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    Chanukah & Purim

    Chanukah and Purim are often regarded as on a par, but the comparison is only superficial.

    In terms of religious observances, Chanukah appears to have the upper hand. It lasts eight days, Hallel is recited daily, there is a Torah reading every day, and of course there are all the observances connected with the menorah and its lights.

    On the other hand, Purim is a mere one-day festival (Shushan Purim has been described as “only the hangover of Purim”). The Megillah is read evening and morning, but there is no Hallel and no Torah reading, though the feasting and giving of gifts are taken very seriously.

    Yet Purim has a whole book of the Bible and a tractate of the Talmud, whereas Chanukah rates only a few incidental mentions in the Talmud and has no authentic literature of its own (the Books of the Maccabees are apocryphal and the so-called Megillat Antiochus has no status). It seems that the sages who had control over rabbinic literature were determined to play down Chanukah to the advantage of Purim. There is a view that this reflects the rabbis’ disapproval of the later generations of Judah Maccabee’s family who sought to wear two crowns – spiritual and temporal – at the same time.

    But possibly the problem lay not so much in the Maccabean leaders as in the people. In the Purim story, though Jewish physical existence was threatened, there did not seem to be any danger that Judaism itself would be undermined. The Jewish people were well aware that their security was at stake, but they remained faithful to their heritage. When trouble loomed, they prayed and fasted. They behaved like traditional Jews. True, God is not mentioned by name in the Megillah, but His Presence clearly hovers in the background; there is no suggestion that the people had abandoned or defied Him.

    In the Chanukah story, on the other hand, we see a divided people. The few remained loyal to God and their tradition, but the majority were tempted to adopt the ways of the Greeks, and many did. No wonder the sages stressed the story of the little jar of oil that kept the lights burning for eight days. The story of the jar of oil was an implied rebuke to the assimilationists – an implied rebuke, and a warning that even if they themselves drifted away from the tradition, the tradition was eternal and a thin light would miraculously grow into a full flame.

    In “Why I am a Jew”, Edmond Fleg says this to his unborn grandson about the Jewish tradition, “Will you take it from me, my child? Will you hand it on? Perhaps you will wish to abandon it… But whether you abandon it or whether you follow it, Israel will journey on to the end of days.”

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