This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Levi's War *

Hanukkah is the only major Jewish holiday that did not originate in the Bible. For other holidays, an important component of their celebration consists of reading the scriptural passages that outline the days’ origins or regulations. However, this was not really an option for Hanukkah, since the Maccabean revolt occurred after the age of prophetic inspiration. Consequently, the designated readings for Hanukkah only deal in an indirect way with dedication ceremonies for various sanctuaries, with the sacred candelabrum, and other loosely associated themes.

It was probably in response to this perceived deficiency that a “Scroll of the Hasmoneans” was composed and achieved considerable popularity in Jewish congregations during the early medieval era, notably in Italy and in the Arabic-speaking world. This work was apparently written in Aramaic, but it was also widely known in a Hebrew translation. Its content was based principally on the Books of Maccabees that are preserved in the Greek Apocrypha; and its narrative is seasoned with liberal sprinklings of traditions from the Talmud and other Jewish texts.

The great tenth-century Jewish leader Saadiah Gaon took it upon himself to produce authoritative Arabic translations of the entire Hebrew Bible, translations which are still in use in some Arabic-speaking Jewish communities. After completing his translation of Esther, Saadiah decided that it would also be appropriate to provide one for the the Scroll of the Hasmoneans, given the close thematic affinities that exist between Purim and Hanukkah.

In the Introduction to his translation, Saadiah described some of the challenges that he was facing in encouraging the observance of Hanukkah among his contemporaries. He reckoned that his translation would satisfy an essential need in the Jewish world of his day, since he found that though most Jews were dutifully listening to the reading of the Scroll, few of them understood it well enough to gain a real appreciation of the meaning of Hanukkah. There were even some who, in their ignorance, rejected the holiday altogether!

As we are well aware, Saadiah conducted an aggressive ideological campaign on behalf of Rabbinite Judaism against the Karaites who claimed to rely exclusively on the Bible while rejecting the Talmud and other works composed by the sages of the oral tradition. One senses that in this instance, he was concerned that even some non-Karaite Jews were beginning to question the legitimacy of a festival that had no visible scriptural basis.

And so Saadiah boldly undertook to demonstrate that Hanukkah, though it commemorates events that occurred after the biblical age, nonetheless has its roots planted solidly in the same authoritative revelation that underlies the Torah and the prophetic teachings. In order to achieve this formidable objective, he scoured the pages of the Bible in search of references to two main themes: (1) a military campaign against the Greeks; and (2) victorious battles that were waged by the tribe of Levi—since the Hasmonean family, as Priests, were a subset of the tribe of Levi.

He found an allusion to the latter motif in the Torah itself. Moses’s parting blessing to Levi contains the bellicose words “Smite through the loins of them that rise up against him, and of them that hate him, that they rise not again.” Since the Bible does not record any specific wars that were fought or spearheaded by the tribe of Levi, Saadiah deduced that this passage must be foretelling the Hanukkah story, when the priestly Hasmonean family would defeat Antiochus Epiphanes and drive him out of Judea.

A similar interpretation to the verse had previously been proposed in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah: “Into whose hands does the Greek empire fall? Into the hands of the Hasmoneans who are descendants of Levi.”

Though this biblical passage might well satisfy our quest for a reference to a Levitical military triumph, the text does not really contain any explicit statement that their foes were Greeks—at least that is what we might have thought if we did not enjoy the benefits of Saadiah’s ingenious erudition. However, paying careful attention to the wording of Moses’s blessing to Levi, he focused on the unusual expression about smiting the enemy’s “loins.”

For Saadiah, that expression evoked an association with a remarkable image in the book of Daniel, where the Jewish hero interprets the Nebuchadnezzar's dream about a formidable statue: “This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” The dream was interpreted as a foretelling of the four great empires that would subjugate the world: Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. According to this symbolism, Greece is symbolized as the statue’s “belly and thighs.” Thus, the “loins” of Levi’s foe, as mentioned in Moses’s blessing, can be referring to none other than the Greeks—and thereby we have established that the Hanukkah triumph was prophesied in the Torah!

If that seems too convoluted for your tastes, Saadiah adduces a more straightforward proof text from the book of Joel. The prophet inveighs there against a number of hostile foreign nations; and in a diatribe against Tyre and Sidon, he speaks about them selling the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the far-off Greeks [=Yavan], while reassuring us that the selfsame fate will ultimately be visited upon our oppressors. The Judeans will then sell their Greek prisoners to the people of Sheba. Without resorting to elaborate interpretation, the passage can be read as a prediction of a Jewish victory against the Greeks in the days of the Hasmoneans.

In yet another proof, Saadiah cited the prophetic words of Zechariah who foretold a triumph of Judah and Ephraim “against your sons, O Yavan.” Saadiah was initially bothered by the fact that the victory is being attributed to Judah while there is no clear mention of Levi or the priests, as we should expect if the allusion were to the Hasmoneans. Admittedly, the designation “Judah” can plausibly be explained as referring to the political unit and not the tribe, but it requires a bit more inventiveness to discern a reference to the priesthood. Nevertheless, Saadiah was able to find such a reference in Zechariah’s description of Israel‘s glorious salvation: In that day “they shall be like the jewels of a crown.”

To Saadiah’s sensitive ears, the prophet’s words evoked the image of the priestly breastplate as set out in the book of Exodus: “And the stones shall have the names of the sons of Israel...; they shall be according to the twelve tribes.”

This imagery recalls to us the priests’ leadership over the nation, and how it was manifested when the Hasmonean family led Israel to their miraculous triumph over the Greek armies —exactly as foretold by the prophets of old.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[*]
  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, December 7, 2012, p. 17.
  • For further reading:
    • Atlas, S., and M. Perlmann. “Saadia on the Scroll of the Hasmonaeans.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 14 (1944): 1–23.
    • Rosenthal, Franz. “Saadyah’s ‘Introduction to the Scroll of the Hasmoneans’.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 36, no. 3 (1946): 297–302.