The Stories We Think We Know

Erev Hanukkah | Dec 24, 2016

Shabbat Shalom

It’s almost Hanukkah, it’s vacation time, so I want to start off with a game. Who here has heard of the following characters:

Luke Skywalker

Han Solo

Qui-Gon Jin

Count Dooku

Jyn Erso

Saw Gerrera

Chi Eekway Papanoida – Daughter of Baron Papanoida who represented the planet Wroona in the Galactic Senate. She appeared in scenes deleted from Revenge of the Sith as one of the senators of the Delegation of 2000.

Echuu Shen-Jon – Former Padawan to Mace Windu who served as a Jedi General during the Clone Wars. Went into hiding after Order 66 was given, and re-emerged during the Galactic Civil War to fight for the Rebel Alliance.

I wish I were making these up.

If you want to learn more about these characters you can visit the website “Wookieepedia,” yes, a combination of the words Wookie and Wikipedia. Isn’t the 21st century great? This website is the authoritative encyclopedia for all things Star Wars and gives the back story for all of these characters, their history, their highlights, and even in some cases their future. The only problem with this site is that much of the information it’s based on is pure fiction. Now yes, technically as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, the whole Star Wars universe is fiction, but even inside this world there is fact, what is known as the “canon,” and there is legend, what is known as the “expanded universe.”

The short explanation of all this is that back when there were only three Star Wars movies, and then only six, many fans clamored for more. More characters, more ships, more planets. So they wrote them. They wrote books that told the past of these famous characters as well as what would happen to them in the future. All of this was dreamed up by novelists and fans alike. This world, that wasn’t part of the movies became known as the Expanded Universe. Fans loved this, and compiled all those stories and histories into the online encyclopedia of Wookiepedia.

But then something either incredible, or catastrophic happened. Disney announced they were making new movies. On one hand, this meant fans would get to see what would happen to Han, Luke and Leila – a dream come true. But on the other hand, all of these extra stories, all of the Expanded Universe was now rendered fiction. It had never happened. The official Star Wars Canon would refer only to the main sequence of Episodes 1-9. Everything else was now considered legend. In Wookiepedia terms, entries now had to be differentiated into canonical and non-canonical material – the fact and the legend. Don’t worry, there is still plenty to go around. The article about Anakin Skywalker, spoiler alert, he’s also Darth Vader and Luke’s father, the entry about him according to canonical material checks in at 48,200 words. The entry on legends concerning him? That’s a mere 114,700 words. For comparison, the wikipedia articles on Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt combined check in at 95,600. (Yes, really) Again – how we doing 21st century?

Now switching gears for a moment, the language used here for this discussion is fascinating. Star Wars is divided in two, canonical and non-canonical. The origin of the word canon used in this way goes back to the Bible. Books that are included in the Bible are referred to as canonical, part of the biblical canon. Books that are outside the Bible are non-canonical. Again, jumping back to Star Wars the official story is canonical, the legends are non-canonical. These phrases are now used in storytelling of all sorts. What is included in the “official story,” and what is the “legend.”

A story we can also examine in this manner that’s topical for this time of year, is of course Hanukkah. Ironically, the “original” story of Hanukkah is non-canonical. That is, it is not part of the Tanakh. Instead, it is found in the Book of Maccabees part of the Apocrypha, a collection of ancient books and documents not included in the traditional Hebrew Bible, but are included with certain other versions of the Bible. But then even this non-canonical story, has a aspects of it that are canonical and non-canonical. Still with me? It’s ok, I’m just having fun here. It’s vacation time, right? A better way to put it, is that even the Hanukkah story has aspects of it that are scene as “official” and “not official.” Or to ask the question yet another way, what parts of the Hanukkah story really happened and what parts didn’t?

