Adulting through Chanukah, part 2

In “Hanukkah for Grown-Ups,” Marianne Novak describes “adult initiative” needed to see rebellion as “the only viable option for the future of the Jewish people.” The previous post here noted a parallel with Psalm 30’s moments of terrifying uncertainty, as well as some challenges involved in relying on “a small section of the Jewish community to see” the way forward in terms of political action. (Details on Novak and publication below; see also previous “Thirty on Psalm 30” post.) But “adult initiative” comes in many forms. And below are a few related thoughts from another teacher.

How Big Was the Miracle?

Why do we celebrate eight nights as a “miracle,” when we are told that there was available purified oil “sufficient for one day’s lighting” (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b): Wouldn’t that make the additional seven nights miraculous but the first night ordinary?

Since Joseph Caro (16th Century, Safed; mystic and codifier of laws) posed this question — now often called “Beit Yosef’s Question” — many responses have been offered. Most of those I’ve read — and here are 25 answers distilled from many more — focus on the legal/logistical aspects of the question.

I am more interested in a more basic question…what Novak describes as the miracle of Jews seeking to rededicate the community through “being conscientious and thoughtful Jewish adults.” That, it seems to me, is the miracle of the first night: a group of Jews deciding, in less than ideal conditions, to create light where there was none in the faith that it would grow.

Hanukkah and Year Round

In his book, Seasons of Our Joy, Rabbi Arthur Waskow summarizes the two, sometimes apparently contradictory, aspects of the holiday:

  • “the standpoint of the Rabbi,” on the one hand, focusing on Zechariah’s “not by might…but by spirit” rather than “insurgent politics”;
  • “the standpoint of the Maccabee,” on the other, emphasizing “human courage and doggedness” and the “need to organize…to build might and use power…”

He then suggests that we see Hanukkah (using his spelling from here on for simplicity) as a time of darkness of both sun and moon, both military and cultural disaster, on the one hand, and spiritual darkness on the other:

The miracle at the Temple came at a moment…when even military victory had proven useless because the Temple could not be rededicated in the absence of sacred oil….

The real conflict is not between the Rabbi and the Maccabee, between spiritual and political, but between apathy and hope…

Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a time for accepting both the Maccabee and the Rabbi within us, seeing them as different expressions of the need to experience despair and turn toward hope. Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a resource to help us experience our moments of darkness whenever they occur throughout the year– and strike new sparks.
— Waskow (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 100

This view of Hanukkah brings us back to Psalm 30, as Psalm of the Day, prompts us to acknowledge darkness and weeping which “tarries for the night” as well as joy that “comes in the morning.” Moreover, Psalm 30 can be part of Hanukkah as a resource for the whole year, reminding us in the daily liturgy to acknowledge the darkness, insecurity, and weeping we and/or others in our community may be experiencing before we move on to celebrating:

You turned my mourning into dancing;
You loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
So that my glory may sing praise to You, and not be silent;
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You for ever.
— verses 12-13 (1917 JPS slightly adapted)



24 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).


NOTE:
A bio for Marianne Novak appears at Maharat Yeshivat, where she is in the class of 2019. Her dvar torah was published as part of The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance‘s “Shema Beoklah: Hear Her Voice” series. Earlier installments in the series are available online. publication is available

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Adulting through Chanukah, part 1

In “Hanukkah for Grown-Ups,” Marianne Novak describes differences between Purim — another holiday that is not commanded in the bible but delineated later by the Rabbinic tradition — and Hanukkah (I’ll uses JOFA’s spelling here for simplicity):

With Hanukkah, Antiochus enforced severe decrees but didn’t chose a specific doomsday for the Jewish people, as Haman does in Megillat Esther [the Purim story]. The Jews in the Persian Empire had no choice to but act. It was do or die. but with Hanukkah, it took the understanding of a small section of the Jewish community to see that the situation was indeed dire. They had to make the decision alone: There was no clear voice from God…It took adult initiative to comprehend why rebellion was the only viable option for the future of the Jewish people.
— “Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice series
from The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

This reminds me of Psalm 30, verses 7-8, in which the psalmist describes terror when God’s face is hidden:

וַ֭אֲנִי אָמַ֣רְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִ֑י בַּל־אֶמּ֥וֹט לְעוֹלָֽם׃

When I was untroubled, I thought, “I shall never be shaken,”

יְֽהוָ֗ה בִּרְצוֹנְךָ֮ הֶעֱמַ֪דְתָּה לְֽהַרְרִ֫י עֹ֥ז הִסְתַּ֥רְתָּ פָנֶ֗יךָ הָיִ֥יתִי נִבְהָֽל׃

for You, O Lord, when You were pleased, made [me] firm as a mighty mountain. When You hid Your face, I was terrified.

