Wednesday, December 28, 2016

We don't light a menorah

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew in New York, a rabbi's son no less, I thought I knew all there was to know about Hanukkah; but soon after arriving at yeshiva in Israel at age 17, I discovered that I had it all wrong. See, gelt was really demei Hanukka, and it wasn't so much chocolate coins as gifts. Also, that's not a dreidel, it's a sevivon, and the letters are wrong. Plus, they're not latkes, they're levivot, and no one really eats them because they've already gorged themselves on sufganiyot, so-called because they absorb all moisture in your stomach and swell like a sponge (sefog). [Your etymology may vary.]
Still, most shocking was the fact that the thing we light with all the branches is not a menorah, but a hanukkiah. I was confused because, unlike latkes, dreidel and gelt, menorah was already a Hebrew word. But in Israel, menorot were to be found in the lighting department of the local hardware store, while The Menorah was that seven-branched vessel of the Temple, known to the world from the Arch of Titus, featured in the Emblem of the State of Israel. A menorah is simply a lamp, but if it is that special nine-branched version for Hanukkah, eight for the eight nights plus one for the shamash, which kindles all the others, it becomes a hanukkiah.
So where did this neologism come from? Lexicographer Ben-Yehuda, but not the one you're thinking of: Hemda popularized the term in 1897. Nor was she the first. In fact, tonight, the fifth night of Hanukkah, marks the 249th yahrtzeit of Jerusalem-born Rabbi Abraham Meyuhas, who writes (Sedeh Haaretz III OH 38) about "a brass candlestick which we call a hanukkiah, to which the artisan affixed an additional light which we call a shamash, to be used for its illumination instead of the others, which are the essence of the mitzvah, as we are forbidden to use them for illumination." Rabbi Meyuhas knew what a hanukkiah was, though he was afraid his readers might not.
It is significant that the menorah used for Hanukkah has a special name. The fact is that there is no halakhic significance per se to the vessel; you could stick one wax candle on your windowsill and fulfill the mitzva. It was only in the medieval era that Jews started crafting particular vessels to be used only for Hanukkah; indeed, for a religion which strictly forbids graven images, this was an opportunity for artistic expression, like the wine-cup used at Sabbath's onset and the spice-box used as its conclusion.
And thus we come to the paradox at the heart of Hanukkah. On the one hand, it is a celebration of the Temple; on the other hand, it marks the ascension of the dynasty which would ultimately welcome the Roman Empire, demolishers of the Temple, into Jerusalem.
While the biblical Menorah -- that famous seven-branched one -- may be be physically more impressive, it was lit for less than 1,500 years according to the traditional counts of all the various incarnations of the Tabernacles and the Temples. Meanwhile, the lights of Hanukkah have been kindled for nearly 2,200 years, uninterrupted.
In fact, according to Jewish lore (Midrash Tanhuma, Behaalotekha 3; Talmud Menahot 29a), the Menorah was not actually made by humans at all. Moses was so perplexed by its intricate details that God told him to throw it in the fire, and out popped the Menorah fully-formed. The hanukkiah, on the other hand, is a wholly human invention.
Even in the recounting of the miracle in our daily prayers throughout Hanukkah, we do not refer at all to the Menorah inside the Temple. Instead, we say "they kindled lights in Your holy courtyards." The Menorah and the hanukkiah aren't the same.
Which brings us back to the emblem of the State of Israel. It definitely features a seven-branched candelabrum in the center--but this is flanked by two olive branches. That's not an aesthetic flourish, but the vision of Zechariah (ch. 4), whose words we read on the Sabbath of Hanukkah. The two olive branches represent the religious and secular leadership of the people, and together with the seven bronze branches, they make what we could call a hanukkiah. (I leave it up to the reader's discretion to decide which one is the shamash.)
This is the beauty of the State of Israel. It does not spring fully-formed from the fire. It does not descend from Heaven. It is made by flawed human beings, a combination of natural growth and technological artistry. It is a construct of the spirit. And we are charged by our faith to constantly refashion it into a more perfect union.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hanuka Nudes

You've probably heard the PBS version of the Hanuka story, but what if HBO or Netflix got its hands on it? It might sound a little like this (Otzar Hamidrashim, Eisenstein, p. 192):
The rabbis taught: In the days of the wicked Hellenic empire, they decreed that any woman who marries must first be deflowered by the hegemon, and only then return to her husband. So they did for 3 years and 8 months until the daughter of High Priest Johanan was to be married. [Her family] sought to bring her to the hegemon, so she undid her hair, tore her garments and stood naked before all the people. Judah and his brothers were enraged and said: "Take her out and burn her, lest the king hear of this and endanger our lives, for she has been so brazen to stand naked before this entire people."
Said she to him: "Shall I be humiliated before my brothers and comrades and not be humiliated before an uncircumcised heathen, to whom you wish to betray me, to bring me to him that he may sleep with me?"
When Judah and his comrades heard this, they resolved to kill the hegemon. They immediately dressed her in royal finery and made her a bridal canopy of myrtle, from the house of the Hasmoneans to the house of the hegemon. All the harpists and lyrists and musicians accompanied her, singing and dancing all their way to the hegemon's house.
The hegemon heard this and said to his lords and servants: "Look, these are the great ones of Israel, offspring of Aaron the Priest--how they rejoice to do my bidding!" He ordered them all to go out.
Judah and his comrades then entered, with his sister, and they chopped off [the hegemon's] head and looted all that was his. Then they killed the lords and servants and trampled the Hellenes until they were at an end.
So before there was a Red Wedding, there was a Myrtle Wedding. But that's only half the story. The Midrash goes on to state that the news made it back to "the king of the Hellenes," who was outraged and immediately marched his legions to the gates of Jerusalem. The Jews had no idea what to do, until "a widow woman, by the name of Judith" stepped forward.
She took her maidservant and went to the gates of Jerusalem, saying: "Let me out! God may work a miracle through my hands." They acceded and she went to the king, who asked her what she wanted. Said she: "My lord! I am the daughter of great ones in Israel, and my brothers are prophets. They prophesy that tomorrow Jerusalem will fall to you!"
Once he heard this, the king was very happy... He believed this Judith and fell in love with her, asking: "Do you wish to marry me?"
Said she: "My lord the king, I am not fit for even one of your servants! However, since this is your heart's desire, let it be known in the camp that whoever sees two women going to the spring shall not detain them, as I must go there to wash and immerse myself."
They immediately did so. The king then made a great feast and they all became intoxicated, and then each went to his tent. The king fell asleep in her bosom, and this Judith took a sword, chopped his head off and wrapped it in a sheet.
She carried it all the way to the gates of Jerusalem and said: "Open the gates, for the Holy One has already wrought a miracle by my hands!"
They replied: "Haven't you done enough to whore and corrupt yourself, that now you come against us in a conspiracy?"
She immediately showed them the king's head.
Upon seeing this, they opened the gates, pouring out and shouting: "Hear, Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one!"
These two women use their sexuality in a powerful way, exposing not only the evil of the enemy, but the hypocrisy of their own brethren. These Jewish men make their peace with rape and sexual assault -- of their own sisters! (not that that should make a difference) -- as long as they don't have to witness it. Only by challenging the men's concepts of modesty -- specifically in the context of dress and ritual immersion, two of the most explicit ways in which males exercise power over females in the traditional context -- do these women manage to save the entire nation. And the salvation is twofold: from the armies of the enemy and from the mindset of their own brothers, fathers and husbands.
I know this past week the men of Israel have not lived up to the example of these two heroic women. But hey, Hanuka is still a week away...