So let’s review what we know. The Book of Maccabees tells of King Antiochus coming to power, desecrating the Temple and forbidding most Jewish religious practices. A Priest named Mattathias, had five sons, one of whom was named Judah and was called Maccabee, and he was fed up with this Greek oppression. Mattathias went into the city and called out, “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me! – מי לה׳ אליי! “ (1 Maccabees 2:27) There is a rebellion, many battles, and finally a victory. As the text continues, “Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifices as the law directs on the new altar. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals… So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings… There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.” (1 Maccabees 4:52-58)

This also continues with an extra reason for celebration a few chapters later as letters written to Jews living outside the Land of Israel inform them, “we shall be celebrating the purification of the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, so we thought it right to inform you, that you too may celebrate the feast of Sukkot and the fire that appeared when Nehemiah, after he built the Temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.” (2 Maccabees 1:18) Ok, so here is another celebration lasting 8 days, the festival of Sukkot, that the Jews couldn’t observe at its proper time because they were you know, fighting a war, and the mention of a special fire dating back to the time of Nehemiah in the early days of the Second Temple.

So that’s the canonical (or non-canonical as it may be) story of Hanukkah as outlined in the Books of Maccabees. We get fighting with the Greeks, 8-day festivals, and fire. Sounds like Hanukkah to me.

But then we have some “Expanded Universe” legends, or non-canonical material to consider. The Talmud has two primary legends that factor in. The first tells of Adam in the Garden of Eden. As the winter months approached the days began to grow shorter and darker. Since this was the first time this happened, Adam had no way of knowing the days would lengthen once again. So what does he do? He engages in eight days of praying and fasting and at the end of this period, the beginning of the month of Tevet, the days started to grow longer. He established these eight days as a festival to celebrate for the sake of Heaven. (Avodah Zarah 8a) This sounds familiar, an eight-day festival of light during the darkest time of the year.

And finally, one more legend we know so well: The Talmud asks the question, “What is Hanukkah?” And the answer, “When the Hasmoneans overcame the Greeks and emerged victorious they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, but there was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day. But a miracle occurred and they lit the Menorah from this oil for eight days. The next year, the Rabbis instituted those days and made them holidays with the recitation of special thanksgiving prayers and blessings.” (Shabbat 21b)

So now we have a few options on the table. The canonical story of the military struggle of the Maccabees against the Greeks, and a few Expanded Universe / maybe non-canonical stories of winter solstice holidays and the Miracle of the Oil. But are these two options part of the “official story” or are they not? Many of us have learned them as the real Hanukkah celebration for years, so how can they be taken away? But let’s suppose hypothetically they were. What if just as it happened in the Star Wars universe, word came down that these stories are no longer part of “the real story” and are just legends? Would that change anything?

In my mind, it would have no impact. This differentiation between stories really only matters when we get into the nitty gritty, when we try to hyper-intellectualize our celebration. During the moments themselves, when we are actually observing the holiday, the distinction doesn’t mean a thing. When Luke Skywalker is flying down the trench about to destroy the Death Star, it really doesn’t matter whether he first met Obi-wan Kenobi earlier in that movie, or years before after crashing his skyhopper while searching for Womp Rats to bullseye in Beggar’s Canyon. That moment is just there for us to marvel at the Millennium Falcon showing up at the right moment so that Luke can hit his shot. In the moment, all that matters is the moment.

So too on Hanukkah. When we are singing the blessings and standing by the light of the Hanukkiyah, it doesn’t really matter what story came from the Book of Maccabees and what came from the Talmud. When we celebrate today, we celebrate all the miracles of Hanukkah – the Jews’ victory over the Greeks, the oil lasting for eight days, the days growing shorter and then longer, and that we can continue celebrating Hanukkah each and every year, generation after generation. When the candles are lit, we can just watch those flames dance, and look-on in awe at the light they bring into the world. In that moment too, all that matters is the moment.

It is my hope that whether you prefer the canonical version of the story, or whether you’re more of a fan of the “Expanded Hanukkah Universe,” that we all find a miracle to appreciate over the next week, so that we can continue celebrating our Festival of Light. (Sabres).