The expression is sometimes employed to mean that God is not apparent to the individual due to their own or the community’s sin. In the Purim story and some other narratives, common readings see God’s hand throughout, however lost and frightened the actors within the story may be. In the Joseph story, as well, Jacob and his sons take many actions — including selling Joseph into slavery — without narrative direction from God. But eventually Joseph declares that it was all God’s doing: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance” (Genesis 45:7).

In her piece on Hanukkah, Novak concludes:

…It was truly a miracle that a small group of Jews from within a Jewish community was able to rededicate Israel to Judaism. When we publicize the miracles of Hanukkah, we not only note God’s hand in the story but also remind ourselves that we can take responsibility for the survival of our people. By being conscientious and thoughtful Jewish adults, we also have faith that God will then come and help us.

This is a powerful, troubling conclusion. In the times of Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt, as at most other times in Jewish history, I suspect, there are a number of small groups seeking to rededicate Israel to Judaism. Yes, we must take responsibility for the survival of our people, but — without direct command from God — we must tread very carefully as none of us know WHICH of our many small groups has chosen the direction that will succeed or how any damage we do to one another on the way may not be repaired.

23 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).



NOTE: This new piece — which arrived through snail mail! — was not yet posted on their website, as of Dec. 7, although there are plenty of other fine teachings on this holiday and many other topics. I suspect this piece will be posted soon. And anyone interested can join their snail-mail list.
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The Pits and the Lights

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There are several parallels between Psalm 30 and the Joseph story, including their pits.

Psalm 30 praises God for having “preserved me from going down into the Pit [bor, בֽוֹר]”:

יְֽהוָ֗ה הֶֽעֱלִ֣יתָ מִן־שְׁא֣וֹל נַפְשִׁ֑י חִ֝יִּיתַ֗נִי מיורדי־[מִיָּֽרְדִי־] בֽוֹר׃
O LORD, You brought me up from Sheol, preserved me from going down into the Pit.

In this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz, Gen 41:1-44:17), Joseph is finally brought up from the dungeon [min-habor, מִן־הַבּ֑וֹר] (Gen 41:14), while Joseph is earlier thrown into a pit by his brothers (Gen 37: 23-24).

During the earlier incident, Judah says, “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” (Gen 37:26) — language that is similar to Ps 30:10: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?” And then Jacob, upon learning of his son’s apparent demise, says he will go down to Sheol in mourning (37:35), like the psalmist in verse 4.

In addition to these language echoes, Psalm 30 and the Joseph story share basic themes of extreme reversals from despair to joy, from strength to terror and back again. Many teachers have noticed the parallels, although no favorite dvrei torah on the subject come to mind. (Please share any that you find helpful.) Moreover, the context of Chanukah brings additional light-and-darkness focus to Psalm 30.

Does Psalm 30 sound different while we’re reading the Joseph story? During these festival days?

22 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

Dedications

Medieval commentary on the holiday of Chanukah asks, “How many dedications [channukot] were there?” The answer is that there were seven, and we are offered two lists.

Seven Dedications:

  1. heaven and earth,
  2. the wall of Jerusalem, in the time of Nehemiah,
  3. the Second Temple, “those who came up from exile,”
  4. of the priests — the Hasmonean re-dedication,
  5. the world to come,
  6. of princes (Bamidbar), and,
  7. finally, the First Temple: “The dedication of the Sanctuary [v’chanukat hamikdash, וחנוכת המקדש], which this is speaking of ‘A psalm; a song of dedication of the House, of David’ (Psalm 30:1).”

Immediately following, we read, “Another explanation. There are seven channukot,” with a slightly different list:

Another explanation:

  1. creation of the world,
  2. completion of the Mishkan by Moses,
  3. the First Temple: “The dedication of the House [v’chanukat habayit, וחנוכת הבית], as it is written “A psalm; a song of dedication of the House, of David” (Psalm 30:1).”
  4. the Second Temple,
  5. the wall of Jerusalem,
  6. the “current one of the House of Hasmonean,”
  7. the world to come, “because even that has lights.”

