In Praise of the Hasmoneans: Chanukah Beyond Rabbinic Literature

The relative absence of Chanukah from rabbinic literature has been viewed as evidence of ambivalence about the holiday and its Hasmonean founders. However, the extensive treatment of Chanukah in piyyutim (liturgical poems) of Late Antiquity suggests otherwise.

An illustration of a man lighting the Hanukkah lamp with a congregation behind him from the Forli Siddur, Italy 1383. British Library

Why is Chanukah Not in the Mishna?

Despite its prominence in Jewish life since the Middle Ages, Chanukah is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar that does not have a corresponding mishnaic tractate. Indeed, the holiday is mentioned in the Mishna only seven times, and always in passing. While other classical Palestinian rabbinic works, like the Tosefta and Yerushalmi, devote somewhat more discussion to the festival, it is only in the Babylonian Talmud that we find the basic contours of Chanukah as we know it today.[1]

Rabbinic disinterest in Chanukah is widely assumed to reflect broad ambivalence regarding the historical actors who established the holiday. Prominent nineteenth and twentieth centuries historians of Judaism have argued that rabbinic disapproval of the Hasmoneans lay behind the lack of enthusiasm for Chanukah in rabbinic literature.[2] Even earlier, traditional, scholars, such as the leading early nineteenth century Ashkenazi rabbi, Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839), explained the reason for this lacuna as stemming from the compiler of the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda the patriarch’s, disapproval of the Hasmonean dynasty.[3]

While some of these arguments have been overstated, everyone involved in the debate agrees on one basic fact: references to the Hasmoneans in Rabbinic literature are sparse.[4]

Piyyut in Late Antique Judaism

Rabbinic literature is the primary repository of classical rabbinic views, but Piyyut, the Hebrew liturgical poetry that was composed abundantly in the Galilee from the fifth century and onwards, is now recognized as significant source for understanding classical Judaism.  The payytanim, the hymnographers who composed the piyyutim, were part of the Jewish leadership in late antiquity and associated with the rabbis, although they composed works in a different genre than classical rabbinic literature.[5]

Piyyut is not merely an overlooked corpus of texts; its historical significance in some senses is even more useful than rabbinic literature for understanding Jewish society in late antique Palestine. Unlike rabbinic texts, which for the most part were intended for a limited community consisting primarily of learned men, Piyyut was aimed at a much more diverse audience of male and female synagogue-goers. In this way, it provides a window into the primary site where the religiosity and beliefs of late antique Jews were molded.[6]

The Hasmoneans: Kingly Priests Winning by the Grace of God

Yosei ben Yosei: 5th Century

The earliest known named payytan, Yosei ben Yosei, lived in the fifth century,[7] and composed piyyutim only for the High Holidays – or at least, only his High Holiday piyyutim have come down to us.[8]

Nevertheless, in a composition for the Malkhuyot service on Rosh Hashanah, Yosei mentions the Hasmoneans:[9]

נִמְכְּרוּ יוֹנִים לִבְנַי יְוָונִים וְרִיחֲקוּם מֵעַל גְּבוּל מְלוּכָה
Doves (yonim) were sold to the sons of the Greeks (yevanim) and they were held back from the kingdom’s border
נִאֲרוּ בְּרִית וָדָת וְהִמְרוּ עָם בְּאֵל
They annihilated covenant and custom and forced the people to disobey God
וּמִגְּרוּם בְּלֹא כֹחַ מְכַהֲנֵי מְלוּכָה
And they were conquered without a struggle by the kingly priests.

Notably, Yosei refers to the Hasmoneans as “kingly priests” (מכהני מלוכה), an epithet that highlights their dual status as kings and priests. This conflicts with the view of rabbis who strongly disapproved of the Hasmoneans taking for themselves these two positions. For example, the Talmud records the words of R. Yehuda ben Gedidya criticizing the Hasmonean king, Yannai (b. Qiddushin 66a):

רב לך כתר מלכות הנח כתר כהונה לזרעו של אהרן
The crown of the monarchy suffices for you, leave the crown of the priesthood for the descendants of Aaron

Yosei apparently had no problem that the Hasmoneans took kingship alongside the priesthood.

At the same time, his assertion that the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks “without a struggle” is noteworthy; the apocryphal books of the Maccabees depict a significant and long struggle against the Greeks. Perhaps the payytan is playing down the combative elements of the Hasmoneans, as some proponents of the anti-Hasmonean thesis argued. Indeed, the understanding that the Hasmoneans won thanks to God, not their own resources, became a recurring theme in later Piyyut.

