Beyond Chrismukkah

Hanukkah plays a special role in Jewish-Christian relations. In the modern West, this role becomes manifest chiefly through the half-accidental fact that Hanukkah falls out on or around Christmas. This calendrical coincidence has long afforded the opportunity for reflection on the common bonds linking Jews and Christians (if sometimes with the pernicious aim or unfortunate effect of alienating others). It has also yielded a range of hybrid oddities and eyebrow-raising portmanteaus—the Hanukkah bush, Star of David tree ornaments, “Chrismukkah”—that are easy to mock (if they are not in the first place ironically intended), even though the spirit of tolerance and good will that underlies them should not be taken for granted. 

Long before Chrismukkah, Augustine adverted to the story of Hanukkah to think through the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Augustine, like many other theologians in the emergent orthodox Christianity of late antiquity, was engaged in a two-front struggle to define the essential commitments of Christianity: He aimed to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, on the one hand, but also, on the other hand, to exclude interpretations of Christ that would sever Christ from the Old Testament. Augustine found support for the latter goal in the story of Hanukkah.[1]

He observed that the Church celebrates the Maccabean martyrs who gave themselves over to death rather than eat pork, which God’s law forbade (2 Maccabees 6-7). And if that is so, reasons Augustine, then it cannot be that the law of the Old Testament is bad in itself. Christianity does not mean rejection of the law, or of the Old Testament, but rather new insight into its significance: The law points forward to Christ, in the future tense, and, Christ having come, we now put aside the law for the sacraments, which speak of Christ with the same voice as the law, only in the past tense. The story of Hanukkah thus served Augustine as one brick in fortifying the bridge between Judaism and Christianity.

In the spirit of the tradition of Jewish-Christian dialogue around Hanukkah, I offer here, for Christian readers, a theological reflection on Hanukkah. The reflection is in no way directly about Judaism’s relationship with Christianity. Its aim is rather to bring to light certain motifs in traditional Jewish thought that resonate with elements of Christian theology. More fundamentally and simply still, I hope to introduce, through the example of Hanukkah, some building blocks of Jewish theology that may be unfamiliar to a general Christian audience. For surely the first goal of dialogue between Jews and Christians is that they get to know each other better.

The starting point for this reflection is that, in Judaism, one can hardly think of Hanukkah without thinking of another holiday, Purim. Almost all of the major holidays in the Jewish calendar—Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), Tabernacles (Sukkot), the New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)—date from the Torah of Moses. There are only three exceptions: Hanukkah, Purim, and the Ninth of Ab (Tisha b’Av).

According to a well-known Jewish joke, Jewish holidays boil down to: They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat. But really, only these three post-Mosaic holidays recognize this template, and each of them puts a different spin on it. Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning and fasting, first and foremost for the destruction of the temples, but more generally, for all Jewish disasters, including the Holocaust. Its black joke might be: They tried to kill us; they did; let’s not eat. Hanukkah and Purim, by contrast, both celebrate victories. Purim perfectly fits the joke’s paradigm, for it is celebrated by eating. One of the two central commandments for Purim day is to feast, and to drink wine, even to the point of drunkenness. They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat (and drink). But there is no commandment to feast on Hanukkah. Western audiences may be familiar with the traditional Ashkenazi Hanukkah food, the potato latke. But the latke and all other Hanukkah foods fall under the rubric of custom; Jewish law does not recognize an obligation to eat a festive meal on Hanukkah. They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s . . . what? Why is there no festive meal on Hanukkah, unlike Purim?

To appreciate the difference, we must add another. The other main commandment on Purim is the reading of the scroll of Esther, which tells the story of Purim. But it is not only that Purim has a scroll. Strikingly, Purim becomes, in the Jewish tradition, the festival of scripture par excellence. Sections from the Torah and the Prophets are read on the Sabbath and on all of the aforementioned Torah festivals—Passover, Pentecost, etc.—but the obligation to read the scroll of Esther on Purim is subject to much more stringent requirements.

Moreover, the only point at which the foundational code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, deigns to legislate about the lectionary is in the tractate devoted to Purim, Megillah, where a discussion of the laws governing the recitation of the scroll of Esther leads into a comprehensive survey of lectionary laws. From a liturgical and a codificatory perspective, in other words, Purim is the foundation of scripture, even though (or precisely because) it postdates the Torah.[2]

Hanukkah, by contrast, has no Scripture. The Catholic Bible includes two books devoted to the story of Hanukkah, 1 and 2 Maccabees, but these books are not canonical for Jews.[3] In the synagogue on Hanukkah one reads from Numbers 7, which tells about the dedication of the tabernacle altar in the wilderness. This passage is an ancient prologue to the story of Hanukkah (meaning “dedication”), which concerns the repair of the Jerusalem temple after the Hasmoneans’ victory over Antiochus, and the resumption of the liturgies therein, but Numbers 7 is not, of course, the story of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is unique among the major Jewish festivals in the fact that it is without scriptural foundation.

Jewish thinkers have found in this opposition between Purim and Hanukkah a reflection of certain foundational dichotomies in Jewish identity and Jewish theology. A Jew is a Jew in body and soul, but one can think separately of the body and the soul. To be Jewish is (in most cases) to be born Jewish: The Jewish people are a large family, the descendants of common ancestors. But to be Jewish is also to conform oneself to the Torah and to the tradition that it founds, and thus it is possible to convert to Judaism. A convert to Judaism starts with the soul but assumes the body: The Jewish convert becomes fully Jewish, body and soul, and her children are no less Jewish than any other’s.