— See Pesikta Rabbati Chapter 2 for both lists, associated citations, and more commentary on Chanukah.

The second list above includes “dedication of the House” (“chanukat habayit“) in what seems like a chronological order, from creation of the world, to world to come. The first uses the expression “v’chanukat hamikdash,” translated as “dedication of the Sanctuary,” in a list that looks less chronological — its ordering is obscure to me — but culminates with Sanctuary.

Jewish tradition includes many notions about “sanctuary,” from the metaphorical — understanding mikdash as a symbol of the covenantal relationship with God or a representation of the human body-soul, for example — to the concrete/political, as in Mikdash: The Jewish Sanctuary Movement, protecting today’s immigrants. Many Jews see Chanukah as an opportunity to rededicate sanctuary, however that is understood.

Tonight we light the first candle. As the eight nights progress, we’ll consider more about dedication and the words of Psalm 30, Chanukah’s psalm for the day. How, and to what, are you rededicating?
twocandles

21 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month (NoLoNaNoWriMo?), but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE: This post was updated on the evening of 12/3/18 with corrected lists of the dedications, with help from Norman Shore.

Mouse and Menorah

In Perek Shira, as noted in the previous two posts, verses from Psalm 30 join a chorus of praise in which “each of God’s creatures, plants and animals, mountains and rivers, sings out to its Creator in a special way.” Our prayers, are part of a “cosmic symphony” says Rabbi Arthur Green:

The prayers of Israel are recited in a special language and a distinctive form. There is a way in which they belong to the Jewish people and to us alone. But prayer is also a universal act, one that binds the whole human community together with all of nature, calling forth in us an appreciation of life as an ongoing celebration of the gift of being.
— from Kol Haneshemah (citation below)

This idea leads to the commentary in Pesikta Rabbati — medieval commentary on the holidays — which tells us that there were seven dedications, channukot, from dedication of heaven and earth in Breishit to the “dedication of the world to come, because even that has lights…”

More on the seven dedications as November (National Novel Writing Month) ends and Chanukah begins.

20 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

Mouse and Menorah.jpg

NOTE:
Comment appears on page 704 of Kol Haneshemah: Shabbat V’chagim, the prayerbook published by Reconstructionist Press, 1996. Full citation at Source Materials. For more on Art Green, visit his website.

Kol Haneshemah includes select verses from Perek Shira as an alternative P’sukei D’zimrah. Among them is the first Mouse verse, translated as follows:

The mouse says: “I shall exalt you, O REDEEMING ONE, for you delivered me, and gave my enemies no joy on my account.” (Psalm 30:2).

Kol Haneshemah does not include the verse-conversation when the mouse is captured by the cat. See “And the Mouse Says” and “Glory and the Swallow” for more on Perek Shira.
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Dedication

The previous post looked at some of the “bridge” concepts employed to explain Psalm 30’s function in its regular liturgical spot, at the close of the morning blessings, and before the psalms/verses of song. Another explanation for the placement of Psalm 30 is that it was the “psalm of the day” for the holiday of Chanukah and then crept, perhaps by printer’s error, into daily prayers. But how is it connected to Chanukah in the first place?

Rededication and Superscription

Marc Brettler, professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University and co-founder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship), notes that the expression “chasidim” — translated as “faithful ones,” “righteous” or “pious” — was used at the time of the Maccabean revolt for those loyal to the Hasmonean cause. Because of this word choice and the psalm’s focus on rescue from a desperate situation, he argues:

…someone (on the wining side) after the Hasmonean victory in 164 BCE could have read Psalm 30 and imagined: “David prophesized this about us!” The psalm, for that very reason, may even have been recited as part of the dedication ceremony on Chanukah in 164 BCE since it was seen as broadly appropriate—or even prophetic—to what had happened.
— Brettler, “Reciting Psalm 30 on Chanukah: A Biblical Custom?

Brettler hypothesizes a timeline that goes like this:

  1. The original superscription was מזמור לדוד, “a psalm of David,” with no particular association with the Temple;
  2. During the Maccabean revolt, the winners identified themselves as the “chasidim,” whose success was prophesized by David in this psalm;
  3. The psalm may have been incorporated into the Temple rededication;
  4. At this time, the words שיר חנכת הבית, “A song for the dedication of the House,” entered the margins of a manuscript, noting that Psalm 30 was recited at the rededication and “that, perhaps, Jews were supposed to recite each year during Chanukah”;
  5. Eventually, the words entered the Psalter, awkwardly placed between the words מזמור, “A psalm” and לדוד, “of David.”

