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Ascribing New Meaning to Hanukkah after the Destruction of the Temple

Rabbinic Literature
Symbols and Rituals

The regulations for lighting the Hanukkah lamp are found in neither the Mishnah nor the Tosefta, the corpora reflecting halakhic practice in the land of Israel in the years immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple. The main source for the rabbinic laws of Hanukkah is a series of passages in the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21a-24b. These passages contain much material attributed to sages from the land of Israel, but the fact that there is no comprehensive discussion of the laws of Hanukkah in tannaitic or amoraic literature from the land of Israel itself led Louis Ginzberg to doubt the attribution of some of the material in the Babylonian corpus. He suggested that Hanukkah was observed primarily in Babylonia, and not in Eretz Israel, following the destruction of the Temple (L. Ginzberg, Ginze Schechter [Hebrew], vol. 1, New York 1928, p. 476; Perushim veHiddushim biYrushalmi [Hebrew], vol. 1, New York 1941, p. 279, n. 33). Gedaliah Alon associated this suggestion of Ginzberg’s with a view commonly held among historians, according to which the Pharisees, and later the Rabbis, opposed the Hasmonean dynasty and tended to play down its importance in Jewish history. Alon rejected both the contention that Hanukkah was not widely observed in Palestine and the notion of rabbinic opposition to the Hasmoneans (G. Alon, Jews, Judaism and the Classical World, Jerusalem 1977, pp. 1-17).

A thorough survey of the evidence (See M. Benovitz, “‘Until the Feet of the Tarmoda’i are Gone’: The Hanukkah Light in Palestine during the Tannaitic and Amoraic Periods” [Hebrew], in: Torah Lishma: Essays in Jewish Studies in Honor of Professor Shamma Friedman, edited by David Golinkin and others, Jerusalem 2007, pp. 39-78, the article upon which this essay is based). suggests that despite the origin of the festival in Eretz Israel during Second Temple times, Ginzberg was correct. Hanukkah was not widely observed in rabbinic circles in the land of its origin from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until the third century. However, this had nothing to do with rabbinic attitudes towards the Hasmoneans. The festival fell into desuetude in the years following the destruction of the Temple because of the destruction itself, which quite naturally cast a shadow on a holiday celebrating the purification and dedication of the Temple years earlier. Megillat Ta`anit, a list of festivals including Hanukkah that commemorated victories and other joyous events of Temple times, was considered by many rabbis to have become obsolete with the destruction of the Temple (Yerushalmi Ta`anit 2:13, 66a; Bavli Rosh Hashanah 18b), because those triumphs proved short-lived and no longer had significance for the Jewish community in the land of Israel after 70. Hanukkah was originally treated just like the other festivals of Megillat Ta`anit, and the lighting of Hanukkah candles was not considered obligatory in Eretz Israel during the tannaitic period( rabbinic sages from 70-210 C.E) (Tosefta Bava Qama 6:28). This is to be expected: Is it conceivable that a mere few months after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE Jews gathered to celebrate the purification and rededication of that same Temple 234 years earlier? Is it conceivable that in the shadow of the destruction Jews would continue to joyously mark a period of independence that ended 107 yeas earlier, when all hope for its renewal has been shattered?

In Babylonia, however, where the effect of the destruction of the Temple on religious and political life was minimal, Hanukkah was thought of as a historical celebration, akin to Purim. For the Babylonians, both rabbinic festivals celebrated past victories which had little impact on the present. Just as the Jews in Babylonia celebrated Purim throughout the years, whether or not contemporary circumstances made merry-making appropriate, so they celebrated Hanukkah continuously with candle-lighting. The sense of irony which would have accompanied such celebration after the destruction of the Temple in Eretz Israel was naturally less vivid in the diaspora.

This dichotomy between Eretz Israel and Babylonia continued until the days of the third-century sage from the land of Israel, Rabbi Yohanan. Rabbi Yohanan revived the festival in Eretz Israel: he himself ruled that the festivals in Megillat Ta`anit were still in effect, and among his pupils, even those who felt that Megillat Ta`anit was no longer legally binding made an exception for Hanukkah (Yerushalmi Ta`anit 2:13, 66a). Rabbi Yohanan reconstructed first-century Palestinian traditions regarding the Hanukkah lights with the help of sages from Sidon, outside Eretz Israel, where Hanukkah was observed continuously (Bavli Shabbat 21b).

