What is Hanukka?

"What is Hanukka?" asked the sages in a passage found in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b).

lit menorah 88 (photo credit: )
lit menorah 88
(photo credit: )
'What is Hanukka?" asked the sages in a passage found in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b). They answered this strange question - strange because surely by this time (no earlier than the third century CE) they must have known the answer - by citing an earlier teaching of the Tannaim: As our rabbis taught: Beginning on the 25th of Kislev and extending for eight days one does not eulogize the dead or fast. The reason is that when the Greeks entered the Temple, they desecrated all of the oil. When the Hasmonean dynasty overcame them, they searched but found only one container of oil that was sealed with the seal of the high priest. It contained enough oil for only one day. But a miracle occurred and they were able to keep the light burning for eight days. What was is that they really wanted to know? They knew that Hanukka was celebrated for eight days. They knew that lights were lit those days and the schools of Hillel and Shammai had even debated how many and in what way - either starting with one and increasing or starting with eight and decreasing. Incidentally, the original way was simply lighting one lamp each night, as cited in Shabbat 21b. Perhaps they were looking for an explanation of why lights are lit for eight days. In the special prayer recited on Hanukka - Al Hanissim - there is no mention of this miracle. The historical reason for eight days is found in the Books of Maccabees written near the time of the actual events. There we read that the reason for the eight-day celebration was that "and having cleansed the sanctuary, they made another altar of sacrifice; and striking stones to produce fire, they offered sacrifices, after they had ceased for two years, and burned incense, and lighted lamps and set forth the showbread... Now on the same day that the sanctuary was profaned by aliens, upon that very day did it come to pass that the cleansing of the sanctuary was made, the 25th day of the same month, which is Kislev. And they observed eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of Succot, remembering how not long before, during the feast of Succot, they had been wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts" (II Maccabees 10). Surely the sages of the Talmud as well as the earlier Tannaim they quoted must have also been familiar with this story. Evidently they were not satisfied with it. Perhaps then their question was, "What was the miracle of Hanukka?" They were looking for something more than the victory over the Syrian Greeks to explain the elaborate rites of Hanukka and they found it in the story of the cruse of oil. Some have suggested that the victory itself was not sufficient for them because in the eyes of the sages the Hasmoneans were not seen as praiseworthy. Certainly that dynasty had not proven especially righteous or pious. The only legitimate dynasty was that of David, not those usurpers. The true story of Hanukka - i.e. the story of the Maccabean revolt - is much more complicated than the legend of the oil would imply because it was not only a struggle of Jews against their Syrian-Greek oppressors, led by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, but also a struggle within the Jewish people between those who wished to Hellenize Judaism and those who wanted to remain true to tradition. At the end of the year 167 BCE the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated and dedicated to Zeus Olympius, whose presence was symbolized by a sacred stone. The Hellenizers amongst the Jews cooperated in this, including the High Priest Menelaus who encouraged the king to prohibit the observance of the Torah of Moses and introduce pagan customs instead. It was these actions that gave rise to the Maccabean revolt. Perhaps the rabbis wanted to diminish the importance not only of the Hasmoneans but also of the military victory and to celebrate instead the power of God. By the time of the Talmud, Jews no longer had armies or military might. The use of arms, on the contrary, had only brought disaster - twice, at the Great Revolt that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple and at the Bar Kochba Revolt which brought even greater disaster. The Books of Maccabees are filled with praise of acts of zealotry, citing the example of biblical zealot par excellence - Pinhas. It was exactly that type of zealotry that had brought disaster. Note too the reading from the prophets that was designated for Shabbat Hanukka. Taken from Zechariah, it contains the famous vision of the menora and the proclamation, "Not by might nor by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts." That is surely a strange message for a holiday that celebrates a military victory. Or is it? We live in a time when the importance of military might for the survival of Israel and the Jewish people is so obvious as to need no explanation. Yet the reminder - gentle as it is - of the sages that zealotry can bring disaster and that relying on physical might alone, without the moral and ethical aspects represented by the menora, is not sufficient is not without importance. Perhaps that is the answer to the question "What is Hanukka?" for our days. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the Head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.