— See article cited above for a much fuller explanation and argument


Superscription and Rededication

The Jerusalem Commentary assumes the converse of Brettler’s conjecture:

We do not find anywhere in rabbinic literature that a special psalm was recited by the Levites in the Temple on Hanukkah. The passages in [8th and 9th Century sources] refer to synagogue customs after the destruction of the Temple. If we assume that this psalm was recited on Hanukkah in the Temple, it would stand to reason that the Hasmoneans said it on Hanukkah because they interpreted the dedication, “a song at the dedication of the house,” as an allusion to their own rededication of the Temple.
The Jerusalem Commentary (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2003), p.228

The Jerusalem Commentary adds that assuming Psalm 30 was recited at the (re)dedication of the Temple is based on the belief “that the psalm is the prayer of the entire nation.” This means interpreting “healing” as “deliverance from enemies, for each dedication of the Temple was preceded by God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their enemies” (p.229).

Many commentaries on Psalm 30 focus on an individual’s healing and rescue — that of the psalmist, the person reciting, or a person whose healing is sought. In Samuel Barth’s interpretation (cited in the previous post and linked again here), “rededication” of the “inner temple” can also apply to an individual.

Rabbi Folger’s study (quoted in the previous post and linked again here) offers an interesting sidebar: His review of older prayer books suggests that the opening line, “A song for the dedication of the House,” of Psalm 30 might have been recited only on Chanukah, while the body of the psalm, beginning with “I will extol…,” was regularly recited in the morning. Perhaps the psalm is read differently on different occasions.


12 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…apologies, again,for multiple-post days; almost caught up.

The House: Bricks and Mortar?

Psalm 30 begins with the superscription: “Dedication of the House” —

מִזְמוֹר: שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד.
mizmor: shir-chanukat ha-bayit l’David
A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David.


Which House?

Some bricks and mortar possibilities, per The Jerusalem Commentary:

  • First Temple: “The commentators disagree about which dedication and which “house” the psalm is referring to. Some say that it refers to the dedication of the First Temple, and that David himself composed the psalm, and instructed his son Solomon to recite it when the Temple was dedicated.”*
  • Second Temple: “Some commentators suggest that the dedication means that this psalm was recited by the Levites at the dedication of the Second Temple. See Ezra 6:16-18 and 3:10, though in the latter context we are dealing with the laying of the Temple’s foundations and not its dedication. See also Nehemiah 12:27, though there we are dealing with the dedication of the city wall.”**
  • David’s House: “Others suggested that the “house” mentioned here is not the Temple, but rather David’s house, mention in II Samuel 5:11 and 7:1-2.”*
  • Private Home: “Other commentators maintain that the house mentioned here refers to privately owned houses, for there was an ancient custom to celebrate the dedication of a new house (see Deuteronomy 20:5).”**

The Jerusalem Commentary, full citation
*p. 228, **note 14, p.228

Some argue, as noted above, that David wrote the psalm and then instructed Solomon to recite it. We’ve already touched on additional commentary reconciling “Of David” with “the House” as the First Temple. Other teachers take different approaches to its physical and temporal location largely in support of commentary on its emotional content.

And When?

The Mishnah, Bikkurim, reports that Psalm 30 was recited in connection with First Fruits. Other text links the psalm to Chanukah, and it is psalm of the day during that holiday. For several hundred years, Psalm 30 has also been recited first thing in the morning, leading to other associations and interpretations of “house.” More on these ideas to come.

6 of Thirty on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…

…For anyone wondering: I am writing each day in November but not necessarily posting every day. Sorry if this is confusing anyone and hope days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes, are not too annoying.

 

Note

The Jerusalem Commentary, The Psalms: 1-57
Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2003.
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The Five Powers, part 3

Exploring Babylon Chapter 11.2

A few notes on Rome, the last of the five foreign powers associated with Chanukah, to round out the discussion of “Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge].”

Chapter 11.1 outlined the structure of the 13th Century piyyut:

  • an opening stanza calling for future restoration of the Temple and for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe”;
  • four stanzas recalling past-tense rescues (Chanukah, Purim, Egypt, Babylon); and
  • and a final, present/future-oriented stanza asking God to “Aveng​e the blood of your servants from the evil nation” and “Push Edom into the shadows and bring the seven shepherds.”

