Omitting the Maccabees

Why the books that tell the Hanukkah tale are not in the Hebrew Bible.

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Perhaps they felt it unwise to promote a text that heralded the successful outcome of a Jewish revolt. It may have posed a threat both internally and externally. The Romans would certainly not look kindly upon the popularization of such a text, since it might very well reintroduce the concept of revolt to a population desperately trying to survive the devastating outcome of its own failed attempts. Ironically, this very internal/external struggle lies at the core of the Hanukkah story, and perhaps it was this very struggle playing out again in history that prevented the basic texts about Hanukkah from being included within the biblical canon.

Although the Books of Maccabees were not included within the Hebrew Bible, they are still of value. Yet even this is difficult within a traditional Jewish context, due to another historical layer. First and Second Maccabees were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible originally prepared for the Jewish community of Alexandria. However, the Septuagint became the official version of the Bible for the nascent Christian Church. When this happened, its authoritative nature was rejected by the Jewish community. Ironically, the Books of Maccabees survived because they became part of the Christian canon, for otherwise they most certainly would have been lost during the centuries. But once this Christian canonization occurred, these books  became lost to the Jewish world for many centuries.

Today there is a renewed interest in these books within the Jewish community. Students of Jewish history and Jewish literature recognize the value of these documents that took such pains to record details, events and personalities of a major period in Jewish history. While not considered as part of the canon in any Jewish community, the books are again being read and studied to help enrich our understanding and our celebration of  Hanukkah.

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Rachael Turkienicz

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz teaches at York University and is affiliated with York's Centre for Jewish Studies and its Faculty of Education. She also serves as director of a beit midrash in Toronto, Canada.