If the distinction between body and soul maps on to the distinction between the family and the Torah as loci of Jewish identity, then this mapping is replicated within the second locus through the distinction between two categories of Torah: the written Torah, i.e., scripture, and the oral law, or rabbinic commentary and elaboration thereon. Rabbinic teachings related to the Torah have long since been committed to paper, and bookshelves in some Jewish households groan under the weight of the “oral” law: volumes of Talmud, Bible commentaries, and legal codes, from late antiquity to today. But these works are, in principle, oral phenomena, the sounds of debate and discovery, the spirit that elaborates and enlivens the letter. 

The story of Purim tells of a threat to Jewish bodies: Haman wished to kill the Jews of the Persian Empire. Hanukkah, by contrast, is the story of a threat to Jewish souls: The cause of the Hasmonean revolt, as told in the books of Maccabees, was the suppression of distinctive Jewish religious practices (circumcision, the dietary laws, etc.). And hence the different ways in which Jewish tradition celebrates the two festivals. Purim is marked by the recitation of scripture, i.e., of the law that is embodied in writing, and by a feast, i.e., a corporeal celebration. Hanukkah, by contrast, is the festival of the oral law, of the tradition that exceeds scripture. Its characteristic celebration is the lighting of a candle, for “the soul of humankind is the lamp of the Lord” (Prov 27:20 [NJPS, modified]).

These distinctions are commonplaces in traditional Jewish thought.[4] But, as the sages say, there is no study session without innovation, and so I will permit myself to add a nuance. To do so, I introduce Maimonides, a medieval figure widely known as a philosopher (and physician), but within the Jewish tradition more esteemed for his contributions to the codification of Jewish law. The first great codification of the oral law is the aforementioned Mishnah, from around 200CE, and the second great codification came a little less than a thousand years later, with Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, consciously patterned after the Mishnah, but with innovations great and small.[5]

The Mishneh Torah devotes two chapters to Hanukkah. The second, as one might expect, is devoted to the lighting of candles, the great commandment of Hanukkah. The first, more surprisingly, concerns the recitation of Hallel, a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving that consists of the sequence from Psalm 113 to Psalm 118, sandwiched between blessing formulae. Hallel is recited on all eight days of Hanukkah, but it is also recited on Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. And yet it is precisely the laws of Hanukkah that Maimonides chooses as the place in which to detail the laws governing the recitation of Hallel. Why?

The significance of Maimonides’s choice may again be taken to lie in the dialectical relationship between Hanukkah and Purim. For, most curiously, Hallel is not recited on Purim, even though the festival is very much an occasion for thanksgiving. The absence of Hallel on Purim was an object of puzzlement already for the rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah 14a). The Talmud offers various solutions, including an especially fascinating one that Maimonides codifies: The recitation of the book of Esther is itself an expression of thanksgiving. Or in other words, there is a certain point of contact, of similarity-in-difference, between scripture and thanksgiving. From this insight, a telling parallel emerges. Just as, in the Mishnah, the tractate devoted to Purim becomes the starting point for codification of the liturgical recitation of scripture, so, in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, the unit on Hanukkah is the locus for codification of Hallel.

The Jewish tradition, like the Catholic, is an organic whole, rooted in scripture but extending from it through the life of the community to today. The dialectic between past and present is intrinsic to tradition, and it becomes expressed in something of a polarized way in the relationship between Purim and Hanukkah. Purim is all past, all scripture. That there is no dark shadow on Purim—that the threat posed by Haman is not perceived, in the liturgical experience of the holiday, as a threat—is at least in part a result of its pastness, and its scriptural character: We have the book, and we can flip (or, with a scroll, roll) to the end.

There is no thanksgiving because the story stands apart from the worshipper, on the page. If the recitation of the story is indeed itself a thanksgiving, then such thanksgiving is muted, mediated. Hanukkah has something of a more somber character because the salvation that it celebrates, and thus also the threat whose overcoming it marks, are present and ensouled. Lacking a scriptural anchor, the Hanukkah story comes into being each year within the celebrant, through her act of thanksgiving.

[1] See Contra Faustum 9.14.

[2] On the relationship between the reading of the scroll of Esther and the lectionary in general in Mishnah tractate Megillah see Mordechai Sabato, “An Analysis of ‘Mishna Megilla’ 4:1 in Light of the Tractate’s Redactional Aims,” Sidra 26 (2011), 117-39.

[3] The conscious and unconscious choices that shaped the Jewish canon are shrouded in obscurity.  See Timothy H. Lim, The Formation of the Jewish Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). On early Jewish views on the Hasmoneans see Vered Noam, Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans: Second Temple Legends and Their Reception in Josephus and Rabbinic Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[4] See Mishnah Berurah 670:6; Penine Halakhah, Hanukkah 10. At greater length and in much greater depth see the first two penetrating essays in the volume on Hanukkah in Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s Pahad Yitzhak (9th ed.; Brooklyn: Gur Aryeh Institute for Advanced Jewish Scholarship, 2012).

[5] On Maimonides see Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).  Chapters four through six are dedicated to the Mishneh Torah.

Featured Image: Photo by Adiel lo, Dreidels for sale at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, taken on 17 April 2009; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Tzvi Novick

Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in early rabbinic Judaism and ancient Jewish liturgical poetry.

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