This structure follows a regular, ancient pattern which recalls previous rescue from foreign powers while calling on God for help now, from the ever-present power of “Rome” in its many forms over the centuries. And this piyyut’s history illustrates another pattern associated with “Rome.”

See below for a note on the “seven shepherds” (hint: not average, peaceful flock ovine-tending folk).

The Persistence of “Rome”

When the Talmud and many early midrashim speak of “foreign powers,” rescue from Egypt and from Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucid empire is past tense, while the Roman Empire — often called “Edom” or “Esau,” sometimes “the evil nation” — remains a present danger. We saw this, for example, in midrashim on the Akedah, Jacob’s dream, and “in the beginning.” The same trope is repeated for centuries, with “Edom” or “the evil nation” standing in for the Catholic Church and non-Jewish political powers.

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire and its successors influenced various aspects of Jewish worship through official censorship by the authorities, intimidation and violence, and related self-censorship by Jewish communities. This dynamic is often cited to explain why the narrative of Chanukah shifted from the military-centered tale (Maccabees 1 and 2, usually dated 2nd Century BCE) to the story of one cruse of oil lasting eight days (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, hundreds of years later, during Roman rule). This is also a key part of the story of how Ma’oz Tzur‘s presentation in various prayer books changed over the years.

For several hundred years, the harsh sixth stanza of the piyyut disappeared from prayerbooks, although the first stanza remained and garnered many musical settings. (See Notes 2 and 3 below.) The evil nation/Edom verses can be found today in Orthodox prayer books today, while non-Orthodox prayer books and musical collections continue to omit them — very often including even more abbreviated versions of Ma’oz Tzur or and/or substitution of the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.”

The sixth stanza’s disappearance is now thought to be the result of self- censorship by Jewish communities during periods when relations with “Rome” were troubled at best. Deciding whether and how to (re-)include the sixth stanza is part of the on-going development of relations between Jews and “Rome.”

Singing with Gusto?

A few years ago, the London-based Jewish Chronicle posted a discussion on including, or omitting, the sixth stanza.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, from Borehamwood and Elstree (Modern Orthodx) United Synagogue, argued for using the existence of harsher prayers, like Ma’oz Tzur, as teaching moments:

As a responsible teacher you cannot hide this fact from your students. Instead, use these prayers as a springboard to discuss the turbulent nature of Jewish history. These are not speeches calling on faithful Jews to commit violence. They are desperate prayers to God asking Him to remove the threat of danger that hangs over our people.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue argued to the contrary, noting that “we ask others to remove passages that offend us — such as sections of Christian liturgy that insult Jews,” and declaring that the sixth stanza of Ma’oz Tzur “hardly reflects our understanding of the festival or the positive message of Jewish identity that we derive from it.”

Romain concludes:

The prayer book is the manifesto of Judaism. It is said that the Bible is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and the prayer book is our gift back. It reflects what we believe and stand for. If we are to pray it, then we should mean it.

We should be able to sing Ma’oz Tzur with gusto and without grimacing at the end. Religious values means ditching verse six.

…The two teachers were asked only about the sixth stanza, not about the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe” line in the opening stanza. Many progressive congregations do cheerfully belt out the first stanza in Hebrew, with or without a literal English translation nearby; I don’t know what is included in British Reform Jewish siddirum…

Brawer’s position is quite different:

Ma’oz Tzur in particular demonstrates that persecution is unfortunately a recurring theme in our history. Jews must never gloat when an enemy falls and vengeance for vengeance’s sake is distinctly un-Jewish. However, that does not mean we must shy away from asking God to eliminate our enemies. Nor for that matter should we hesitate to celebrate when that happens. That is, after all, the whole story of Chanucah.

But this brings us back to the topic of Chanukah and the ways we tell the story: the Maccabees’ might? Zechariah’s “but by spirit”? The Talmud’s story of lights? And this has always depended, at least in part, on who else might be listening.

Epilogue

This, finally, is the last of three originally-planned posts on Chanukah and the “five powers.” (Apologies for delay and any confusion occasioned by it.) The holiday has been over for awhile now, most likely the wax and wicks finally cleared away as well. But the real point of the holiday — as Gila Sacks writes here — is what we take forward from it:

The lighting of the menorah stands in direct contrast to the dramas of war…..it emphasizes the power of the regular, consistent practice of ritual and law to bring meaning into our lives— rather than waiting for miracles, waiting for enlightenment to find us.

