Sunday, January 01, 2006


Two Chanukahs ago, someone posted this to an email list that I'm on.

You might remember me complaining in previous years about the translation of "mi y'malel g'vurot yisra'el, otan mi yimneh" (which I'd translate loosely as, who can recall the might/heroics of Israel, who can number/count them?) unfortunately as (yes, you all know it) "who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?" Yes, so it rhymes. But it also totally puts us in a victim role, and is a really awful translation as far as I can tell.

I responded:

This is interesting; i hadn't thought about this before.

The lyrics of Mi Y'maleil are controversial, with or without translation. The words and music were written by secular Zionists in the 20th century (does anyone know more details?). The first line is based on Psalm 106:2 ("Mi y'maleil g'vurot **ADONAI**, yashmia kol t'hilato?" = "Who can recall the heroics of **GOD**, and declare all of God's praise?", a line that we may know from the extra verse sometimes added to Shir Hama'alot in the birkat hamazon). But they change it to "Mi y'maleil g'vurot **YISRAEL**", a one-word emendation that shifts the agency from divine to human.

This seems to be exactly the reverse of the rabbinic transformation of Chanukah. The original story (in the books of Maccabees) was about a military victory, and the Hasmonean dynasty seizing power. The rabbis didn't like this one bit, so Chanukah is almost absent in the Mishnah, and when it shows up in the Gemara, the military story is replaced with the familiar Sunday-school story about the oil lasting 8 days. This shabbat, we'll read the haftarah with the line "Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit", which seems to be the essence of the rabbinic Chanukah. ("she'asah nisim la'avoteinu" -- God did miracles for our ancestors, not our ancestors for themselves. Similarly, the rabbis turned Exodus, the tragic drama of Moses's life, into the haggadah, where Moses is barely mentioned.)

In contrast, the modern Israeli spin on Chanukah brings back the might and power. These "g'vurot" (heroic deeds) are now attributed to Israel, not God. "Makabi moshia' ufodeh" - "Maccabee saves and frees", using words traditionally associated only with God, not humans (the Nishmat prayer says "umibal'adecha EIN LANU melech go'el umoshia', podeh etc." - "aside from you WE HAVE NO ruler who redeems, saves, frees, etc.")

Are the newer words empowering? Do they make us subjects of history rather than mere objects? Do we gain more responsibility for our actions? Do we gain hope in times when God's face is hidden? ("Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds." --Bob Marley)

Or do we come to worship might and power? Are we making the error of saying "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this for me"(Deut 8:17)? Are we actually abdicating moral responsibility, selectively seeing history as "g'vurot Yisrael" when we're happy with the outcome and just "things that befell us" when we're not? Do we lose our humility?

It's a tough call.


  1. Not sure how to answer your question, but another interesting layer to the historical discussion about "mi yimalel" is the issue of the verses of "tehillat hashem yidaber pi" that some people outside of Israel add after Shir Hama'alot, before the birkat hamazon. They also contain the verse, "Mi yimalel gvurot hashem..." and were added as an explicitly anti-Zionist statement after some religious Zionists (or maybe general Zionists? not sure) suggested that the Israeli national anthem be Shir Hama'alot (Psalms something--sorry, can't cite right now).

  2. For what it's worth..
    .I believe the "who can retell" translation which appears in the Fireside Book of Folk Songs is the work of folksinger/folklorist Sam Hinton, who was probably more concerned with making it sing well than with political correctness. When the Weavers recorded it in 1957, a great showcase for Ronnie Gilbert'spowerhouse contralto, it had an unmistakeable kick-ass feel. Whatever the rabbis thought, and whatever your feelings about militant Zionism today, anyone can relate to the idea of people standing the face of oppression, sme reason we sing an African American spiritual popularized by Paul Robdson at Passover seders. Hey, a good xong needs no justification.