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The Festival and Its Music

HANUKKA, the postbiblical Festival of Dedication (actually, rededication), is an annual eight-day celebration of the Hasmonean-Maccabean victories of the Jews in 168-165 B.C.E. against the tyranny of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire ruled by Athenian-born Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes), and of the people's fifteen-year struggle against the prohibition of Judaism and against enforced paganism. It is also known as hag ha'urim, the Festival of Lights, in commemoration of the rekindling of the candelabrum at the rededication of the Temple in 165 - and the legendary "miraculous" eight-day duration of the single day's worth of undefiled illumination oil on hand after the Temple's cleansing and purification. The historical basis of the festival's eight-day duration, however, stems from its original connection to the "retroactively postponed" simultaneous celebration of the eight-day autumn pilgrimage Festival of Sukkot. This celebration was held belatedly as part of the Temple's rededication: The people had been prohibited from its observance for three years, and public memory of having to forgo Sukkot was still acute, since its actual date occurred less than twelve weeks earlier. Hanukka commences on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of kislev, the date assigned historically to the rededication and also accepted as the date on which pagan worship of Greek gods had been instituted forcibly in the Temple three years earlier.

During the period of these struggles, ancient Judaea was under the domination of the pagan Greeks of the Syrian-based Seleucid Empire, which they attempted to "civilize" by imposing their version of Greek culture, especially within Judaea and its capital, Jerusalem, which Antiochus aimed to transform into a Greek-oriented city - architecturally, socially, and spiritually. That late Syrian phase of Seleucid-imposed Hellenism, however, was a much-decayed and diluted Greek culture, representing the residue and debris of the former glories of classical Greek civilization and those attributes most prized by the West since the Renaissance. That debased guise of Hellenism was not the Greek culture of philosophers, poets, or artists, but of expeditionary armies, camp followers, and slave traders. Nor, obviously, should Seleucid Hellenism be confused with the legacies of earlier Athenian democracy, nor with the worthy contributions that define ancient Greece at its zenith.

Our historical knowledge of the Hanukka episode is derived from a variety of chronicles, legends, and Talmudic references and commentary - including much taken from the two Books of the Maccabees, which are the last two books of the Apocrypha. In the initial years of the Hellenization effort, a portion of Judaea's population was indeed attracted to things Greek - as perceived "progress" - and was ready to flirt with some of the enticements of introduced Greek values and mores. But in 168 the Seleucid effort entered a brutal phase, when - party to unify Judaea as its southernmost provincial outpost in its fortification against Egypt as a rival power - the fusion of all peoples in the empire was ordered. Judaism was outlawed and its practices forbidden as capital crimes in many cases; pagan worship of Greeks gods was established and required in the Temple and elsewhere by imperial authority and force; and sacred venues and artifacts were defiled or destroyed.

In Judaism, idolatry has always been considered among the most hideous of offenses, even requiring martyrdom rather than submission. By attacking so viciously the Jews' central system of sacred values at its core, Antiochus's Hellenization campaign now sowed the seeds of its own backfire. The revolt was begun and led by Mattathias, an elderly priest of the House of Hasmon, and his five sons - of whom Judah (to whom was subsequently attached the sobriquet Maccabee, "hammer,” ) became the supreme commander of the partisan forces. Jointed by bands of followers, the Hasmoneans-Maccabees conducted a three-year virtual guerrilla war against the Greco-Syrians as well has against their pro-Hellenistic Jewish supporter, and this involved insurgent operations as well as pitched battles. These led eventually to a truce and partial surrender, followed by an imperial edict rescinding the anti-Jewish measures and restoring freedom of Jewish worship and observance. Judah was permitted to reenter Jerusalem with his followers and retake control of the Temple, which, under his leadership, was purified and rededicated with elaborate music and Psalm singing. Therefore, the reference to miracles in the Hanukka liturgy concerns the unlikely victories of untrained resistance fighters as well as the legend of the oil lasting for eight days.

Some historians see in the Hanukka episode the first instance of a successful war for religious liberty and minority reIigious rights. From a narrower Judaic perspective, apart from its other extended theological, ethnic, and national-poIitical connotations, Hanukka is essentially about resistance to Hellenism. It thus commemorates the spiritual survival of Judaism, and its revival after a period that had threatened to bear witness to its total disintegration and assimilation.

The celebration of Hanukka is a family event, and it is also expressed in the liturgy. The first three selections here, B'RAKHOT L’HANUKKA, HANNEROT HALLALU, and MA’OZ TZUR are expressions of the principal musical manifestations of Hanukka - the kindling of the lights.

The Hanukka ceremony on each the eight nights commences with the rabbinically ordained kindling of the Hanukka candles or oil-burning lights, preceded by three benedictions and ending with two succeeding liturgical texts (hannerot hallalu and ma'oz tzur). The Hanukka lights were originally kindled only in the home, but were later Introduced into the synagogue as well. There, it occurs immediately following the minha (afternoon) service on weekdays.

The benedictions and liturgy are generally sung at home with the assembled family and guests. However, additional public candlelighting ceremonies are well-established events often associated with Hanukka concerts. The tradition of annual Hanukka concerts dates to pre-20th-century Europe and has been perpetuated and even enlarged in many American communities. Cantorial-choral settings of the candlelighting benedictions have thus been created by composers and arrangers throughout the 20th century, in a wide variety of styles.

Two benedictions are recited (preferably sung) before the lights are kindled. The first one praises and acknowledges God for enabling the Jewish people to attain holiness (closeness to God) through observance of His commandments, which in the context of Hanukka extend to the postbiblical legal requirement to kindle the lights. Since the Hanukka episode is itself postbiblical, there is no reference to it in the actual Torah. Yet the wording of the first benediction, "Who [God] has commanded us to kindle the Hanukka lights,” is a reminder that religious obligations ordained by the sages - beginning with the "men of the Great Assembly" (anshei Knesset hag'dola
Disc: 1
Aspects of a Great Miracle
1 B'rakhot L'hanukka (Candlelighting benedictions)
2 Hannerot Hallalu
3 Ma'oz Tzur
4 To Celebrate a Miracle
5 Likhtelekh
6 Di Khanike Likht
7 Hanukka Madrigal (Mi y'mallel?)
8 O Rock of My Salvation
9 The Lights We Have Kindled
10 For the Miracles
11 Who Kindled These Lights?
12 Into the Temple Judah Came
13 Who Can Retell?
14 Candles in the Night
15 Rock of Ages
16 Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Habbayit
17 Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin
18 Adonai Z'kharanu
19 Light the Legend
20 A Hanukka Dreidl
21 Light
22 Psalm 150
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