On Tuesday evening, Dec. 12, Jews the world over will light a candle to begin the eight days of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. One candle on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third, and so on, culminating in eight candles on the final night of the holiday.
The lighting of the Menorah on each of the eight nights of Hanukah is the best known and most public observance of the holiday. However, there is another ritual that is practiced daily in our morning prayers during this holiday— the recitation of Psalms 113-118, known as Hallel. These six psalms of Praise—are joyously sung as part of the synagogue worship service on all major Jewish holidays; Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, as well as on the first day of every month, the celebration of the new moon.
Why these six psalms?
The Talmud records the instruction that these six psalms are to be recited on the biblical feasts as well as on any occasion of the redemption of the collective people of Israel. More specifically, for Hallel to be sung, the event that is commemorated must constitute a step towards the ultimate redemption of Israel. In this vein, the chief rabbinate of the modern state of Israel added two modern days for the addition of the Hallel psalms, Israel's Independence Day and Jerusalem Day (the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty in 1967). These events clearly fit the Talmud's qualifications of redemption of the entire collective of Israel from harm, and a step forward towards the ultimate redemption of the end times.
But then why was Hallel instituted on Hanukkah? Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid Greek rule over Israel in the 2nd century B.C. The Greeks had enacted numerous decrees designed to make Jewish religious and spiritual life difficult to practice. They outlawed the Jewish calendar, forbade circumcision, and prohibited the public dissemination of Jewish Torah teachings. In addition, during this time the sacrificial worship in the temple in Jerusalem was forbidden and the temple lay vacant of activity. The Maccabees led a rebellion against this regime and, despite being far outnumbered and far disadvantaged in terms of quantity and quality of weapons, they emerged victorious. The decrees were removed. The temple service was reinstituted. The name of the new holiday, Hannukkah, meaning dedication, was chosen to focus the attention of the celebration on the fact that the worship in the temple had been restored.
This is the story behind Hanukkah. But there's a problem with this story. When all is said and done, the Maccabean victory did not result in the long-term return of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel. Not long after this victory the Romans came to power and brought harsher decrees upon Israel, eventually leading to the complete destruction of the temple, widespread massacres of Jews, and the exile of the survivors of Israel that has lasted until present times. The Maccabean victory did not mark a significant step forward in the story of the ultimate redemption of Israel.
Here's another way to look at the question. What makes this victory any different than any of the other ancient victories by the armies of Israel? A look through the Bible reveals numerous battles in which Israel was threatened by a nation more numerous and powerful than they, only to miraculously beat the odds and defeat the enemy by the grace of God; often by way of overt miracles. There are no special holidays marking these many military victories. If the Hallel is meant for days that have eschatological value—that mark a step forward towards the ultimate restoration of Israel, why does Hanukkah qualify?
Back to the Hallel psalms. Why were these specific psalms chosen as the praise worship for all of these momentous occasions? What is their particular link to the ultimate end times redemption of Israel?
A brief summary of the themes of these psalms will help. Looking at them as a group, Psalms 113 through 118 give praise and thank the Lord for the miraculous salvation of His people Israel throughout history. That much is obvious at first glance.
But unlike numerous other passages in the book of Psalms that similarly praise God for His kindness to His people, these psalms include a theme that is not so common.
"Praise the Lord, all you nations! Exalt Him, all you peoples! For His merciful kindness is great toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever" (Ps. 117).
Psalm 117 speaks of all nations and all peoples praising and exalting the Lord for His kindness to the people of Israel. While this may not seem to many people today to be such a radical concept, think about it historically. Without going into the well-known details, it's worth noting that the history of the relationship of the nations of the world to the people of Israel has not been very positive. More to the point of these verses, when was there ever a time when members of all nations and all peoples were praising and exalting the Lord for being so good to the Jews? To someone reading these verses a few centuries ago, such a reality would have seemed far-fetched at best.
The point that I am making is that these verses do not describe a past-tense historical reality. Rather, they are clearly eschatological. They are about the future. They speak of a time when widespread faith in the God of Israel throughout the world will be accompanied by an appreciation for the redemptive kindnesses bestowed upon His people Israel. In our day, of course, this prophetic vision is becoming a reality. There are, in fact, millions of members of the nations and peoples who praise and thank the Lord precisely for this: His abundant kindness upon His people Israel. Each and every one of us must be humbled when considering that we live in times when seemingly impossible Biblical prophecies have become commonplace facts of the day.
You may be wondering, "So what does all of this have to do with Hanukkah?" The answer is, it has everything to do with Hanukkah.
Let me explain. Beginning with Abraham's mission to bring blessing to all the families of the earth, through the covenant at Sinai where Israel was told that it was to be a kingdom that would serve a priestly role for the world, and all the way through to the words of Isaiah, Zechariah, Zephaniah and Malachi—to name but a few—the stated mission of the people of Israel has always been the same. To bring knowledge of the One God to all of humanity; to create a world in which "the earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas" (Hab. 2:14).
To put it another way, the redemption of Israel is not about Israel. The biblically foretold restoration of Israel at the end times is only a precursor and a vehicle to the true redemption; the shared universal faith of all nations and all peoples.
Which brings us to Hanukkah.
The Greek regime in the Holy Land in the 2nd century B.C. did not seek to destroy the Jewish people. Through its decrees, the goal of the Greeks was to impose Greek thinking and Greek culture upon all whom they ruled. But at the same time, they were interested in what Jewish culture and religion were all about. For this reason, this was also the time-period in which the Bible was translated for the first time. The Greeks wanted to study it. What this meant was that for the first time in the history of the people of Israel, there was a cross pollination of ideas with the dominant culture. This meant an unprecedented opportunity to influence the nations of the world; and simultaneously, it meant that Jewish life was threatened as never before.
The threat of Greek dominance was not the threat of annihilation of Israel. It was the threat of the assimilation of Israel. The faith and practices of Israel could have been overwhelmed by Greek culture and ideas and been lost forever. The mission of the kingdom of priests to bring all humanity to a relationship with God would have come to a sudden halt.
The victory of the Maccabees meant that the spiritual and cultural life of Israel was victorious over the forces of this assimilation. It was a sign and an example that, when confronted by a new culture that challenged Biblical faith, God's way would and could prevail.
Perhaps more importantly, it meant that the translation of the Torah into Greek and the cross-pollination of ideas between Jews and gentiles did not spell the end of Judaism. The mission of Abraham and Moses did not collapse as a result of contact with pagan Greek thinking. At the same time, the miraculous victory did not mean the end of the sharing of biblical ideas with the rest of humanity. On the contrary, the Hanukkah story set a new paradigm for the Jewish people.
The period of Greek rule over Israel initiated a new era for the people of Israel. For the first time, members of the nations were interested in what we had to say. They wanted to read the Torah. They wanted dialogue. In that new reality, would the culture and faith of Israel survive? The Hanukkah victory gave us the answer. Not only would Israel survive the risks of interaction with a dominant culture, but they would use this interaction as the springboard for bringing knowledge of God to all humanity.
And this is what Hallel celebrates, from a recounting of the Lord's kindness to Israel in the opening chapters to the crescendo of all nations and all peoples joining in singing His praises, Hallel reminds us of the ultimate goal of all who profess faith in the God of the Bible. Hanukkah was a major step forward in the realization of that goal.
Just as Hanukkah was so-named for the dedication of the temple over 2,000 years ago, so too, we look forward and yearn for the future dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, where all who serve the Lord will worship Him together. This will be the ultimate Hanukkah. In the words of Isaiah, "for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Is. 56:7b).
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the associate director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Jerusalem and the author of the recent devotional on Psalms 113-118 entitled Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey of King David's Psalms of Praise available at cupofsalvation.com.
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