Mai Hannukah? [What is (the reason for) Chanukah?] We focus on the lighting of the menorah, rather than the war that preceded it, to remind us that the real miracles came afterward—in our ability then, and our challenge now, to create an emanating light through small, simple, regular acts of service.
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day”
Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice




NOTES

NOTE 1: Seven Shepherds
The Book of Micah — dated to the last part of the 8th and first part of the 7th Century BCE — focuses on a the time period around the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. This prophet is read only once in the liturgical year, as haftarah (5:6-6:8) for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). The haftarah includes the famous line (6:8), “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The haftarah begins with a positive-sounding message: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the LORD, as showers upon the grass…” (5:6) but goes on to speak of violent retribution, wrecking chariots and destroying idols, fortresses and cities (5-8-14). And just preceding the haftarah are more sword-centered, messianic visions:

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me— One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times.
“Truly, He will leave them [helpless] Until she who is to bear has borne; Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.
“He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the LORD, By the power of the name Of the LORD his God, And they shall dwell [secure]. For lo, he shall wax great To the ends of the earth;
“And that shall afford safety. Should Assyria invade our land And tread upon our fortresses, We will set up over it seven shepherds, Eight princes of men,
“Who will shepherd Assyria’s land with swords, The land of Nimrod in its gates. Thus he will deliver [us] From Assyria, should it invade our land, And should it trample our country.”
— Micah 5:1-5 (1985 JPS, posted by Sefaria)

Rabbi Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz discusses the “seven shepherds” in the context of Sukkot’s ushpizin [mystical visitors to festival booths]. Micah’s messianic verses are much more popular among Christians. In fact, FWIW, the My Jewish Learning article comes from a Christian press.

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NOTE 2:

Cantor David Berger, of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, gave a 2010 presentation for the Union for Reform Judaism which presents many musical settings and includes history and commentary. His presentation to the URJ used an orthodox source (Koren Sacks siddur) for the six stanzas of Ma’oz Tzur, as well as Reform and other sources for the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.” (More on this in the previous chapter of #ExploringBabylon.)

NOTE 3:
Although some scholars suggest that the harsh sixth stanza was a later addition, it seems of a piece with the first stanza’s call for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe,” as well as with the “You saved us before, get us out of Edom” trope described above. Berger (in above cited webinar) reports that scholars now believe the sixth stanza original and self-censored.

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The Five Powers, part 2

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Exploring Babylon 11.1

Episode 10 of #ExploringBabylon began discussing foreign powers associated with Chanukah — Egypt, Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire, Babylon, Persia, and Rome — looking briefly at three of the five. Before the holiday is too distant a memory, let’s look at the remaining powers, Persia and Rome, and the holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] that includes them all.

Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge]” includes a stanza about restoration and re-dedication of the Temple followed by stanzas reflecting on rescue from each of the five foreign powers. It was composed in Hebrew in 13th Century Germany and credited to “Moredechai,” based on his acrostic “signature.”

The 19th Century song “Rock of Ages” — often confusingly called a “translation” of “Ma’oz Tzur” — adapts the piyyut’s themes of kindling lights and rescue while focusing only on the Chanukah story. The English is credited to two European-born, U.S. rabbis important in the Reform movement, based on an earlier German piece.

For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, it’s important to note differences between the 13th and 19th Century lyrics in terms of agency, tense, and ultimate aim.

Rock of Refuge, Ages

“Rock of Ages” omits any call for restoration of the Temple, of course, and there is no sense that Jews (some of whom may be “fettered”) are more in need of rescue than any other people. The 19th Century Reform song thanks God for “saving power” (past tense) and then calls on Jews (present, future) to wake and sound their message of universal freedom and an end to tyranny:

“Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

“Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering…

“Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.”
— Marcus Jastrow & Gustav Gottheil

The 13th Century lyrics, on the other hand, use past tense for stanzas about Egypt, Babylon, Chanukah, and Purim, but open and close with the need for God’s future rescue. The poet ascribes deliverance, past and future, to God alone and continues to beg for help for the beleaguered Jewish community:

Ma’oz tzur yeshu’ati
O Fortress,​ Rock of my salvation​​,
lecha na’eh leshabei’ach,

unto thee it is becoming to give praise:
Tikon beit tefilati
let my house of prayer be restored,​
vesham todah nezabei’ach
and I will there offer thee thanksgiv​ings
Le’eit tachin matbei’ach
when thou shalt have prepared a slaughter​
mitzar hamenabei’ach,
of the blasphemi​ng foe,
Az egmor beshir mizmor
I will complete with song and psalm
chanukat hamizbei’ach
the dedicatio​n of the altar.*

Chasof zero’a kadshecha
vekareiv keitz hayeshu’ah,

Expos​e your holy arm
and bring the end of the redemptio​n.

Nekom nikmat dam avadecha
mei’uma haresha’ah,

Aveng​e the blood of your servants
from the evil nation.

Ki archa lanu hayeshu’ah
ve’ein kaitz leyimei hara’ah,

Becau​se the salvation​​ has been a long time coming
and there is no end to the days of evil.

Dechei admon betzeil tzalmmon
hakeim lanu ro’im shiv’ah.

Push Edom into the shadows
(Others: Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death)
and bring the seven shepherds.”***
Zemirot Database
*translation from Authorize​​​d Daily Prayer Book (1890)
***Zemirot Database contributor translation

NOTE: “seven shepherds” from Micah 5:4 (more, eventually, on this verse)

Zemirot Database provides Hebrew and a public domain translation of all six stanzas of “Ma’oz Tzur.” The Milken Archives offers lyrics, without the last stanza, and a little history. Wikipedia presents lots of useful background plus Hebrew and English for both “Ma’oz Tzur” and “Rock of Ages,” and — serious kudos for this important clarification — identifies the latter as a “non-literal” translation of the former….

Rescue from the Powers

Stanzas 2-5 of “Ma’oz Tzur” thank God for rescue (past tense):

  • God “brought forth the treasured people” and Pharaoh’s army “sunk like a stone”
  • The oppressor “came and led me captive” but “through Zerubbabel I was saved after seventy years”
  • “The head of the Benjamite​ thou didst exalt, but the enemy’s name thou Midst blot out”
  • “The Grecians were gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans,” towers were broken and oil defiled, “but from one of the last remaining​ flasks a miracle was wrought for thy beloved”

The final verse, quoted above, returns to the present tense; we’ll leave its call for relief from Edom (Rome) — which was missing from prayerbooks for hundreds of years and is still omitted from many versions — for another day.

We’ve previously touched on other powers described above, but we’ve yet to focus in on Persia.

Persia, Purim, and the Temple

As is common in re-tellings of the Purim story, the stress in “Ma’oz Tzur” is on the evil that Haman intended toward the Jews and the violent end he and his sons met instead; the carnage in the final chapters of Esther, when “Jews smote their enemies” (9:5), is not mentioned. And, as in other stanzas of the piyyut, the only real actor in the Purim stanza is God.

The Purim story is set sometime after the far the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BCE), when Judeans who had been exiled were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Many Jews remained behind in what had been Babylonia, however. And, meanwhile, according to Ezra 4:6ff, permission to re-construct the Temple was rescinded “in the reign of Ahasuerus.”

Rebuilding had stalled during Zechariah’s prophesy. We left off our previous discussion, with the haftarah for Chanukah (Zech 2:14-4:7), as the twin leadership of Zerubbabel — also mentioned in the Babylonian stanza of “Ma’oz Tzur” above — and Joshua ben Jehozadak attempted to rally support for the restoration. Zechariah’s prophesy is specifically dated to 520-518 BCE; it is less clear how we are to understand “in the days of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:1).

The Book of Esther is set far from Jerusalem, and the text does not mention the Temple. Midrash does, however. For example: Mordechai had been part of a delegation asking the king to allow rebuilding (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer). Ahasuerus rejoices at the Temple’s delay, according to Midrash Rabbah. The king calculated that the Judeans’ exile was exceeding the period prophesied by Jeremiah, and so “brought vessels of the Temple and used them” (BT Megillah 11b).

Persia and Babylon

The vessels used in the king’s feast (1:5) and Queen Vashti’s (1:9) link these festivities to earlier revelry in Babylon, when Belshazzar used the vessels the night of the “writing on the wall” (Dan 5). In this and many other ways, Midrash Rabbah accuses Ahasuerus of prolonging, and sometimes enjoying, Jews’ separation from the Temple begun with Babylonian Captivity. However, the ancient rabbis’ understanding of Babylon as God’s instrument extends to Persia.

