You probably think the Book of Maccabees never left, but the truth is it was never really “here.” You see, the Book of Maccabees is not in the Jewish Bible. Amazingly, it is found in the Christian version of the Old Testament.
Isn’t it enough they get to make the New Testament? Now they want to stick new books in the Old Testament? Chutzpah! All joking aside, if it’s a story from their bible, why are we celebrating Chanukah?
The Tanach, or Jewish Bible, is an abbreviation of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. Torah is the Five Books of Moses, which you would find in the Torah scroll. Nevi’im are the Prophets, including Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and our favorite, Elijah, who has been drinking our seder wine as long as anyone can remember. Ketuvim are the scriptures, which include the megillot like Esther and Ruth, wisdom books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and many of our prayers in the book called Psalms.
All these books were solidified, sanctified and canonized into our Tanach sometime around 400 B.C.E., give or take 100 years, by a group of the first “proto-rabbis” who were called the Anshe Knesset Hagadolah, the Men of the Great Assembly. Consider them the generation that biblical times ended with and post-biblical times began; the generation when prophets ended and rabbis began. You have them to thank for Purim, the Silent Amidah, as well as most of our ancient prayers.
If they sealed up the Jewish Bible by 200 B.C.E. or so, there’s no wonder why the Book of Maccabees didn’t make the cut. The story of Chanukah started in 167 B.C.E. when Antiochus put statues of Zeus in the Temple, sacrificed pigs and forbade Bris Milah. The poor Book of Maccabees missed the cut by less than 100 years.
The tragedy for the Book of Maccabees gets worse. We lost the book! Like all of our ancient books, the Book of Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew but over the years — because of persecution, exiles and book burnings — the Hebrew version was lost, and the text only survived in a translation made into Greek called the Septuagint. It appeared that the Book of Maccabees was on the edge of oblivion.
But we’re bringing Maccabee back … yeah! And we don’t need Justin Timberlake’s help to do it. We needed the help of a young bat mitzvah girl named Haley Bohrer and MMAE’s b’nei mitzvah tutor Steve Land.
I was sitting in my office two years ago with the Bohrer family. We had a big problem. Haley is a very sharp young woman and she wanted to learn something challenging to chant. The problem was, she had a winter bat mitzvah.
In my Modern Orthodox shul, bat mitzvah girls read from the three megillot of the Shalosh Regalim — Passover (Song of Songs) for a spring bat mitzvah, Shavuot (Ruth) for a summer bat mitzvah, and Sukkot (Kohelet) for a fall bat mitzvah. Then, they can come back year after year and read their chapter when we have our communal readings on each holiday. It’s great, with one problem — there’s no reading for winter.
So I’m sitting there racking my mind for ideas, and into my head pops the Book of Maccabees. But does it even exist, I wondered. I asked Steve what he thought about the idea. “I love the idea,” he said, “and by the way, I have the Book of Maccabees in Hebrew at home. I’ll bring it.”
In 1830, Rabbi Seckel Yitzchak Frankel, who could be considered one of the founding fathers of the Reform movement, translated Maccabees into Hebrew from the Greek. Steve had a copy of this version. He told me, “I’ll add trope [the cantillation notes on all holy scriptures], and we can add the Book of Maccabees to our rotation.”
After more than 2,000 years of neglect, this Chanukah here in Baltimore, MMAE will host a reading from the Book of Maccabees when Haley will once again read the same reading she chanted on her bat mitzvah Shabbat. The words of this ancient book, which describes the Chanukah story in full detail, will once again come alive and help my congregation relive the miracle that happened bayamim haheim bazman hazeh — “at this time in those days.”
Recently, as I was driving home with my 11-year old daughter, Lila, she said, “Abba, I really want to have my bat mitzvah in December.” Somewhere in heaven, the celestial Book of Maccabees smiled.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro is spiritual leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Greengate Jewish Center.
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