English, Piyut, Readings

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)


Ner Israel (The candle of Israel) - Selected texts of Rav Hai Gaon by the 19th century Hamagid of Koznitz

The third and last (albeit slightly belated) installment of the series on Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1, Part 2).

In the days of the Geonim (i.e., the Babylonian sages that followed the rabbis of the Talmud), individuals and communities sent to these rabbinic authorities halakhic queries and other questions concerning Jewish life. The replies of the Geonim were preserved in what is known as the Responsa literature. One of the most prominent sages of that period was Rav Hai Gaon, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva during the early 11th century. In one of his replies we read:

And concerning your question about the Hanukkot (Heb. inaugurations); we have heard about them in the Haggadah and the payytanim enumerated seven of them: the inauguration of heaven and earth after the six days of creation, and the inauguration of the alter in the days of Moses, and the inauguration by David… and the inauguration in the days of Solomon, and the inauguration in the days of Ezra, and the inauguration in the days of Matityahu son of Yohanan – these are six, and the seventh will take place in the future (i.e., with the coming of the Messiah)”. But those who count the one who built a new house, how can they know how many there were? But it must be said that the inauguration of a new house is called like a Mitzvah (= a religious law), and its name is celebration of the house, and it is not one of the public Hanukkot. And the inauguration of the idol, how come [one associates the inauguration] of Avodah Zara (=idol worship) with that of the house of the Lord that hopefully will be built in our days, amen.

There are several intriguing elements in this reply; first, it is curious that someone addressed Rav Hai with a question concerning the proper count of the Hanukkot. Usually, the Geonim received questions concerning laws and related religious practices. We learn then, that for some, the proper count of the seven inaugurations was meaningful. In fact, from the reply by Rav Hai we learn that it was a matter of dispute, a point to which I shall come back to shortly. Second, we should pay attention to the list itself; it consists of several “historical” Hanukkot: that of the Tabernacle (the altar in the days of Moses), of Solomon’s (first) temple, of the second temple in the days of Ezra, and finally the one in the days of the Maccabees. To this list of four Hanukkot Rav Hai adds one by David, based on Psalms 30:1 “A Psalm of David, A Song at the dedication of the Temple,” and a metaphorical one – the creation of the universe. Finally, Rav Hai mentions the seventh Hanukkah of the future (third) temple. After Rav Hai concludes the list we encounter the third intriguing fact. It turns out that Rav Hai is familiar with an alternative count that adds ‘the building of a new house’; truly, it is not quite clear what Rav Hai means here, and his explanation is even vaguer. At any rate, we realize now that the question concerning the proper count was in place. The last sentence of the response probably contains the most intriguing detail; it seems that Hai Gaon had heard of a custom to count among the seven Hanukkot an inauguration of some sort of a idol-worshiping place. Who might be the person or community that would do that? Some sort of a Christian sect? Karaites? Other non-rabbinic Jews? Muslims? I must admit that in this regard we are in the dark.

At this point, I’m sure many of you may be asking- “but what does Piyyut have to do with all of this?!” Well, as far as we know, the tradition of the seven Hanukkot emerged from the poetry of our beloved Elazar Birabi Qilir of seventh century Palestine! In several of his piyyutim for Hanukka the Qiliri elaborates quite lavishly on the seven Hanukkot. The typology of the seven inauguration makes perfect sense; it brings together six occurrences in the past, in which a sacred place was either created or rebuilt and it connects the past with the messianic hope for the completion of the series in the world to come. The inclusion of the Hanukkah of the Maccabees among these Hanukkot fits perfectly into the liturgy of the feast of Hanukkah. It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati. Interestingly enough, the list in this Midrash differs from the list known from the piyyutim of the Qiliri. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that the list brought by Rav Hai is similar to that of the Qiliri. It would seem then, that the case of the seven Hanukkot is yet another example of the rich and complex relationships within the polysystem of Hebrew literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.