How Ancient Hebrew Poets Commemorated Hanukkah Even When Rabbis Ignored It

Dec. 18 2017

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. . . .

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More about: ancient Judaism, Hanukkah, Hebrew poetry, Judaism, Piyyut, Religion & Holidays, Talmud


The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics