Rabbi David B. Kudan

Of Hanukkah and Hammers: The back story



Of Hanukkah and Hammers: The back story

Rabbi David B. Kudan

One of my favorite songs growing up and attending Jewish summer camp was the civil rights ballad, “If I had a Hammer.”

“If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land …”

This story is about the Jewish history of that special hammer.

Long ago in the land of Ur there lived a young man named Abram, a person of extraordinary independence of mind. Abram worked with his father in the family idol workshop. One day, a porter brought to the workshop an unusual piece of wood. Abram took a strange liking to this stick, and finding it to be the perfect weight and length, made from it a fine tool, a hammer, which he intended to use in the carving of idols as he worked alongside his father. Abram knew that was a very special piece of wood – though he didn’t know exactly why. Sure enough, as Abram held his chisel in one hand and raised up the hammer to carve an idol, something stopped his arm holding the hammer in mid-swing. He realized that the idols which he had created over the years with his father, with such joy and skill, could neither save nor help anyone. They were creations, not creators. Then, in a fit of courage, Abram smashed the idols. Abraham was the world’s first iconoclast, which means roughly “inspired troublemaker” and it was the hammer that gave him the courage to do what was right.

The hammer was passed down from generation to generation. It was most useful in the construction of the Temple of Solomon. It belonged to many famous Biblical figures, including the young woman Yael, who used it to slay the evil general Sisera, (a story found in the book of Judges.).

Eventually that hammer passed into exile and then was again redeemed from Babylon and brought back to Jerusalem. Eventually, it was hidden by one family, the Maccabees. As everyone knows, Maccabee means “Hammer.” Judah the Hammer got his name from the very tool that inspired him, the hammer with the wooden handle of Eden that gave him his courage and augmented his faith. And with that powerful tool, Judah and his followers smashed the idols of the Syrian Greeks when he and his followers came to reclaim the Temple. Without Judah’s courage we would not have the holiday of Hanukkah!

You know all about Hanukkah – but do you know what happened to that hammer afterwards? One of the saddest events in Jewish history was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in the year 70. One day, after the Temple was destroyed, a brave young girl named Chasya was exploring the caves under the city of Jerusalem. There she rediscovered the hammer, of which she had heard in stories and legends. She knew that this was a symbol of our people’s survival and courage. Even though the Jews were exiled and defeated, they never gave up hope, they never stopped believing in their religion and their people’s future.

Chasya had a brilliant idea. Hiding the precious hammer in her donkey’s saddle bags, she went to leaders of the Jewish people gathered as Yavneh, a little village outside Jerusalem. She presented the hammer to the sages, and told them, that it must be hidden again – not just in one place – but everywhere. The rabbis asked the young girl how that was possible. How can a single object, be hidden everywhere? At first, they didn’t want to listen to her advice, but one sage recited from the teachings, the saying, “Who is wise – one who learns from every person.” They listened to Chasya and her idea. She said that they must grind up the haft of the hammer into tiny bits, and then wherever the Jewish people traveled, on boats, as people seeking refuge, on camels or on foot, they would sprinkle the pieces of the hammer wherever they went. So it came to pass, that the tiny bits of that special hammer of Abraham, the wood from Eden, from the hammer the Maccabees, were swallowed by fish, and cast up on beaches on the shores of the seven seas. To this very day this wondrous wood may be found clinging to a tree in the forest, or to a fishhook, to a boot tread or to a plow. Who knows how these precious splinters make their way into our homes and into our places of work?

Chasya’s idea was that if the hammer were everywhere, that anyone could find a tiny piece and be filled with hope and inspiration, and a little anger too. So, next time you get a splinter, don’t be so quick to cast it aside. Who can say if it may change your life, and bring more healing wholeness, into our world. Maybe, we all have this hammer in our toes and fingers, in hearts and souls. Maybe, as the song goes, we do have a hammer, and this Hanukkah, and all throughout the year, we can hammer out justice and freedom, sing songs, and spread love to our brothers and sister, all over this world.

Happy Hanukkah!

Rabbi David B. Kudan is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.

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