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


Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy