22 December 2019

‘Help us to overcome the darkness
of prejudice and hatred, and
spread the light of liberty and love’

Hanukkah Menoroth in the Museum of Jewish Culture, Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

In my sermon this morning [22 December 2019], I mentioned this evening [2 December 2018] is the first night of Hanukkah, the holiday that continues for eight days until nightfall on Monday 30 December 2019. The theme of darkness and light is important in both Jewish and Christian traditions at this time of the year, and in the Jewish calendar.

Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה‬) commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.

Hanukkah starting on 25 Kislev in the Hebrew calendar and continuing for eight nights and days. It falls sometime between late November and late December, is quite late this year, overlapping with Christmas.

The name Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew verb ‘חנך‎’ meaning to dedicate. On Hanukkah, the Maccabean Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple.

Two books, I and II Maccabees, describe in detail the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah.

These books are not part of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, which came from the Palestinian canon. However, they were part of the Alexandrian canon, the Septuagint (LXX).

The eight-day rededication of the Temple is described in I Maccabees 4: 36 to 4: 59, although the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear there. A similar story is alluded to in II Maccabees 1: 18 to 1: 36, recalls how Nehemiah relights the altar fire in a miracle on 25 Kislev, which may explain why Judah Maccabee chooses this date for rededicating the altar.

In I Maccabees 4 and II Maccabees 1: 9, the feast is seen as a delayed observation of the eight-day Feast of Booths (Sukkot). II Maccabees 10: 6 links the length of the feast with the Feast of Booths.

In the New Testament, John 10: 22-23 recalls Christ walking in Solomon’s Porch at the Temple during ‘the festival of the Dedication … in Jerusalem. It was winter.’

As Sukkot falls in autumn, in September or October, we are left wondering whether Jesus was in the Temple for the Festival of Hanukkah.

Judea was part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt until 200 BCE when King Antiochus III the Great of Syria defeated King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt at the Battle of Panium. Judea then became part of the Seleucid Empire of Syria.

King Antiochus III the Great, guaranteed the right of his new Jewish subjects to ‘live according to their ancestral customs’ and to continue to practice their religion in the Temple of Jerusalem. However, in 175 BCE, his son Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Judea, at the request of the sons of Tobias. They had led the Hellenising Jewish faction in Jerusalem, and were expelled to Syria around 170 BCE when the high priest Onias and his pro-Egyptian faction seized control. The exiled sons of Tobias lobbied Antiochus IV Epiphanes to recapture Jerusalem.

The Second Temple in Jerusalem was looted, public worship stopped, and Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BCE, Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the Temple.

Antiochus’s actions provoked a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion. It started with Mattathias killing first a Jew who wanted to comply with Antiochus’s order to sacrifice to Zeus, and then a Greek official who was to enforce the government orders.

Judah became known as Judah the Hammer. By 166 BCE, Mattathias had died, and Judah replaced him as leader. By 165 BCE, the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event.

Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels made. According to the Talmud, pure olive oil with the seal of the high priest was needed for the menorah in the Temple, and it had to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, but it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

The Hanukkah menorah in the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Both books are part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons of the Bible, but were rejected by many traditions at the Reformation. They are respected by Anglicans as part of the Apocrypha. By excluding these books from Biblical readings, many Church traditions miss a story that was part of the Christian narrative for 1,500 and also miss a story that Jews see as miracle that confounds racism, anti-Semitism and religious and racist hatred.

The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud, written about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees.

The Talmud says that after the forces of Antiochus IV were driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days.

Hanukkah is not a Sabbath-like holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from work and similar activities forbidden on the Sabbath. People go to work as usual, but may leave early to get home to light the lights at nightfall.

The festival is marked by lighting candles on a candelabrum with nine branches, a Hanukkah menorah (or hanukkiah). One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight. This unique candle is called the shamash (שמש‎, ‘attendant’). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shamash, until all eight candles are lit together on the final night.

A Menorah in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A large number of songs have been written on Hanukkah themes. One of the best known is Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages), written in the 13th century by a poet known as Mordechai. The tune is most probably from a German hymn or a popular folk song. Some Sephardic families recite Psalms, such as Psalms 30, Psalms 67 and Psalms 91.

When he was co-editing Service of the Heart, the Liberal and Progressive Jewish prayerbook, Rabbi John Rayner wrote a new hymn based on Ma’oz Tzur that translates:

Refuge and rock of my salvation,
to you all praise is due.
Even if enemies rise up against me,
I will yet be confident.

By your great power
you drove away
those who profaned tour altar,
and my heart rejoices in you alone.

A menorah in the Jewish Museum in Portobello, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The story of Hanukkah is one of resistance to hatred, prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism. It is a story that too many Christians are unaware of, both its narrative and its significance.

During the past year, I have visited synagogues and Jewish museums throughout these islands and in Albania, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain. It is chilling to be reminded of the consequences of letting racism go unchallenged.

Last week, police in California arrested a suspect in a case of vandalism at a Beverly Hills synagogue during the previous weekend. A suspect described as a white male entered the Nessah Synagogue, a Persian Jewish congregation in Beverly Hills, and vandalised the sanctuary, tearing prayer books and strewing Torah scrolls on the floor.

Police are investigating a possible link between the attack on the Nessah Synagogue and a series of graffiti attacks in Los Angeles, when three Jewish schools were daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti and two dozen cars were spray-painted. A swastika and hateful messages, including the phrase ‘time to pay,’ were found spray-painted at the American Jewish University in Bel Air, the Westwood Charter School and Milken Community High School.

Earlier this month [10 December], armed men opened fire at a cemetery and a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, killing four people. The targeted Jews were members of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community.

In October, anti-Semitic posters were plastered to the doors of a synagogue in Grand Rapids, Michigan, featuring the head of Hitler with the caption ‘Did you forget about me?’

In September, the slogan ‘Six million $ was not enough’ was sprawled across the welcome sign at the Temple Ahavat Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles. The Anti-Defamation League says there have been 36 such incidents in Los Angeles so far this year.

A recent survey by the American Jewish Committee shows that more than 80 per cent of Jewish respondents say they have witnessed an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the US over the past five years. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a 150 per cent increase in recorded incidents comparing 2013 with 2018.

American Jews clearly see that the rise in white supremacy goes hand in hand with the rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the US: 89 percent of AJC respondents believe the extreme political right presents a threat to Jews.

The AJC survey shows 41 per cent of respondents to AJC’s survey believe that the Republican Party bears all or close to all responsibility for the current levels of anti-Semitism.

A survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute this year shows 73 per cent of American Jews feel less secure since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Antisemitic attacks against synagogues since 2016 have contributed to this fear.

The Trump presidency has emboldened white supremacy throughout the US, and he routinely refuses to condemn their hatred. At the same time, Trump has engaged in harmful rhetoric, claiming in August that any Jewish person who votes for a Democrat shows ‘either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.’ Now, there is an anti-Semitic theory being spread among Republicans that a Jewish conspiracy is behind the impeachment of Trump.

I remain convinced that what is happening in the US has brought us closer to 1938. Barbed wire fences have gone up, children are being separated from their parents and detained in cages and compounds, ethnic and cultural minorities are being targeted with impunity by the ultra-right while the president regards himself as supreme leader, above the law and speaking in repeated slogans that stir up the crowds, and says the victims share equal responsibility for attacks.

Before he left office, President Barack Obama said: ‘The light of hope must outlast the fires of hate. That’s what the Hanukkah story teaches us. It’s what our young people can teach us – that one act of faith can make a miracle, that love is stronger than hate, that peace can triumph over conflict.’

Dreidels are part of a children's game at Hanukkah … a display in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The prayer when kindling the Hanukkah lights says:

We thank you, O God, for the redeeming wonders and the mighty deeds with which you saved our fathers in days of old at this season.

In the days of the Hasmoneans, a tyrant nation rose up against our ancestors, determined to make them forget your law, and to turn them from obedience to your will. But in your abundant mercy, you stood at their side in their time of trouble. You gave them strength to struggle and to triumph, that they might serve you in freedom.

Through your spirit the weak defeated the strong, the few prevailed over the many, and the righteous were triumphant. Then did your children return to your house, to purify your sanctuary and kindle its lights. And they appointed these eight days of Dedication, to give thanks and praise to your great name.

Grant, O God, that the heroic example of the Maccabees may inspire us always to be loyal to our heritage and valiant for truth. May your holy spirit help us to overcome the darkness of prejudice and hatred, and spread the light of liberty and love.

The Reader then says: These lights are a symbol of the joy we feel that our faith was saved from extinction. May its flame burn ever more brightly, to illumine our lives and to give light to the world.

The servant-candle is lit, and the Reader says:

We praise you, O Lord our God, King of universe, who have sanctified us by your commandments, and enjoined us to light the Hanukkah lights. Amen.
We praise you, O Lord our God, King of universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our fathers in days of old, at this season. Amen.

On this night, the first night of Hanukkah, all then say:

We praise you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who have given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

The following verses may be recited as the candles are lit:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.

Though I fall, I shall rise;
though I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light to me.

For you light my lamp;
the Lord my God makes bright my darkness.

Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
for him who is gracious, compassionate and just.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your vindication as the light,
and your right as the noonday.

For the commandment is a lamp,
and the Teaching is light.

Arise, shine, for light has come,
and the splendour of the Lord has risen upon you.

No more shall the sun be your light by day,
nor shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God your glory.

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