Throughout Midrash Rabbah, God is a regular, explicit actor in the Purim story, even though God is not mentioned — except, perhaps, for Mordechai’s comment about help coming “from another place [מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר]” — in the actual text of Megillat Esther.

Early on in Midrash Rabbah, for example, the apparently superfluous “in those days” of Esther 1:2 is explained by an exchange between God and the angels. The angels complain to God, “Master of the universe! The Temple is destroyed, and this wicked person sits and engages in revelry?!” God responds by saying Redemption had been delayed due to Judeans’ failure to observe the Sabbath:

“Place days opposite days,” thus it is written: In those days I observed in Judah [people] treading on winepresses on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15)
— Esther Rabbah 1:10 (Artscroll, 2011)

Jewish thought over the centuries includes many other views of exile and oppression, but the concept of Redemption coming when God determined it was deserved, so apparent in Midrash Rabbah for Esther, seems to be shared by the writer of “Ma’oz Tzur.” This yields a further blurring of “foreign powers” — beyond Babylon, and its successor, Persia — into a sort of non-specific enemy to be defeated in God’s time. And, while “Rock of Ages” does not hint at oppression as deserved (or list as many previous oppressors), it ultimately points to a similar non-specific tyranny as enemy.

…and that leads, eventually, to the concept of “empire” in Christian commentary. (To take just one example, see Come Out My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, by Wes Howard-Brook. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010). More on this, with some Christian and interfaith input, to come….

But there is still “Rome” and far more work, just in clearing up the last bits of Chanukah’s wax, for #ExploringBabylon.


NOTE 1:
A number of sources, including the Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah (2007), and the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah (1994), publish the 13th Century Hebrew side-by-side with the “Rock of Ages” text, calling it a “translation.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that many other educational and music sites follow suit. See, e.g., Teaching Songs, Hebrew Songs), and sadly: My Jewish Learning. “Rock of Ages” is based on an earlier German version and so, in that sense, a translation — just not of the Hebrew.

Some sources, obviously copying Wikipedia — which has enough contributors monitoring Jewish learning pages to pick at any sloppiness — now call “Rock of Ages” a “non-literal translation” of the Hebrew piyyut. A 2010 Reform presentation uses quotation marks: “an English ‘translation.'”

EDITORIALIZING NOTE: Wikipedia is very useful and, as this example indicates, very influential. Many of us make use of it without giving it much consideration, though. ‘Tis the season, however, so please consider saving on 2018 taxes by donating now to this and the other internet resources, Jewish and more general, on which we all rely.
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NOTE 2:
This reflects closely the discussion in B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, which begins with “What is Chanukah?” and goes on to discuss order of candle-lighting and reciting of Hallel, with the briefest mention of the Temple being defiled. In contrast with Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, which discuss the stories, including military views, of the conflict with the Hasmoneans.
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NOTE 3:
Some contemporary scholars call the Book of Esther a “novella” not linked with specific historical figures; others identify Ahasuerus with Persia’s Xerxes I and its setting to 483-473 BCE (Cf My Jewish Learning) and Jewish Encyclopedia). For the purposes of this discussion, the book’s historicity is not of prime importance.
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Wax and Wicks

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Jews have laws and customs for so many ritual details: washing hands in the morning, donning a tallit [prayershawl], the order of blessings before and after a meal, preparing a household for Passover, etc., etc., etc., etc. A special kavanah [intention] can be part of even the most mundane of actions, as well. But, while we do have rituals for bidding holy days farewell, there is a marked lack of ritual and intention for cleaning up afterward. Much ink has been spilled, for example, over the order candles are placed in the Chanukah menorah and the order in which they’re lit each night. Where do we learn, though, how to deal with wax drippings and old wicks, at the end of the eight days?

WaxWicks.jpg

A winter cold meant a pause in #ExploringBabylon after only three of the five powers associated with Chanukah and the piyyut “Ma’oz Tzur.” But this household is still trying to rid itself of wax drippings left on the cookie sheet while cleaning up the hanukkiyot — and we hope that the light from the holiday will not recede but carry us (past the Gregorian new year) on toward the New Year for Trees (1/30/18). So, look for “Chanukah and the Five Powers, part 2” soonish.