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Why Don’t We Read a Scroll on Hanukkah? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 5, Issue No. 1, November 2010

Question: The holiday of Hanukkah has many beautiful customs such as the dreidl, latkes, and sufganiyot, but there is one custom which we would expect to find on Hanukkah which seems to be missing – the reading of a scroll in public. After all, on Purim we read the Scroll of Esther every year in order to publicize the miracle. Why don’t we read a scroll on Hanukkah in order to publicize the miracles which God wrought for our ancestors in the days of Matityahu and his sons? The result is that most Jews only know the legend about the miracle of the cruse of oil (Shabbat 21b) and not about the actual military victories of the Maccabees (This responsum is based on my article “Hanukkah Exotica” which appeared in Conservative Judaism 53/2 (Winter 2001), pp. 41-50 and in my book Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, second series, Jerusalem, 2006, Chapter 7. An abbreviated version appeared in Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, eds., A DifferentLight, 2000, pp. 177-182).

Responsum: The answer is that, in truth, there is such a scroll which was read in private or in public between the ninth and twentieth centuries. It is called “The Scroll of Antiochus” and many other names and it was written in Aramaic during the Talmudic period and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic and other languages (There is a vast literature regarding this scroll. SeeEncyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 14, cols. 1045-1047 and the literature cited there; the critical edition of the Aramaic text published by M. Z. Kaddari in Bar Ilan 1 (5723), pp. 81-105; the Hebrew and English versions in Philip Birnbaum, ed., Daily Prayer Book, New York, 1949, pp. 713-725; Natan Fried, Sinai 64 (5729), pp. 97-140, which was reprinted with additions in: Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael, Vol. 5, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 102-120). The book describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of the Maccabees and Shabbat 21b with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis whatsoever.

This scroll is first mentioned by Halakhot Gedolot, which was written by Shimon Kayara in Babylon ca. 825 c.e.: “The elders of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel wrote Megillat Bet Hashmonay [=the scroll of the Hasmonean House]…” (Halakhot Gedolot, ed. Venice, 5308 [=Warsaw, 5635], fol. 141d).  Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) calls it “kitab benei hashmonay“, the book of the sons of the Hasmoneans, and he also translated it into Arabic (Rav Sa’adia Gaon, Sefer Hagaluy, quoted by Fried, p.109, note 68. For Sa’adia’s preface to his Arabic translation, see PAAJR 14 (1944), pp. 1-23).  Rav Nissim Gaon (North Africa, 990-1062) calls it in Arabic “the scroll of the sons of the Hasmoneans” (R. Nissim Ga’on, Hibbur Yafeh Meihayeshu’a, ed. H. Z. Hirschberg, Jerusalem, 5714, pp. 2-3).

Furthermore, we know that this scroll was read in public at different times and places. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani (Italy, ca. 1200-1260) says that “in a place where they are accustomed to read Megillat Antiochus [=The Scroll of Antiochus] on Hanukkah, it is not proper to recite the blessings [for reading a scroll] because it is not required at all” (Tosfot R”id to Sukkah 44b, catchword havit, Lemberg, 5629, fol. 31b).

In Mahzor Kaffa, which was published in the Crimea in 1735, the Scroll of Antiochus is printed in Hebrew and preceded by the following instructions: “It is customary to read Megillat Antiochus during minhah [the afternoon service on Shabbat] after kaddish titkabbel [the reader’s kaddish] in order to publicize the miracle [of Hanukkah]…” (quoted by Natan Fried, Sinai 64 [5729], p. 114).

Rabbi Yahya ben Yosef Zalih, who was the leading rabbi in San’a, Yemen ca. 1715, says “that some read Megillat Antiochus onShabbat [of Hanukkah] after the haftarah. This is not required; it is only a general mitzvah to publicize the miracle among the Jewish people” (Tiklal Etz Hayyim, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 5722, fol. 163a). But Rabbi Amram Zabban of G’ardaya in the Sahara Dessert viewed this public reading as a requirement. In his Sefer Hasdey Avotpublished in 1926, he states:

Megillat Antiochus according to the custom of the holy city of G’ardaya, may God protect her. The cantor should read it in public in the synagogue after the Torah reading on the Shabbat during Hanukkah. And he reads it in Arabic translation so that the entire congregation should understand [in order to] publicize the miracle which was done to our holy ancestors, may their merit protect us… translated from the Hebrew from Siddur Bet Oved of R. Yehudah Shmuel Ashkenazi [Livorno, 1853] (quoted by Fried, pp. 114-115).

This is a fascinating passage. Rabbi Zabban translated Megillat Antiouchus from Hebrew into Arabic in 1926 so that the entire congregation would understand it. He seems unaware that Arabic translations already existed. He also presents this custom as a required activity, despite the fact that he seems to have made it up! Perhaps he had heard that this was an accepted custom in other communities and wished to imitate them.

The Jews of Kurdistan, on the other hand, used to read the Scroll of Antiochus at home during Hanukkah (Erich Brauer, Yehudey Kurdistan, Jerusalem, 5708, p. 273). Rabbi Yosef Kafah (1917-2000) reports that his grandfather Rabbi Yihye Kafah (1850-1932) used to teach it to his pupils in Yemen in the Aramaic original along with the Arabic translation of Rav Sa’adya Gaon (R. Yosef Kafah, Halikhot Teiman, third edition, Jerusalem, 1982, p. 38).

It would seem that there is no point in reviving the specific custom of reading the Scroll of Antiochus in public, because that work is legendary in nature and not a reliable source for the events of Hanukkah. But we do possess such a source for those events — the First Book of Maccabees, which was written in Hebrew in the Land of Israel by an eyewitness to the events described therein (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 11, cols. 656-658. Cf. the magnificent new Hebrew edition of The First Book of Maccabees, ed. Uriel Rappaport, Jerusalem, 2004). Therefore, we should thank Rabbi Arthur Chiel and the Rabbinical Assembly who published the First Book of Maccabees, Chapters 1-4 as a separate booklet thirty years ago under the title Megillat Hanukkah (The Scroll of Hanukkah, New York, 1980). It is intended for reading in public or in private during the holiday. We should adopt this beautiful custom and begin to read those chapters in public every year on the Shabbat of Hanukkah after the haftarah. By so doing, we will be reviving the custom of reading a “scroll” on Hanukkah but, more importantly, we will thereby disseminate the oldest surviving account of the “miracles and triumphs” which God performed for the Jewish People “in those days at this season”.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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