The circumstances which led to the renewed celebration of Hanukkah in Eretz Israel during the third century are alluded to in a statement by Rabbi Yohanan preserved in BT Shabbat 21b, according to which the Hanukkah lights should be kindled “until the feet of the Tarmoda’i are gone” from the marketplace. The Geonim defined tarmoda’i as paupers who gather firewood called tarmadaat the end of the day, and variations on this definition have become standard. However, this explanation is problematic in context, and the use of the word tarmoda’i in this sense is not otherwise attested. Elsewhere in the Talmud the word Tarmoda’a(plural: Tarmoda’i) is a corruption of Tadmora’a, “Palmyrene”. Tadmor, or Palmyra, is a city in Syria It would thus make most sense if Rabbi Yohanan were referring to actual Palmyrenes: Hanukkah lights must be kindled until the last of the Palmyrenes has left the marketplace. And indeed, there were Palmyrenes in the marketplaces of Eretz Israel in Rabbi Yohanan’s day, specifically Palmyrene soldiers, embarked upon the conquest of Roman Palestine

Palmyra became the capital of an empire in 270 CE, when its queen, Zenobia, rebelled against Rome and conquered large parts of the eastern Roman empire, including Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt. This situation lasted until 272, when Zenobia was captured by the Romans. In 273, after another attempted rebellion against Rome, Palmyra was destroyed.

Rabbinic opposition to Palmyrene rule in Palestine is well-attested, and Rabbi Yohanan is particularly vocal in this context: InYerushalmi Taanit 4:8 (69b) he is reported to have said: “Happy is he who witnesses the fall of Palmyra”, and Yerushalmi Terumot 8:10 (46b) describes at length the participation of Rabbi Yohanan’s pupils in a conspiracy against the Palmyrenes, their arrest, a curse that Rabbi Yohanan subsequently inflicted upon the Palmyrenes, and Zenobia’s blasphemy against the God of Israel. BT Yevamot 17a asserts that the Jews are destined to celebrate the fall of Palmyra with a festival.

There are a number of parallels between the Palmyrene Syrian occupation of Roman Palestine and the historical events that lie behind the Hanukkah story. In both cases, Jews and Romans shared a common interest in battling Syrian forces occupying the land of Israel. The Romans supported the Jews in their struggle against the Seleucids (I Maccabees, 8), while the Jews supported the Romans in their effort to the wrest back control of Palestine from the Palmyrenes. In both cases, the Jewish religious leadership of Eretz Israel inspired the people in their struggle against the Syrians.

It would seem that during the Palmyrene Syrian occupation Rabbi Yohanan revived the celebration of Hanukkah in Palestine, and specifically the ritual of kindling the Hanukkah lights, as a sign of identification with the political and military struggle against the new Syrian occupying power, whose queen mocked the God Israel. This struggle reminded him of the Hasmonean rebellion against Syrian rule in Palestine hundreds of years earlier. He insisted that the Hanukkah lights be kindled until the Palmyrene troops leave the marketplace, in order to make the Palmyrenes aware of the miraculous victory of the forefathers in their earlier struggle against Syrian rule (Later halakhic sources determined that the requirement is to publicize the miracle through the candle lighting before one’s fellow Jews only; thus a Jews who dwells among non-Jews is not required to light the candles, and if he does so, it is so that he himself may look at them (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 677:3). It would seem however that the concept of publicizing the miracle originally referred to teaching non-Jews, who are not familiar with the Hanukkah story at all, about the festival). One might even argue that the requirement to keep the candles lit “until the feet of the Palmyrenes are gone from the marketplace” has a double entendre: we will keep the candles lit each night of Hanukkah until the Palmyrenes leave the market, in order to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah before them, and we will continue to do so until they are banished entirely from the marketplaces of the land of Israel. Following the Roman repulsion of the Palmyrene occupation, and the fall of Palmyra in 273, the Jews of Palestine continued to celebrate Hanukkah as the festival of both victories over the Syrians, “in those days and at the present time”, in the words of the traditional Hanukkah blessing.

Prof. Moshe Benovitz is a professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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