A Young Holiday

Hanukkah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Where does it come from then?

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Therein they transcribed their own translations. After exactly 72 days, each of the translators emerged with an identical translation of the Torah. This legend served to affirm the validity and sacred status of the books of the Septuagint as a legitimate Bible. A version of this legend would later appear in the Talmud itself (Megillah 9a-b).

The process of translating the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible (different in totality from today's Tanakh) into Greek continued gradually. Some of the newer books that were selected for inclusion, such as the Books of the Maccabees, were written centuries after the initial translation and often composed in Greek. These were placed in a separate category within the Septuagint called Anagignoskomena.

Within the Septuagint, there are four Books of the Maccabees. The first two of them, each written around the start of the second century BCE, provide parallel accounts of the Maccabean history, spanning from approximately 180 BCE to 160 BCE. The Third Book of the Maccabees has nothing to do with the Maccabees and tells instead of an earlier Jewish persecution, under the ruling Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt, from 222 to 205 BCE. The Fourth Book of the Maccabees (circa 1st century C.E.), is about the Hanukkah story and Jewish martyrdom but seems to be a completely independent work from the other books in both style and philosophy.


The Book of Judith is a well-known deuterocanonical book in the Apocrypha that is related to Hanukkah. During the medieval period, especially after the ninth century, it became customary to recount this story during the holiday, even though it has no direct relation to the Maccabees or to the rededication of the Temple. The setting and details, in fact, vary by storyteller and by era in which the story has been told.

Judith (Yehudit, literally "Jewess" in Hebrew) is a wealthy, pious, and beautiful widow from a time earlier than the Maccabees. In one version, after the Assyrian general Holofernes besieges a town in Israel, Judith single-handedly infiltrates the army encampment and, with her beguiling and seductive powers, succeeds in reaching the general's tent. She plies Holofernes with wine, and he soon dozes off. Judith seizes this opportunity to behead him. The Israelites are then able to defeat the invaders.

In several other biblical or apocryphal stories and proverbs of the same era, beautiful, non-Jewish, enemy women arc depicted as a danger to the Jewish people, for example, the notorious Delilah. Judith, however, is made into a heroine of Jewish redemption. The plot and theme of her story closely mirror that of an Israelite woman named Jael in the biblical Book of Judges.

During a time of war, Jael serves milk to the Canaanite general Sisera, who subsequently falls asleep. She then kills him by driving a tent pin through his head. Her action is followed by the Israelites' victory in battle. Most scholars identify the Book of Judith as fiction, perhaps because it is a copy of the biblical story of Jael. But whether fact or fiction, the Book of Judith conveys an historical portrait of the ancient Near East and thus provides valuable insights into the story and meaning of Hanukkah.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.