December 6, 2015

Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel was the first rabbinic Bible commentator to understand how Daniel’s visions fit smoothly the course of the Hellenistic period from the Wars of the Diadochi (the generals who reigned after the death of Alexander the Great, and ultimately split up his vast empire) to Antiochus Epiphanes.

In his work Ma’ayanei Hayeshua 11:4 he writes: Concerning Daniel’s dream of wars between the southern king and the northern king, the [rabbinic] commentators spoke falsely because they did not know the history of the monarchies. I found a fitting interpretation in the works of the Christian scholars which accords with the chronicles of the kings of Persia and Egypt. The Christian commentators make some errors, but I will accept the good from them.

Abarbanel’s remark is key to explaining why the popular understanding of Chanukah ignores the Book of Daniel. Aside from the fact that Daniel is generally overlooked because of its challenging Aramaic and barely intelligible Hebrew, it was not until the late 15th century that a major Bible commentator was able to weave together Daniel and the historical events leading up to the Hasmonean rebellion.

The Malbim disagrees! He insists that Daniel 11 does not talk about Chanukah.

In his commentary on Daniel titled Yafeh La-Ketz, Malbim (Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879), who had access to an additional four centuries of historical scholarship, improved upon Abarbanel’s reading.

Malbim is aware of the connection between Daniel chap. 11 and the Antiochian persecution, and his comment on 11:30 offers insight into the reason Daniel and Chanukah are not connected in Jewish consciousness.

Up to this point has been the story of the evil king Antiochus. The text here does not tell the end of the story, how the Hasmoneans were victorious… For in this vision Daniel only wanted to relate the troubles that would befall Israel, not their salvations through Mattathias. For in any case, that was for a brief period, followed by the arrival of Romans. Rather, the text turns to the troubles and destruction wrought by the Romans.

According to Malbim, the author of Daniel recounts the unpleasantness under the Seleucids but not the heroism of the Maccabees, because the temporary salvation they secured for the Jewish people was ultimately for naught. Why refer to the victories of the Hellenistic period, considering that the war for Jewish sovereignty ended with utter defeat in 70 CE.

Thus, in Malbim’s view, it was Daniel himself who neglected to recount the events associated with Chanukah by skipping over this part of the story in his prophecy, since this was but a brief positive interlude.

Malbim relates to the book of Daniel as a 6th century B.C.E. work of prophecy, so he refers to Daniel as consciously “skipping” the successful revolt of the Maccabees. However, according to the standard scholarly position, that the predictions were written in the 2nd century B.C.E. during the height of the persecution, the explanation for the absence of the Maccabean revolt in Daniel 11 is different.

Daniel chap 11 was written in the heat of the moment, during the despair the Judeans were feeling under the yoke of the oppressor. The chapter ends with a prediction of a war of North (=Antiochus) and South, with the Northern king being destroyed in a battle, bringing on the Messianic age, with the resurrection of the dead, redemption of the Jews and final judgment. Although he lived only a short time before the Maccabean rebellion, the author could not imagine that within a handful of years, the Judeans would fight off the Syrian-Greeks themselves. He was sure that, if Antiochus was to fall, it would have to be at the hands of a greater military power than Judea could muster.

Studying Daniel 11 as a 2nd century B.C.E. text from the time of the persecution highlights the victory of the Maccabees, when the “many and strong” fell into the hands of the “few and weak,” teaching us the lessons of perseverance and faith, which are as significant in our times as they have been for millennia.

Chanukah Sameach.


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