Chanukah Piyyutim About the Dedication of the Tabernacle

Yannai: 6th Century

The payytanim that followed Yosei ben Yosei composed lengthy compositions for Chanukah. The bulk of these piyyutim are dedicated to the inauguration of the Mishkan (tabernacle) in the wilderness. For example, the sixth century payytan, Yannai, composed a lengthy piyyut for Shabbat Chanukah that describes the inauguration of the Mishkan and does not refer to the events usually associated with Chanukah, such as the Hasmonean revolt, the purification of the Temple, and candle lightening.[10]

Tempting as it may be, this choice should not be interpreted as a sign of payytanic reluctance to portray the rededication of the Temple that took place following the Hasmonean revolt. Rather, it relates to the proscribed reading of the Torah on Sabbath during the Chanukah holiday,[11] which is taken from Numbers 7, and describes the sacrifices offered by the tribal chieftains during the celebrations of the erection of the Mishkan. Piyyutim typically relate to such festival readings, rather than to the broader events associated with the festival.

Ela’zar birabi Qilir: 7th Century.

When we reach the piyyutim of Yannai’s successor and most famous payytan, Ela’zar birabi Qilir,[12] we find that the events and practices of Chanukah begin to play a more prominent role.

Like his predecessors, the Qiliri also composed several piyytuim that focus on the dedication of the Tabernacle. Yet, despite the limitations of working off the Torah portion, he found a way to weave in the practices and commemorations of the festival by introducing a typological scheme in which the “Chanukah” – that is, the [re]inauguration – of the Temple in the days of the Hasmoneans, is the last phase in a series of earthly salvations and (re)inaugurations, including (1) the “inauguration” of the world in the six days of creation, the inauguration of (2) the mishkan, (3) the Temple of David,[13] (4)  Solomon’s Temple,  (5) the Second Temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, (6) the Hasmoneans, and subsequently, (7) the world to come.[14]

The strophe that describes the sixth Chanukah, the rededication of the Hasmoneans, reads:[15]

שָׁנִים מֵאָה וּשְׁמוֹנִים
One hundred and eighty years
שָׁלְמוּ עַל יְדֵי עֲטוּיֵי פַּעֲמוֹנִים
Were concluded by those who are adorned with bells
תּוֹאַר נֵרוֹת שְׁמוֹנָה מַשְׁמִינִים
Lighting candles eight (days) with oil
The chanukah of the house of the
תָּקְפָה חֲנֻכַּת בֵּית חַשְׁמוֹנִים
Hasmoneans was established.

The “one hundred and eighty years” in this stanza is the traditional number associated with the rule of the Greeks.[16] The conclusion of this period was indeed initiated by the (Hasmonean) priests, who traditionally wear a garment with bells (Exodus 28:33-34; 29:25-26). Thus, even from this short excerpt it is evident that the Qiliri related explicitly and positively to the Hasmoneans.

Qiliri combined the typology of the seven dedications in several of his poems and later payytanim followed with their own versions. In addition, from a later stage starting with the late midrash, Pesiqta Rabbati (circa. 8th Century), this typology appears also in prose midrashic texts.

Qiliri’s “Historical Narratives”

In several piyyutim for the days of Chanukah that do not fall on the Sabbath, the Qiliri reconstructed “historical narratives” of the Hasmonean revolt. The major challenge that he and later payytanim faced was that there was no canonical text that describes the wars of the Hasmoneans, and the medieval Megilat Antiochus, which does in fact incorporate such material, was not yet written. Thus, the Qiliri had to collect scattered traditions known mostly from tannaitic literature and weave them into his piyyut as if they described the Hasmonean revolt, even when originally they did not.

The Hasmoneans of…Yavnit(!)

The following are some stanzas from a piyyut composed for the daily morning prayers during Chanukah. It mentions the zealous five Hasmonean brothers (קִנְּאוּ חֲמִשָּׁה), the town of Modi’in (מוֹדִיעִית), which is known also from other sources as the hometown of the Hasmonean and the central battlefield in which they fought. In addition, it describes the homecoming of the Hasmoneans as follows:[17]

לְבַשֵּׂר בְּחוּצוֹת יַבְנִית
כִּי קִצְּצָה חֲנִית
כָּל לָשׁוֹן יְוָנִית
To announce in the streets of Yavnit
That the spear chopped
Every Greek tongue.

The identification of the Hasmonean hometown as a small village named Yavnit (יַבְנִית), located near the city of Safed, was based on the tradition that the Hasmoneans belonged to the priestly watch (mishmar), Immer, אִמֵּר, whose center was at יַבְנִית. This contradicts the evidence of 1 Maccabees that associates the Hasmoneans with the division of Yehoyariv (יהויריב) and the town of Modi’in. The Qiliri, who apparently wrote without access to Maccabees and within a Galilean context, relocated the Hasmoneans to that region, as did other contemporaneous sources.

Joining Hasmonean Past with Late Antique Present

A notable feature of Piyyut is its ability to revive, or reenact, episodes from the mythic, foundational past. Indeed, the present piyyut makes a direct connection between the heroic Hasmonean deeds in the past and the liturgical present of the congregation, further evincing the positive view of the Hasmoneans held by the payytanim:

זֵכֶר הֲקָמַת נֵרוֹת
בִּנְבָלִים וְכִנּוֹרוֹת
עַתָּה נַדְלִיק נֵרוֹת
The remembrance of the establishment of the candles
(was celebrated) with lute and harp
Now, we shall light the candles
רֶנֶן וְהַלֵּל
עַל כֵּן נְהַלֵּל
בִּקְרִיאַת הַלֵּל
Joy and praise
We shall therefore praise
With the recitation of the hallel.

By juxtaposing the ritual acts of the Hasmoneans – the lighting of the menorah and celebration with sacred songs – with the contemporaneous liturgical customs of Chanukah as celebrated in late antiquity – namely, candle lighting and the recitation of the Hallel – the congregation becomes part of the sacred past.

The Refrain: “With a Hasmoneans Candle”

The piyyut continues with the refrain:

וְשָׁע בְּרַחַש הֲמוֹנַי
כְּהֵפִיחַ רֵיחַ שְׁמָנַי
בְּנֵר חַשְׁמוֹנַי
And (God) heard the rustle of my crowds
As he instilled the odor of my oils
With a Hasmonean candle.

This refrain, which was sung after every three strophes of the composition (hence, nine times in total), marks the centrality of the Hasmoneans, and again demonstrates that the Qiliri and his many followers never tried to hide or diminish the deeds of the Hasmoneans.

Parallels to the Books of Maccabees

Recently discovered piyyutim by the Qiliri in the Cairo Genizah reveal intriguing parallels to the Book of Maccabees. In one passage, the Qaliri describes how the Hasmoneans:[18]

רָצוּ בִּמְנוּסָה וְלֹא חָסוּ עַל מָמוֹנִים
שָׁכְנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר כַּיְעֵנִים
Escaped in a rush and did not spare the fortune
And dwelled in the desert like ostriches

The tradition about the Hasmoneans escaping to the desert from Modi’in while leaving behind their property is known from 1 Maccabees 2:27-30:

27 Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” 28 Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town.

29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there, 30 they, their sons, their wives, and their livestock, because troubles pressed heavily upon them.

In a similar fashion, the Qiliri describes how the Hasmoneans:

וְקָבְעוּ בַּתְּשִׁיעִי חַג כְּכָל הַשָּׁנִים
כְּחַג יֶרַח הָאֵיתָנִים
יָמִים שְׁמוֹנָה הַלֵּל מְנַגְּנִים
Set in the ninth (month) a holiday as in all years
As the holiday of the month of Eitanim (=tishrei)
Eight days chanting the hallel

Here too, the juxtaposition of Chanukah and the feast of Sukkot (that also lasts eight days) is a salient feature of the version of 2 Maccabees (1:9, 1:18 and 10:6).[19]

It is doubtful that the payytanim had access to the Books of Maccabees, so it is not at all clear how to explain the origin of these parallels.[20] Regardless, the striking nature of the payytanic parallels to the Hasmonean narrative underlines the point that the supposed rabbinic ambivalence about the Hasmoneans was not as strict as we may have thought.

 Birkat hamazon Piyyutim

One important genre of piyyut functioned outside the synagogue, namely the payytanic version of birkat hamazon (Grace after Meals); some of these as well dealt with Chanukah and the Hasmoneans.[21] Such prayers, which constituted a very popular genre, were recited either by individuals or jointly by the members of the family or other social group at the conclusion of festive meals (for example in holidays, weddings and circumcisions). The Qiliri’s birkat hamazon for Chanukah is rich in allusions to the Hasmoneans, to their deeds, and to the holiday’s customs. The piyyut opens as follows: [22]

אֶנְקַת שִׂיחַ שַׁוְעִי
בְּזֹאת חֲנֻכָּה קָשַׁבְתָּ יִשְׁעִי
גִּדַּעְתָּה קֶרֶן מַרְשִׁיעִי
דִּכִּיתָה יְוָנִים בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַתְּשִׁיעִי
The moan of my desperate prayer
In this chanukah, you listened (to it), my savior
You cut off the horns of my enemy
You oppressed the Greeks in the ninth month

As we saw with Yosei ben Yosei’s piyyut, the opening strophe ascribes the victory solely to God. However, in the following strophe the Hasmonean are in fact integrated into the narrative:

הִלְבַּשְׁתָּם כְּלִימָּה וָבֹשֶׁת
וַחֲסִידֶיךָ עָטוּ יֵשַׁע תִּלְבּוֹשֶׁת
זִיַּנְתָּם גְּבוּרָה לְהָדִיק נְחֹשֶׁת
חִיַּלְתָּם בְּמָגִנָּךְ בְּלֹא קֶשֶׁת
You have dressed them [=the Greeks] with disgrace and shame
And your righteous adorn themselves with a cloth of salvation
You armed them with courage to crush [=their swords] You protected them with your shield without a bow

Although the piyyut presents the Hasmonean as warriors, at the same time the payytan singles out the fact that God is the one who protected them and brought them victory.

The end of the piyyut contains more details concerning the Hasmoneans:

אִיַּלְתָּ פִּרְחֵי אִמֵּר
לְרַצֵּץ רָאשֵׁי נָמֵר
עָלְצוּ בְּכֻלּוֹ כָּבוֹד אוֹמֶר
זֶמֶר וְהַלֵּל לְזַמֵּר
You have strengthened the flowers of Immer [=the priestly watch] To smash the heads of the Tiger [=the Greeks] They rejoiced in the one that says glory
Song and hallel to chant

We again witness the payytanic identification of the Hasmoneans with the priestly watch Immer, the description of their battle, and in the second half of the strophe, the description of the festive joy at the restored Temple.[23] The recitation of the Hallel by the Hasmoneans is paralleled in a previous section of the piyyut where the payytan stresses that the congregants also chant the hallel for eight days (קוֹרְאִים שְׁמוֹנָה אֶת הַהַלֵּל).

Unlike the synagogue piyyutim, this piyyut had a domestic setting, was relatively brief, and was recited multiple times, after every meal in the days of Chanukah. All these factors suggest that even those who did not frequent the synagogue still had the opportunity to hear about the Hasmoneans and their heroic deeds in the payytanic birkat hamazon.[24]

The Independent Presentation of the Hasmoneans in Piyyut  

The overall picture that emerges reveals that the Hasmoneans were well represented and even celebrated by the payytanim, and presumably by the congregations in which the piyyutim were performed. This is significantly different from the way the Hasmoneans are represented in classical rabbinic literature. How might we account for this disparity?[25]

It is possible that the figuration of the Hasmoneans in piyyut and their relative absence in rabbinic texts indeed reflects a different ideological stance, though this cannot be easily ascertained. Some scholars have recently argued that the payytanim belonged to or identified with priestly circles, and therefore promoted priestly themes in piyyut, including the importance of the Hasmoneans, who served as priests.[26]

We must also remember that the payytanim were not merely singing rabbis. Although they shared many beliefs and practices with the rabbis, their social role, their artistic interests, and the synagogal context in which they functioned, were distinct from the rabbis and their study halls. Other para-rabbinic groups existed, such as the meturgamanim (translators) who offered expanded version of the Bible in Aramaic, as well as magicians and mystics, which scholars of late antique Jewry tend to overlook or downplay.

Ancient Chanukah Art

Another group of late antiquity Jews who deserve further attention are the mosaic artists who depicted biblical scenes and other figural elements. Like the payytanim, this group belonged to the world of the synagogue. Indeed, just recently a mosaic was unearthed in Huqoq, a village near the north-western bank of the Sea of Galilee with unusual mosaic pavements. In one of them, a Greek warrior is depicted approaching what seems to be Jewish soldiers who stand by a dead elephant. While scholars have offered competing interpretations of the scene,[27] the most plausible current explanation is that it depicts the Hasmoneans, and specifically, the conflict between the Judeans and the Seleucid Kingdom.[28]

The reconstruction of the past is never easy, especially in cases like ours, where the evidence is rather sparse and its survival arbitrary. Utilizing every piece of evidence is thus essential and, as we have seen, the evidence of piyyut is remarkably important in producing a nuanced presentation of the role and place of the Hasmoneans in Jewish society of the late antique Near East.



Prof. Ophir Münz-Manor, an associate professor of Rabbinic Culture at the Open University of Israel, is a specialist in Jewish liturgy and liturgical poetry from Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. His studies focus on the intersections with contemporary Christian texts as well as questions of ritual, performance and gender in late antique Near Eastern cultures. His recent publications include Early Piyyut – An Annotated Anthology (Tel Aviv University Press, 2015) and Gender and Sexuality in Rabbinic Culture (The Open University of Israel Press, 2016).