English, Piyut, Readings

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)


Ner Israel (The candle of Israel) - Selected texts of Rav Hai Gaon by the 19th century Hamagid of Koznitz

The third and last (albeit slightly belated) installment of the series on Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1, Part 2).

In the days of the Geonim (i.e., the Babylonian sages that followed the rabbis of the Talmud), individuals and communities sent to these rabbinic authorities halakhic queries and other questions concerning Jewish life. The replies of the Geonim were preserved in what is known as the Responsa literature. One of the most prominent sages of that period was Rav Hai Gaon, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva during the early 11th century. In one of his replies we read:

And concerning your question about the Hanukkot (Heb. inaugurations); we have heard about them in the Haggadah and the payytanim enumerated seven of them: the inauguration of heaven and earth after the six days of creation, and the inauguration of the alter in the days of Moses, and the inauguration by David… and the inauguration in the days of Solomon, and the inauguration in the days of Ezra, and the inauguration in the days of Matityahu son of Yohanan – these are six, and the seventh will take place in the future (i.e., with the coming of the Messiah)”. But those who count the one who built a new house, how can they know how many there were? But it must be said that the inauguration of a new house is called like a Mitzvah (= a religious law), and its name is celebration of the house, and it is not one of the public Hanukkot. And the inauguration of the idol, how come [one associates the inauguration] of Avodah Zara (=idol worship) with that of the house of the Lord that hopefully will be built in our days, amen.

There are several intriguing elements in this reply; first, it is curious that someone addressed Rav Hai with a question concerning the proper count of the Hanukkot. Usually, the Geonim received questions concerning laws and related religious practices. We learn then, that for some, the proper count of the seven inaugurations was meaningful. In fact, from the reply by Rav Hai we learn that it was a matter of dispute, a point to which I shall come back to shortly. Second, we should pay attention to the list itself; it consists of several “historical” Hanukkot: that of the Tabernacle (the altar in the days of Moses), of Solomon’s (first) temple, of the second temple in the days of Ezra, and finally the one in the days of the Maccabees. To this list of four Hanukkot Rav Hai adds one by David, based on Psalms 30:1 “A Psalm of David, A Song at the dedication of the Temple,” and a metaphorical one – the creation of the universe. Finally, Rav Hai mentions the seventh Hanukkah of the future (third) temple. After Rav Hai concludes the list we encounter the third intriguing fact. It turns out that Rav Hai is familiar with an alternative count that adds ‘the building of a new house’; truly, it is not quite clear what Rav Hai means here, and his explanation is even vaguer. At any rate, we realize now that the question concerning the proper count was in place. The last sentence of the response probably contains the most intriguing detail; it seems that Hai Gaon had heard of a custom to count among the seven Hanukkot an inauguration of some sort of a idol-worshiping place. Who might be the person or community that would do that? Some sort of a Christian sect? Karaites? Other non-rabbinic Jews? Muslims? I must admit that in this regard we are in the dark.

At this point, I’m sure many of you may be asking- “but what does Piyyut have to do with all of this?!” Well, as far as we know, the tradition of the seven Hanukkot emerged from the poetry of our beloved Elazar Birabi Qilir of seventh century Palestine! In several of his piyyutim for Hanukka the Qiliri elaborates quite lavishly on the seven Hanukkot. The typology of the seven inauguration makes perfect sense; it brings together six occurrences in the past, in which a sacred place was either created or rebuilt and it connects the past with the messianic hope for the completion of the series in the world to come. The inclusion of the Hanukkah of the Maccabees among these Hanukkot fits perfectly into the liturgy of the feast of Hanukkah. It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati. Interestingly enough, the list in this Midrash differs from the list known from the piyyutim of the Qiliri. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that the list brought by Rav Hai is similar to that of the Qiliri. It would seem then, that the case of the seven Hanukkot is yet another example of the rich and complex relationships within the polysystem of Hebrew literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.


15 thoughts on “Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)

  1. Mar Gavriel says:

    It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati.

    I’m curious where you got that dating from. If I recall correctly, Ulmer says that Pesiqta Rabbathi as we have it is a hodgepodge, with some homilies going back to Amoraic times, but the text as a whole not really being older than the editio princeps, or at very earliest the 13th century (though not complete until the editio princeps).

  2. Mar Gavriel says:


    The page to which you link goes on and on discussing polysystems in terms of a ceaseless and multivalent friction, but never really gives an adequate one-sentence definition of “polysystem”. Still waiting….

  3. From Binyamin Elizur’s (unpublished) Ph.D. dissertation written under the supervision of Prof. Yaakov Zussman (1999). Elizur discusses the seven Hanukkot typology and speculates that it is based on an earlier midrash that got lost. I discuss the entire issue in my Master’s thesis (a critical edition of Hanukkah piyyutim by the Qiliri) that should be published as a book in the near future.

  4. re: Polysystem:

    “[The theory] Offers a highly sophisticated conceptual framework for working with broad and heterogeneous bodies of literature – that is, not only a whole corpus of texts, but also various literary activities of which the production of texts is only one. Thus it enables one to regard literary interference in a context far broader and diverse than that of traditional “comparative literature,” rooted in romanticist thinking… [The] conceptual framework [of the polysystem theory] makes it possible to see all the various texts as inter-related parts of a system rather than as separate aggregates of literature.”
    Rina Drory, Models and Contacts, p. 129

  5. Mar Gavriel says:

    Re: polysystem. Thanks!

    So that’s what Binyamin wrote his dissertation on! (I never knew.) I haven’t been working much with that trope recently, since the Ashkenazic paytanim don’t deal with it, maybe don’t even know it. The Sephardic ones, such as R. Isaac bin Ghiyyat, do.

    Where is that responsum of Rav Hai preserved?

  6. Great post Ophir. I’d just like to point out that the idea of listing earlier “Hannukot” already appears in the Scholion to Megillat Taanit, and may even be traced back to the second letter in 2 Mac. Still, there are not seven in either of these sources, and the number does not seem to have been important at all.

    • Mar Gavriel says:

      The number is interesting, because of how it fits into general midrashic and paytanic numerical-list traditions. (Some of which, of course, don’t add any narrative content, but merely group items or events into a list.) Cf. the Ten Songs, as discussed by Judah Goldin in his article “This Song” in the Baron Jubilee Volume, or the Ten Famines in Targum Ruth 1:1.

      The interplay of seven vs. eight is also something going on in the tangle of associations associated with Hanukkah. There’s some confusing stuff about it in at least one of the scholia to Megillath Ta‘anith, and Qallir’s Qedushta for the Sabbath of the Eighth Day of Hanukkah is full of sevens and eights.

      • Tell me about it! When I wrote the commentary on that piyyut I had to struggle with all these numeric references :=) By the way, this specific piyyut is similar in that regard to the Qiliri piyyut for Shmini Azeret.

        • Mar Gavriel says:

          You mean אחות אשר לך כספת? Yes, I noticed that, too.

          Interestingly, in terms of influence on later paytanim: the Shemini Atzereth one survived into Ashkenaz (and even was printed in the 1714 and 1737 Worms piyyutim-books, and recited in Worms through WWII, though most of Ashkenaz dropped it in the early Middle Ages), and therefore was able to influence the Ashkenazic paytanim (mainly in their piyyuté ma‘ariv). On the other hand, the Hanukkah one didn’t survive much in Europe (despite the tantalizing, yet clear, reference to it which you uncovered in pseudo-Rashi on Chronicles), so we don’t see any discussions whatsoever of sevens and eights in Italo-Ashkenazic piyyut for Hanukkah.

  7. Jonathan Helfand says:

    In a talk I gave several years ago, I suggested that the proper reading of the last line of the last stanza of מעוז צור should be רועה שבעה in the singular and be understood as a reference to the “shepherd” of the final redmption of the seven, i.e. the משיח .Thus, we have an echo of this Palestinian (?) tradition in Ashkenaz.

    As this is not my primary field of research, I yield to the expertise of your other correspondents,

    • I think that your reading is supported by some manuscripts / prayer books but whether in the singular or in the plural the line carries a messianic message. Moreover,
      the seven Hanukkot typology was transmitted in both payytanic and midrashic texts to Ashkenaz so it would not come as surprise to see it pops up in composition such as Maoz Zur.

  8. Pingback: A Payytanic Quiz for Hanukkah – “The Answers” | The Talmud Blog

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