A family lighting a hanukkia.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The story of Hanukka is not to be found anywhere in the Bible. The Books of Maccabees, where the story is told in detail, were not considered sacred by the Sages. The earliest rabbinic account is found in the Talmud: What is Hanukka? As the Sages taught, on 25 Kislev, eight days of Hanukka begin during which we do not give funeral orations or fast. That is because when the Greeks entered the Temple they rendered all the oil in the Temple unclean. When the Maccabean royal house overcame them and was triumphant, they searched but found only one jar of oil that had the seal of the High Priest. It contained only one day’s worth of oil. A miracle occurred concerning it, for they were able to kindle lights with it for eight days.
The following year they appointed those days as festival days with the recitation of Hallel and prayers of thanksgiving (Shabbat 21b).
The Books of Maccabees, on the other hand, say nothing about that miracle. They record that on 25 Kislev the Maccabees rededicated the Temple “and celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days and offered burnt offerings with joy and offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise” (I Mac. 4:56-7), and that “they celebrated it for eight days with gladness like the festival of Succot, remembering how on Succot they had still been wandering in the mountains like wild animals… And they passed a public ordinance decreeing that the whole Jewish nation should observe these days every year” (II Mac. 10:6-8).
The very question “What is Hanukka?” is a strange one.
After all, the story is told easily enough in the paragraph inserted in the amida on Hanukka, which echoes the Books of Maccabees and says that we thank God for the miracles and deliverance that occurred when the Hasmoneans overcame the Greeks, because God delivered them into their hands and that they came into the Temple, “cleansed and purified the Sanctuary and kindled lights there. They set aside these eight days for giving thanks and chanting praise to You.” The question “What is Hanukka?” then, seems to be not why we celebrate it, but why we celebrate it for eight days. Imitating the eight days of Succot was not enough for the Sages so they told the story of the oil.
Some have speculated that adding the story of a supernatural miraculous event came about because of a desire to play down the significance of the Maccabees, since in the end the Hasmonean dynasty turned out to be anything but glorious and certainly could not be considered a legitimate substitute for the true kingship of the House of David.
Another possibility is that it was intended to play down the role of military might and emphasize even more the power of the Almighty. After the disaster of the failure of the Great Revolt in 70 CE, which many of the sages seem to have opposed, too much emphasis on military might may have seemed dangerous to the sages. Better to concentrate on light and God as the source of light than on a military victory. As the prophet had said long before in the haftara reading for Shabbat Hanukka, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
Since this verse comes as part of the prophet’s vision of the menorah as a symbol of God’s spirit, it may have inspired the idea of the miracle of the oil continuing to burn in the menorah. Certainly might is needed, but it must be exercised with discretion and not celebrated as the be-all and the end-all of life.
The story of the oil is obviously patterned after the folklore miracle stories told about the prophet Elijah in which the jar of flour and the jug of oil did not “give out” or ‘fail’ but continued to multiply (I Kings 17:14-16). On one level, then, it can be seen merely as an appealing pious folktale. But perhaps the Sages had something else in mind. Light, flame, as the symbol of God’s presence and of the triumph of goodness over evil, light over darkness, has a powerful place in Jewish tradition.
What happened at Hanukka, therefore, becomes not only victory over our enemies, but also the kindling of the light of God, of Torah and of decency, which will continue to illuminate the entire world and not be extinguished. If victory does not lead to that, victory is an illusion. Seen in that way, the story is a challenge to us to keep that divine light burning by our actions and our aspirations. That is the deeper message of Hanukka. The writer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award. His latest book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy.