in the practices and commemorations of the festival by introducing a typological scheme in which the rededication of the Temple in the days of the Hasmoneans is the penultimate phase in a series of earthly salvations and inaugurations, including (1) the “inauguration” of the world in the six days of creation, (2) the inauguration of the tabernacle, (3) [its re-inauguration by King David when it was relocated to Jerusalem], (4) the inauguration of Solomon’s Temple, (5) the inauguration of the Second Temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, (6) [its re-inauguration by] the Hasmoneans, and subsequently, (7) the world to come. . . .
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access