Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1)

A tenth century illuminated manuscript of the first book of Maccabees; Leiden University Library

Hanukkah begins today and since I have been working for some years now on Hebrew liturgical poems for this feast, I thought it would be nice to share with the readers of the Talmud Blog some interesting bits and pieces of these verse compositions. Here is the first installment.

Late antique piyyutim for Passover elaborate on the Exodus, those for Shavuoth on the giving of the Torah at Sinai, those for Purim on the story of Esther and Mordecai, and those for Hanukkah… on the inauguration of the Tabernacle! Neither the Maccabees, nor the Seleucians are mentioned; rather, one finds lengthy descriptions of the desert dwelling and the sacrifices that were brought on the occasion of its inauguration.

Why is this so? Simply put, the piyyutim follow the liturgy, and since the reading of the Torah during Hanukkah focuses on the inauguration of the Tabernacle as narrated in the book of Numbers, the poets followed that lead. It is no coincidence, of course, that this biblical episode is read at the synagogue. In the absence of a canonical book that relates the Hasmonean revolt, the rabbis and the payytanim chose the closest biblical episode to the historical event that they could find. Indeed, once the so-called Scroll of Antiochus (מגילת אנטיוכוס) was introduced to Jewish culture in the early Gaonic period, the piyyutim were filled with “historical” description of the battles of the Hasmonean agains Antiochus Epiphanies.

But at least in once case we find a payytan from late antique Palestine who sought to (re)collect some “historical” data concerning the Maccabees, and this payytan is no other than the by-now Talmud Blog favorite, Elazar Birabi Qilir. Here is one interesting and somewhat amusing example of what the Qiliri came up with. In one place he writes:

קינאו חמישה / להקים דת חמישה / כממים נימשה // רצו עד מודעית / יוונים שם להבעית / על נקמת שביעית

The five [sons of Matityahu] were zealous / and sustained the law of the five [books] / like the one whom from the water was drawn [=Moses] // They ran all the way to Modi’in / in order to terrify the Greeks / and to take revenge of the seventh [land (= Israel)]

But why does the Qiliri indicate that the Maccabees had to run all the way to Modi’in, the place in which one of the major battles against the Seleucians took place? This mystery is solved in the next couplet:

ארבעת ראשי נמר / ריצצו פרחי אימר / בגזירת שומר // לבשר בחוצות יבנית / כי קיצצה חנית / כל לשון יוונית

The flowers of Immer / smashed the four headed tiger [=the Greeks] / by the decree of the Guard [=God] // To announce in the streets of Yavnit / that the spear chopped / every Greek tongue

According to the Qilir, the Maccabees were part of the priestly division called Immer that dwelled in a village called Yavnit (יבנית). Already in the Bible the Israelite priests were said to be divided into twenty four divisions, Immer being one of them. Interestingly, according to Josephus (and other historical sources) the Maccabees belonged, in fact, to the Yehoyariv order that was located in Judaea. But as was mentioned above the order of Immer dwelled in the Galilee. So now we can begin to appreciate the finesse of the Qiliri: the name of the village is pronounced almost the same as the Hebrew adjective for Greek (יוונית), and the Qiliri brilliantly plays on this similarity in the last verse quoted above. But this complicates things for the Qiliri, geographically-wise. If the Maccabees dwelled in the Galilee surely they had to rush all the way to Modi’in, which is located in Judaea, and of course soon thereafter to rush back north in order to bring back the happy news to their Galilean hometown.

Much more can be said about these verses (and those of you who read modern Hebrew can read this Ha’aretz article on this piyyut by Joseph Yahalom) but let me conclude with the following quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, part four:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen, what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So who do you prefer – Josephus or Elazar Birabi Qilir?

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10 thoughts on “Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1)”

  1. Liturgical poems about Hanukkah continue to take poetic license with facts. For example, Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew is not, in fact, Jewish, and did not convert, though his wife is Jewish and he raised his children Jewish.
    I guess nothing changes.

  2. “and to take revenge of the seventh [land (= Israel)]” I disagree with this rendering.
    It is a reference the the seven martyrs of 2 Maccabee 7:1-42.
    Suggest you check it further.
    the Maggid

  3. Jerry – another reader suggested that the number seven refers to the Sabbatical year. The fact is that numbers in payytanic literature are very tricky and difficult to decipher. In this specific case I think that my understanding is quite solid. The epithet ‘seven’ to the Land of Israel is known elsewhere in Piyyut and also in midrashic literature. That said, I think your suggestion is interesting and requires further investigation.

    1. I strongly suggest so, the seven is preceded by the word for ‘revenge.’ I think the death of the seven martyrs requires ‘revenge’ for the author. The Piyyut is about Hannukah and the Maccabees–taking revenge on the Seleucid Greeks for their atrocities.

  4. The question would be – of course – whether the tradition of the 7Martyrs was known to Jewish authors at that period. There is of course the tradition of the mother (later known as Hannah) and the seven sons – perhaps that is a safer path. And then there is a linguistic problem because שביעית is in the feminine.

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