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. . . .


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


How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen