What Is History?

What is History? That may seem an absurd question: Isn’t ‘history’ a chronicle of what happened in the past? A fascinating book with this title by E.H Carr, first published in 1961, challenges this naïve assumption. Professor Carr demonstrates that the ‘facts’ of history are those aspects of the past which historians have chosen to study. Absolute objectivity is impossible. All history is selection and interpretation. How a historian sees and understands the past depends on the conditions of the present; the social, cultural, economic and political context in which he or she works, and the stance she or he takes in that context. The brilliant historian, the Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm, who died a few months ago, is an excellent example of a master of his craft, who was completely open about his left-wing perspective.

What is history? History is, above everything, political. The history of Chanukkah is a prime example. Mah Chanukkah? What is Chanukkah? A passage in the Talmud begins with this question, and then, after stating that ‘On the 25th of Kislev commence the days of Chanukkah’, goes on to relate that when the Hasmoneans prevailed against and defeated ‘the Greeks’: ‘they searched and found only one cruise of oil which lay with the seal of the high priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought with it and they lit with it for eight days.’ (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 21b).

The Babylonian Talmud was edited around the year 500 CE. The events it describes took place circa 640 years earlier, in 164 BCE. Curiously, the First Book of the Maccabees, written in the latter part of the second century BCE – that is, not very long after the events it describes – says nothing about the miracle story. Nevertheless, it relates that it was ‘decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept, with gladness and joy at their due season year after year, for eight days from the 25th of Kislev (I, 4: 57-59). Meanwhile, the Second Book of the Maccabees, a slightly later work, provides a very different explanation for why the new festival was to be celebrated for eight days: ‘They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the festival of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before at the festival of Sukkot they had been wandering about like wild beasts in the mountains and caves’ (II, 10:6).

So, why did the sages of the Talmud relate a story about an eight-day oil miracle and not give the more prosaic explanation that the first Chanukkah was a delayed Sukkot celebration – which was then inaugurated as an eight-day festival? A clue to answering this question flows from another question. Why did the rabbis exclude the Books of the Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible? Put simply, they did not want to glorify the Hasmoneans, who became corrupt after achieving power. While providing insight into the Jewish past, the texts of both the Bible and the Talmud reflect the political concerns of their authors and editors. And so, the passage the sages chose for the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Chanukkah underlines their message: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the God of Hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6).

Chanukkah Samei’ach!

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah