Why do we light Hanukka candles? Ancient books tell tales of the Maccabees and a
miraculous pitcher of oil. These are not simple children’s fables. Hanukka helps
us negotiate the meaning of Judaism and Zionism.
As we’ve been taught,
the notorious king of the Seleucid empire from 175-164 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes,
was not enamored of diversity. According to the narrator of the First Book of
Maccabees: “Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one
people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the
command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they
sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (I Maccabees 1:41-50) Antiochus
installed his Hellenist-friendly brother Jason in Jerusalem as High Priest. As
the head of the Jewish religious establishment, Jason officially embraced
assimilation and apostasy and cooperated with Antiochus in imposing Hellenistic
culture in Judaea. Many Jews joined the popular trend.
“So they built a
gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to the Gentile custom, and removed the marks
of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant” (I Maccabees 1:10-15).
The personal and social cost of continuing to observe Jewish
practice rose. Incentives to assimilate into the dominant culture accelerated
the abandonment of Jewish life and identity. Matityahu arose to wrest Judaism
from sacrilege and decimation. He declared his agenda: “Even if all the nations
that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his
commandments, departing each one from the religion of his/her ancestors, yet I
and my children and my siblings will live by the covenant of our forebearers.
Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the
king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the
When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in
the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar of Modi’in, according to the
When Matityahu saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart
was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the
altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to
sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, as
Pinehas did against Zimri the son of Salu.
“Then Matityahu cried out in
the city with a loud voice, saying: ‘Let every one who is zealous for the law
and supports the covenant come out with me!’ And he and his sons fled to the
hills and left all that they had in the city” (I Maccabees 2:15-28).
bases in the caves of the Judaean hills, Jewish guerrilla fighters conducted
strategic hit-and-run strikes against the professional Syrian Greek forces. In
164 BCE, the decisive battle took place during the Seleucid march to Jerusalem.
Divided into four groups, 10,000 Jews ambushed the enemy rear from surrounding
ravines and high ground at a narrow passage of Beit Tsur.
routed 50,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, 300 chariots and 22 war elephants.
Sources vary regarding the exact numbers, but we get the idea.
victorious Jewish soldiers marched directly to Jerusalem and entered the
desecrated sanctuary. After they cleaned and rebuilt the altar where pigs had
been sacrificed, they offered sacrifices, set out the showbreads, lit the Temple
menorah. The second Book of Maccabees explains: “They celebrated it for eight
days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Feast of Succot, remembering how not
long before, during Succot, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves
like wild animals” (II Maccabees, 10:6).
The Maccabees won political and
religious independence for Jews in ancient Judaea. They pursued their beliefs
with zeal, going from house to house and forcefully circumcising Jewish
However, the Hasmonean dynasty they installed proved so
susceptible to corruption that within a generation, it became the gateway to
Roman dominion. Jewish autonomy capitulated and was ultimately destroyed, the
Temple razed, Jews murdered, enslaved and dispersed into exile.
this backdrop, the Talmud tells a different Hanukka story – the one we’ve all
heard: “What is [the reason for] Hanukka? Our sages taught: On the 25th of
Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukka on which eulogies and fasting are
prohibited. When the Hellenizers entered the Temple, they defiled all of the
oils in the Court. When the sovereign power of the Hasmonean dynasty overpowered
and defeated the Hellenizers, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that
had on it the seal of the High Priest. Though there was only enough oil in it to
burn one day; a miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah from it for eight
days. The following year, they appointed these days a festival with Hallel and
thanksgiving” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b) Indeed the miracle is
the tiny cruse of oil – but not because it burned for eight days.
miracle is how the rabbinic sages transformed bloody battles and an extreme,
corrupt regime into a sublime spiritual practice that is accessible virtually
anywhere, under all conditions. Tiny manipulations of oil and fiber take on the
grandeur of the magnificent Temple. On Hanukka, our windowsill becomes the
sanctuary as we perform the sacred service.
Modern Zionism re-ignited
The wars against the State of Israel in 1948, 1967 and
1973 resonate powerfully with the theme of the few who prevail over the many,
and Maccabean determination to fight, even on Shabbat, to save life. The
Maccabees affirm the Jewish right to self-defense, inspire our modern Jewish
soldiers, and produce an agonizing paradox – we prepare our children to be
willing to die to secure our survival.
The Maccabee fight for control of
the Temple and the land eventually devolves into factions and
In our era, the challenge to live and govern the land also
tests our capability to pursue our finest purposes.
For both the
Maccabees and contemporary Zionists, military power both secures Jewish life and
challenges Jewish values at their limits. In the process, pure oil is tainted
Hanukka sheds light on the project of the Jewish People to
enter history as agents, and take an active role in shaping our destiny. Like
modern Zionism, both the Maccabees and the sages struggled for the meaning and
substance of Jewish life and kept our flame burning for millennia. Both call
upon us to reach with our lives beyond our personal interest to the joy and
responsibility of Zionism. Having transformed blood to oil and back, let us
light our candles today and illumine the daily responsibilities of power and
sovereignty with the refined sacred spirit of Hanukka.
The writer is the
author of ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter, Israeli Feminism
Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink, co-director of YTheater Project Jerusalem,
and the Israeli founder of Women of the Wall.