December 9, 2021 |

The Legacy of Judah Maccabee

The holiday of Chanuka is dedicated to the importance of Jewish education. Many of its customs - including dreidels and presents -- are rooted in getting children excited about learning Torah. The history of Chanuka tells of the attempts of a Hellenizing king to wipe out Jewish learning and practice. It is consequently odd that Chanuka has no book in our sacred canon and that there is no public reading of the Chanuka story in our synagogues. How can we explain this?

Our holy writings are divided into 3 primary categories and known by acronym as TANAKH. The T stands for Torah, the N for Nevi'im (Prophets) and the Kh for Khetuvim (Writings.)

The Torah The customary term for the Five Books of Moses. They are the oldest and earliest works to be codified as sacred. Its contents were divinely inspired at the highest level and transcribed by Moses.

Nevi'im (Prophets) Covering the 8 books from the death of Moshe and the ascendancy of Yehoshua (Joshua) until just after the destruction of the First Temple. It includes Joshua, Judges and Kings as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The 12 minor prophets - including Jonah - were bound together into one book. These books were also divinely inspired and written by various authors.

The Ketuvim (Writings) include an assortment of other inspired material, including Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles and the Five Scrolls. Daniel, Ezra and Nechemiah are found here as well.
All of these writings are considered to have been - to a greater or lesser degree- inspired by God and they are therefore:

a) eternally relevant to every generation of Jews who is, was or will be (certainly until the Messianic Age)
b) authoritative sources for the practice and theology of Judaism
c) eligible for holy study and public recitation in synagogue

Now, the story of Chanuka was recorded in a number of books that are usually called the Books of Maccabees. Even though I Maccabees was written in Hebrew in the Biblical style and is clearly a pious work, it was not included in the Tanakh. It is, instead, part of the Apocrypha, the Outside Books, s'farim chitzonim. Consequently, the Hebrew version was lost and we only have in our possession a Greek translation of the original.

The simplest explanation of why the Book of Maccabees was not included in the canon is that it missed the submission deadline. Chanuka itself happened around 164 BCE. By the time the book was written - at least a few decades after the events it describes -- the canon had been closed. The era of divine inspiration was over. It was not a reflection on the writer of the Books of Maccabees or his ideas. But Chanuka is a very late holiday (by Jewish standards) and the Tanakh was completed by then.

According to this argument, the Tanakh would have had to have been completed by the mid 2nd century BCE at the latest. Otherwise, I Maccabees would have been eligible for inclusion! This is only problematic because many secular Biblical scholars have dated the closing of the Biblical canon to the 1st century CE! For the century-challenged among us, that's around 200+ years after Chanuka! If they are right, then we would either need to find a different reason why I Maccabees wasn't included (and I'm not sure there is another good one) or find a reason why they might be wrong.

Luckily, there's some really cool evidence that the last part of Tanach - the Writings - was canonized much earlier. It's found in the Books of Maccabees themselves, which describes an anti-Torah campaign initiated by Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek king:
"The books of the law (Torah) that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by the decree of the king." I Maccabees 1:56-57

So, we see that Antiochus went on a purge of Torah scrolls and tried to wipe them out. His goal was that the Torah be banished and forgotten. In response to this, II Maccabees records what Judah the Maccabee did:
"...Judah also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war that had come upon us, and they are in our possession. So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you." II Maccabees 2:14-15

According to my teacher, R. Schneur Leiman, in "The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture" (1991):

"The literary activity ascribed here to Judah Maccabee may, in fact, be a description of the closing of the Hagiographa (the Writings), and with it, the entire biblical canon." "There is no evidence that normative Judaism ever again considered adding a book to the canon of Hebrew Scripture." (p.29-30)

This would place the completion of the entire Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, at approximately the same time as Chanuka! In other words, Chanuka is also the holiday when the Tanach, the foundation of Jewish education, was completed. This places a whole new light on Chanuka as the holiday of Jewish education! Of course the books of Maccabees could not be included in the canon, the canon was being closed at exactly the same time as Chanuka was happening!

However, the whole idea of the Tanach and its completion is expressed within Chanuka. When the forces of anti-semitism and hatred gather up to deny and purge our heritage, our response is to pass it down for all generations to see, to make sure that it is not forgotten.

We Jewish students of Tanach have not only Moshe and Ezra and Daniel to thank for the holy books in front of us, but also Judah Maccabee. His unsung historical contribution was to ensure the safety and eternity of our holy books and to make sure that Jewish children (and adults!) have them to study, enjoy and be inspired by for all generations! Happy Chanukah!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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