A Hanukkah Gift for Rabbanites (and Karaites)

Attribution: DRosenbach at en.wikipedia

Attribution: DRosenbach at en.wikipedia

In 1979, Hadassah magazine published a story about the Karaite Jews of Cairo. Among the interesting tidbits in the piece was that the last remaining Karaites in Cairo had never celebrated Hanukkah. [1.]

Since Karaites historically did not celebrate Hanukkah, some might find it odd that I am offering a Hanukkah gift to the Jewish masses. This offer is not too good to be true.

First, let’s get to the gift: for five days starting Sunday, December 21, 2014, everyone can download the electronic version of As it is Written for free. It will be available through Amazon – just go to the site, download it and boom goes the dynamite.

Now, I don’t really have much to add on the historical nature of Hanukkah. We’ve already discussed that the true miracle of Hanukkah is that the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid Empire, that no early source (rabbinic or otherwise) mentions anything about the oil lasting for eight days, and that the reason Hanukkah is eight days is because the Jews were celebrating Sukkot and dedicated the altar of the Temple for eight days.

So, if the traditional story of Hanukkah is not authentic, can a Karaite celebrate Hanukkah for its true historical purpose? Can we celebrate Hanukkah (without candles and blessings over candles) as a day to commemorate our defeat of the Seleucids and our rededication of the Temple?

As I see it, there is no problem commemorating such a holiday, but I note that we do not have our Temple today; so, to some extent, it would be a rather empty celebration. Of course, if one is willing to celebrate Yom Hazikaron, Yom Yerushalaim, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, it is hard to find any reason *not* to celebrate the historical events of Hannukah.

But, I think that one thing that keeps Karaites from celebrating Hanukkah (even in its purest, historical form) is “identity halakha“. For centuries, Karaites have prided themselves on not celebrating the man-made (and post-biblical) holiday of Hanukkah. It is a part of our identity. And, frankly, if we lose certain aspects of our identity, there really is no point to being a Karaite. I do not know where Hanukkah lies on the “preservation of the movement” spectrum.

I do know that even if you are not celebrating Hanukkah, there is no reason to be bitter about it. When he was in San Francisco, I asked Eli Shemuel about his views on Hanukkah (and other man-made feasts that can be observed without sacrilege). He said that if the Jewish people (as a whole) is happy, he is happy as well and wants to increase our people’s happiness. He then explained that in the case of Hanukkah it is difficult to observe the historical aspects wholeheartedly, because we no longer have our Temple.  And I get that.

Whether you’re on the historical Hanukkah bandwagon or not, enjoy some light reading this “holiday season” and download your free kindle edition of As it is Written.

*  *  *

1. Rabbi Boruch K. Helman, The Karaite Jews of Cairo, Hadassah Magazine, March 1979.

13 Comments

Filed under Calendar, Eli Shmuel, Hanukkah

13 Responses to A Hanukkah Gift for Rabbanites (and Karaites)

  1. maurice

    If you don’t have your identity, you have nothing.
    ‘Be not like the nations’. In this case, ‘…the nations’ refers both to Christians and Rabbanite Jews who celebrate a ‘Jewish Christmas’.
    Karaites should not say blessings over candles. It wouldn’t be honest. Lighting a candle for the shortest day of the year may have meaning. But as a point of community visibility, it is important as a matter of perception that we not be like the nations and not take part in either the Rabbanite or Christian goings on wrongfully associated with either holiday.

  2. Ed Mikre

    When did the rabbinic festival of chanukah actually begin, in practice? Was it before the CE or sometime in the Mishnaic/talmudic period?

    • It must be in the CE.

      Josephus guesses that the holiday is called “lights” because out of nowhere the Israelites lifted the darkness of the Greek rule and had the ability to worship. Of course, Josephus could be making this up (so that his Roman overlords would not view the Jews as a threat), and he might have believed in the story of the oil; but in any event he did not mention the story.

      And if he wanted protection from the Romans, a story about the oil would have been better than discussing freedom to worship.

      • Zvi

        There is no way in Heaven that Josephus had an inkling of the miraculous oil story since it was concocted shortly before the Mishna was published ca. AD 200 (the latter fact was mentioned a few times in the past years in our fora) — almost a century after his passing.

        • Zvi, the problem is that these sources (especially rabbinic sources) may be reporting an earlier tradition, regardless of when the tradition was put to paper. So, I do not know when the story was concocted, but I agree that Josephus did not know about the story of the oil.

          • Zvi

            1. You have just agreed, effectively, that the miraculous oil story was made up *after* Josephus’s death.
            2. I am convinced that Nehemia Gordon and other scholars are correct in contending that said story was invented shortly before the Mishna was published.
            If you have any solid evidence that places the origin of this legend earlier in time, I will certainly sit up and give it due credit.

  3. ilanb

    This is the Third year that I tell the story of Chanukah using Josephus and
    MACCBEES BOOK 1. There is too much history Jews need to know about this period and not just evil Hellenists. The ebb and flow of the time is also important to understand. Like where did this jackal Antiochus spring from, what ever happened to him. Stuff like that is important to the story of Chanukah as footnotes to events preceding and following.

    Good Article. Very important that you brought it to the fore.

  4. Henry

    As a Karaite, I uphold my freedom of thought and I see nothing wrong with the celebration of Hannukah. Even though the Temple is gone, we at least have part of it: the Wailing Wall in our possession now after the 1967 victory over Jordan. That’s a celebration in itself and a joyous moment not just for kids but for adults as well.

    • We all agree that the celebration is joyous. But the question is whether it may be celebrated without the parts that are “invented”.

    • Susan

      Henry, I would be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on celebrating/observing Hanukkah. I like what you said, and would love to include this in a thesis I’m writing about the karaite community in the US

  5. Shlomo

    It was originally called the Tabernacles of Kislev as indicated in 2 Maccabees 1:9, from the Greek Septuagint. “And now see that you the Feast of Tabernacles in the month of Kislev.” The Christian scripture refers to the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem (John 10:22). So it seems to be an authentic Jewish festival, if post-Biblical.

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