Purim & Chanukah: Barry Landy

Every year I am struck by the contrasts between Purim and Chanukah. This year we were in Israel for Chanukah. It was noticeable how many people lit candles, not necessarily all according to halachah, but it was noticeable that this activity was all essentially private. This made me think once again about the contrast with Purim.

Chanukah and Purim are the two remaining minor Festivals with some significant ceremony in the Jewish Calendar; there are indications that there once were more, for example Nicanor Day (commemorating the victory over Nicanor), but the observance of these disappeared even in Talmudic times, and we have no record of how they were celebrated.

In some respects Purim and Chanukah have basic similarities; despite this, as we look closely at the background and customs, we see great contrasts and dissimilarities.

Chanukah is quiet, dignified, private; Purim is noisy, boisterous, public.

Chanukah is mainly a home festival, the changes to the Synagogue service being minor ‑ the addition of Hallel, and a Scriptural Reading.

Purim has two major Synagogue services at which the whole Book of Esther is read and there is a Scriptural Reading. On the other hand, Hallel is not said.

At Purim there are parties and Seudot, at which it is customary to drink to excess (but not, properly speaking, to incapacity); at Chanukah nothing except the lighting of Candles, though Israelis seem to believe that the Talmud mentions doughnuts.

Chanukah is spiritual (Ruchnious), while Purim is physical (Gashmious).

If we look for the origins of these Festivals in the Talmud, we see contrasts of a different kind. Purim has a whole Tractate named after it, and in large measure dedicated to it (Megillah). There are detailed discussions concerning on which day the Megillah is read, who may read it, how it is to be read, how it is to be written, and also Midrashim on much of the text of the book. Talmudically, Purim is as well established and understood as Shabbat.

Chanukuh on the other hand is well hidden. The only source of Chanukah in the Talmud is a page in Tractate Shabbat (21b) which starts "Mai Chanukah?" "What is Chanukah?"! (Note however, that when a Halachic matter is being discussed there are no doubts about Chanukah; in Baba Kama (32a,62b) the danger (tort) to passers-by caused by Chanukiot in doorways is discussed without anyone asking "What is a Chanukah Menora, and why should it be in a doorway?".

No other Festival has the "WHY" question asked about it; indeed, one can scarcely imagine the question "What is Pesach?" being asked in the Talmud!

The events of Purim took place in the remote past compared to the time of the Talmud, and are unchronicled except in the pages of the book of Esther. The heroes of Purim are totally unknown in any other context (and even bear Persian names), and the events described are very local, and do not appear to have threatened Judaism as a religion, but "only" Jews as individuals.

By contrast the events of Chanukah were near in time and historical to the authors of the Mishnah, and the stories must have been as familiar to everyone then as they are to us now; the heroes of Chanukah bear Jewish names (Yehudah, Yonatan and the like), and the business they were about was precisely the critical one of preserving the elements of Judaism as a religion; the origin of the `Chanukah Rebellion' being the Hellenisation of the Temple.

With this background, it is strange indeed that the Talmud asks "Mai Chanukah" and not "Mai Purim".

Another strange contrast is the fate of the two books, Esther and Maccabees; despite the essentially un‑Godly nature of the Book of Esther it is included in the Canon of Sacred works; by contrast the book of Maccabees, equally secular, was consigned to the Apochrypha.

I suspect that precisely the closeness in time of the deeds of the Maccabees to the Talmud is the cause of its obscurity in the Talmud, despite the essentially religious nature of the conflict (at least in origin) contrasting again with the essentially secular origin of the conflict in Shushan.

The Maccabees became the Hasmoneans; the Hasmoneans, who were Cohanim, became kings of Israel even though not of the House of David; much worse they also took upon themselves the role of High Priest. This set them in conflict with the Rabbis, and led to the deep split between the Sadducees (the priestly faction) and the Pharisees (the Rabbinic faction), leading ultimately to much strife and sorrow. It is small wonder then that Chanukah is played down in the Talmud, almost to the point where it disappears. Purim, on the other hand, is not a point of conflict. The whole affair has little or no relevance to first century Palestine, whether Sadducee or Pharisee, whether Priest or Rabbi.

I feel that this all has a bearing on the observance of these festivals today, in minor measure in the Golah, and especially in Israel.

Purim is second only to Yom Ha‑Atzmaut as a festival that all join in; people seen only in Synagogue on Yom Kipur go also to hear the Megillah; there are parties, plain and fancy dress; the place goes wild.

Chanukah is quiet and essentially religious, despite the need for a festival at that time of year to lift people's spirits (compare Christmas and Divali).

Once the conflict between the Rabbis and the Sadducees is resolved, Chanukah returns to being a religious victory achieved by force of arms and maintained by strength of religious resolve; Purim on the other hand remains a secular victory achieved by force of arms, by people whose lips (certainly in our texts) are empty of prayer, and whose aims are partly the preservation of the people from physical destruction and partly political. Phrased in this fashion the cap seems to fit the 20th century almost as well as that far‑off era in which Mordechai, Esther and even Harbonah contended with Haman, and we can understand the way that Purim has grown to becomes a people's festival in the Israel of today.

For myself, I like Chanukah and regret the minor key of its observance. It is far more important in the context of there still being Jews and a Jewish religion than Purim ever was, although few people think of it that way, and it is a pity that the Rabbis of the Middle Ages did not do something to emphasise its importance. A Chanukah Seudah would be a suitable invention; who knows, maybe even with a traditional turkey!