Wherefore the Hanukkah scroll

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Most Jews know only the legend about the miracle of the cruse of oil and very little about the actual military victories of the Maccabees.

TOMB OF the Maccabees near present-day Mevo Modi’im. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

TOMB OF the Maccabees near present-day Mevo Modi’im. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The festival of Hanukkah has many beautiful customs such as the dreidel, latkes and sufganiyot, but there is one custom we would expect to find on Hanukkah that seems to be missing – the reading of a scroll in public. After all, on Purim we read the Scroll of Esther every year in order to publicize the miracle. Why don’t we read a scroll on Hanukkah in order to publicize the miracles that God wrought for our ancestors in the days of Mattathias and his sons? The result is that most Jews know only the legend about the miracle of the cruse of oil (Shabbat 21b) and very little about the actual military victories of the Maccabees.

The answer is that, in truth, there is such a scroll, which was read in private or in public from the ninth century until today. It was written in Aramaic and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, German, English, Spanish, Persian, Marathi and other languages. It’s called “The Scroll of Antiochus” and many other names and is first mentioned by the Geonim in the 9th century. The scroll describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of Maccabees and Shabbat 21b, with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis.
This scroll is first mentioned by Halakhot Gedolot, written by Shimon Kayara in Babylon ca. 825: “The elders of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel wrote Megillat Bet Hashmonai (The Scroll of the Hasmonean House).”
Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) calls it Kitab Benei Hashmonai, (The Book of the Sons of the Hasmoneans), and he also translated it into Arabic. Rav Nissim Gaon (North Africa, 990-1062) calls it in Arabic “The Scroll of the Sons of the Hasmoneans.”
The popularity of this scroll is evident from its inclusion in a beautiful Oxford manuscript copied in Spain in 1480, which includes the Torah, the haftarot, the five scrolls and Megillat Antiochus (The Scroll of Antiochus). Similarly, Megillat Antiochus was one of the first printed Hebrew books, printed at Guadalajara, Spain in 1482 in Aramaic and Hebrew.
Furthermore, we know that this scroll was read in public at different times and places. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani (Italy, d. 1260) says, “In a place where they are accustomed to read Megillat Antiochus on Hanukkah, it’s not proper to recite the blessings [for reading a scroll] because it’s not required at all.” In Mahzor Kaffa, which was published in the Crimea in 1735, the Scroll of Antiochus is printed in Hebrew and preceded by the following instructions: “It’s customary to read Megillat Antiochus during [Shabbat] Minhah after kaddish titkabbel (the reader’s kaddish) in order to publicize the miracle [of Hanukkah]…” RABBI YAHYA BEN YOSEF ZALIH, who was the leading rabbi in San’a, Yemen ca. 1715, says, “Some read Megillat Antiochus on Shabbat [of Hanukkah] after the haftarah. This is not required; it’s only a general mitzvah to publicize the miracle among the Jewish people.” But Rabbi Amram Zabban of G’ardaya in the Sahara Desert viewed this public reading as an obligation in his Sefer Hasdei Avot published in 1926: “Megillat Antiochus, according to the custom of the holy city of G’ardaya, may God protect her. The cantor should read it in public in the synagogue after the Torah reading on the Shabbat during Hanukkah. And he reads it in Arabic translation so that the entire congregation should understand [it in order to] publicize the miracle which was done to our holy ancestors, may their merit protect us… translated from the Hebrew from Siddur Bet Oved of R. Yehudah Shmuel Ashkenazi [Livorno, 1853].” This is a fascinating passage. Rabbi Zabban translated Megillat Antiochus from Hebrew into Arabic in 1926 so that the entire congregation would understand it. He seems unaware that Arabic translations already existed. He also presents this custom as a required activity, despite the fact that he seems to have innovated it. Perhaps he had heard that this was an accepted custom in other communities and wished to imitate them.
The Jews of Kurdistan, on the other hand, used to read the Scroll of Antiochus at home during Hanukkah. Rabbi Yosef Kapah (d. 2000) reports that his grandfather Rabbi Yihye Kapah (d. 1932) used to teach it to his pupils in Yemen in the Aramaic original along with the Arabic translation of Rav Sa’adya Gaon. Indeed, I have heard that it is still read every year on Hanukkah at Yemenite synagogues in Israel.
FINALLY, MODERN editions include that of Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurker (d. 1905) who published a Marathi translation of Megillat Antiochus in Bombay in 1866 for the benefit of the Bene-Israel community; Yitzhak Baer in his classic Avodat Yisrael in Germany in 1868; and Philip Birnbaum in his best-selling Daily Prayer Book in the US in 1949.
It would seem that there is no point in reviving the specific custom of reading the Scroll of Antiochus in public, because that work is legendary in nature and not a reliable source for the events of Hanukkah. But we do possess such a source for those events – the First Book of Maccabees – written in Hebrew in the Land of Israel by an eyewitness to the events described therein.
The first four chapters give the essence of the story of Hanukkah: Chapter 1 describes Antiochus’s war against the Jews: he plundered the Temple; fortified the City of David and set up a garrison; and decreed against the sacrifices, Shabbat, Festivals and circumcision under penalty of death. On the 25th of Kislev 167 BCE he defiled the altar. Chapter 2 describes the beginning of the Maccabean revolt: Mattathias and his five sons in Modi’in killed a Jew who stepped forward to sacrifice upon the pagan altar, along with the king’s officer, and destroyed the altar. They fled to the mountains and began guerrilla warfare against the Greek Syrians and their Jewish sympathizers. Mattathias died in 166 BCE.
Chapters 3 and 4 describe the military victories of Judah Maccabee against Seron at Bet Horon; the Battle of Emaus, where 3,000 Jews defeated 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry; and the Battle of Bet Tzur where 10,000 Jews defeated 60,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Judah and his troops then went up to Jerusalem where they purified the Temple. On the 25th of Kislev 163 BCE, they sacrificed on the new altar and decreed the festival of Hanukkah to be observed for eight days every year.

Therefore, we should thank Rabbi Arthur Chiel z”l and the Rabbinical Assembly who published a Hebrew-English edition of the First Book of Maccabees, Chapters 1-4 as a separate booklet 40 years ago under the title Megillat Hanukkah (New York, 1980). It is intended for reading in public or in private during the holiday. We should adopt this beautiful custom and begin to read those chapters in public every year on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. By so doing, we will be reviving the custom of reading a “scroll” on Hanukkah but, more importantly, we will thereby disseminate the oldest surviving account of the “miracles and triumphs” that God performed for the Jewish People “in those days at this season.” 

The writer, a rabbi and professor, is the president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., Jerusalem.

To view and read in English the Megillat Hanukkah, Click and download the two PDFs at  www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/megillat-hanukkah