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Hanukiyah created by world famous Venetian Glass Blower

{Originally appeared on author’s site, Rationalist Judaism}

Over Shabbos I dusted off my ancient copy of ArtScroll’s Chanukah: Its History, Observance and Significance – A Presentation based upon Talmudic and Traditional Sources, written by Rabbi Hersh Goldwurm and published way back in 1981. The subtitle is interesting, because some of the primary sources used are only traditional in the loosest sense of the term. Presumably sensitive to this concern, the preface to the History section includes the following explanation:

…Through an understanding of the history of the period, we can gain a deeper insight into the significance of Chanukah itself. With this goal, we shall approach our historical inquiry into the events of the period.

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For information, we are indebted primarily to the books of Maccabees I and II the authors of which lived relatively close to the time of the miracle (in the case of I Maccabees), or drew upon contemporary sources. The authorship of these books is unknown, but they were undoubtedly written by staunchly loyal Jews. Although there is evidence that I Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, both books were available only in Greek and Latin for over 1500 years and came down to us through gentile hands. For this reason, the two books were largely unknown to Jewish chroniclers and commentators until recent times… Despite the fact that the books of Maccabees are not mentioned in virtually any early classic Rabbinic work, we may assume that Jewish scholars would have accepted them, because they are cited by the great commentator to the Mishnah, R’ Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosefos Yom Tov, Megillah 3:6), and by the great halachist R’ Eliyah Shapiro of Prague in his magnum opus Eliyah Rabbah to Orach Chaim 671:1. I know of only three other relatively early Jewish scholars who had access to Maccabees: R’ Azariah min HaAdomim (De Rossi) in his Me’or Einayim (Imrei Binah ch. 16, 25, 25, 51, 55); and the disciple of R’ Moshe Isserles, R’ David Ganz (in Tzemach David, part I, year 3590). Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that such scholars would not have cited the books of Maccabees unless they were convinced of its reliability.

The reader should bear in mind that the period of Scripture was sealed prior to the events of Chanukah. No later book, even if it were historically accurate and true to the underlying spiritual theme of events it chronicled, could have been canonized. Consequently, the status of Maccabees as an apocryphal work does not, in and of itself, prove that it is not reliable.

In general, I’m not into the genre of “ArtScroll-bashing” – for the most part, ArtScroll is simply catering to the needs, desires and sensitivities of their readership, as well as understandably desiring to avoid trouble. But analyzing ArtScroll does afford an opportunity to understand the dynamics of the Orthodox community (as Dr. Yoel Finkelman has shown), and there are a number of observations to be made with regard to these paragraphs.

First, it’s fascinating to see how sources are conferred with the status of “traditional,” or its equivalent level of kashrus – something that I also have to do quite often. We are first assured that the authors of Maccabees were “staunchly loyal Jews.” Then a justification is given for these works not being cited in classic Rabbinic literature. We are then told that prestigious later rabbinic authorities did make use of these works, and thus must have been convinced of their reliability. This also provides the importance assurance that had Chazal and the Rishonim had access to these works, “we may assume… that they would have accepted them.” Finally, we are told that the stigma of being “apocryphal works” does not disqualify them “in and of itself,” since they were written too late to be canonized. It’s quite an elaborate set of justifications.

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Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh. For more details about the “Feast of Legends from the Sea,” as well as the forthcoming “Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna” in New Jersey, visit www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast.

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