Saving Hanukkah: Deeper meaning than the oil miracle

Why did they light candles? Was it to mimic the menorah? Was it because this was the only part of the Temple they could mimic?

 THE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of chaTHE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of change or assimilation threaten it. (photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)
THE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of chaTHE LIGHT of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of change or assimilation threaten it.
(photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

Hanukkah is a rabbinic festival that commemorates the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid (Hellenist) Empire after a long rebellion that lasted from 167-164 BCE. We have a few important historical documents from this period that offer a detailed description of that time.

The first is Maccabees I, which was written by an anonymous Jewish author living close to the time of the rebellion, giving us a detailed account of the battles and events that led up to the eventual conquest of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple. 

A second document is Josephus Flavius’s Antiquities from the first century CE. A third early source is the scroll of Ta’anit (fasts), a collection written during the Second Temple period, with many events from the Hasmonean dynasty listing the national holidays when one should refrain from a private fast or from eulogizing. 

The final source is the Al Hanisim (on the miracles) prayer of thanksgiving added to the Amidah (standing) prayer, as well as the grace after meals on Hanukkah. This prayer is found already in the early prayer books from the Geonic period (late sixth to mid-11th centuries) and might have an earlier origin. It is therefore instructive to compare the early accounts of the Hanukkah story and see how they describe the significance of the occasion. 

The earliest source in Maccabees I (4:36) describes how after the enemy was crushed, Judah told his brothers to purify and rededicate the Temple. A point of interest is that we are told that the day of the dedication of the Temple was on the same day (three years before) that the Seleucid Hellenists had defiled the Temple. This is mentioned by Josephus as well. 

Menorah in the window on the eighth night (credit: AMANDA FIELD)Menorah in the window on the eighth night (credit: AMANDA FIELD)

The second point is that all the Temple vessels were purified, including the menorah, and they brought an offering on the new rededicated altar (hanukkat hamizbeyah) on the 25th day of Kislev (4:50-54). The central theme here is the success of the rebellion and the rededication of the Temple and the altar (hence the name Hanukkah). Despite the mention of lighting the menorah, there is no mention of a miracle.

THE SECOND source is Josephus. Writing under Roman rule after the destruction of the Temple, the historian is careful to avoid describing Hanukkah in terms of what it actually was: a successful rebellion against a foreign empire. Instead, he describes it as a fight for religious rights during the Greek occupation (Antiquities, 12:7). 

Like Maccabees I, he does not mention any miracle of an oil flask, although he does say that people refer to Hanukkah as the “Festival of Lights,” which means that already in the first century, they were lighting candles. Why did they light candles? Was it to mimic the menorah? Was it because this was the only part of the Temple they could mimic?

In the prayer Al Hanisim, which we insert into the Amidah prayer three times a day and at the grace after meals on Hanukkah, it says that we praise God for the miracles that He did for our ancestors in that time during these days. It then goes on to describe the miracles: “You gave the strong into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.” In other words, the miracle was that the Jews won the rebellion. 

The end of the prayer is quite instructive: “After this, your sons came into the sanctuary [heichal]… and purified the Temple and lit candles in your holy [place] and courtyard and designated these eight days of Hanukkah to thank [le’hodot] and praise [le’hallel] your holy Name.” 

“After this, your sons came into the sanctuary [heichal]… and purified the Temple and lit candles in your holy [place] and courtyard and designated these eight days of Hanukkah to thank [le’hodot] and praise [le’hallel] your holy Name.”

Al Hanisim

Interestingly enough, this prayer follows the narrative of Maccabees I. It does mention lighting the menorah, as well as what became the signature prayers of Hanukkah: Al Hanisim (thanks) and Hallel (praise). But there is no mention of an oil flask miracle. So where does that come from?

APROPOS THE laws of lighting Shabbat candles, the Talmud discusses Hanukkah: “What is Hanukkah? Our rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev the days of Hanukkah [commence]… For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty… defeated them, they… found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred and it burned for eight days” (Tractate Shabbat 21b).

This quote acknowledges the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks but seems to give a special place to the oil flask miracle. It appears that this source relates a reason for the festival unknown beforehand. 

In actuality, the Gemara is quoting the scroll of Taanit. This scroll, mentioned above, is quoted in numerous places in the Talmud. Just like the modern State of Israel established Israeli Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, so too there were days celebrating victories during the Second Temple period. 

The scroll contains 35 such occasions, most of which are unfamiliar to the modern reader, since the commemorative days of the megillah were abolished after the destruction of the Second Temple – except for Hanukkah and Purim. (Rosh Hashana 19b, Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chaim 573). 

Although the megillah is short, additions were made to it clarifying each event, referred to as the Scholion (Greek for a comment inserted in the margin of ancient manuscripts). There are three versions to this expansion – two original ones and a later hybrid version. The Talmudic quote is based on one of the two originals. 

Version one, the Parma manuscript, does mention lighting the menorah, but the reason given for the eight days of Hanukkah is that this is how long it took to restore the altar. Version two, the Oxford manuscript, is similar to the Talmudic version. But according to its account, it is not clear if the eight days were due to the miracle of the oil or the time it took to fix the altar. 

What, then, is the real reason for Hanukkah?

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) claims that the halachic reason to have a rabbinic holiday with the recitation of Hallel, such as Purim or Hanukkah, is based on the a fortiori assumption that if on Passover we went from slavery to freedom and therefore are obligated to recite the Hallel, then even more so going from death to life. According to this, the halachic reason for Hanukkah would have been the military victory. In addition, in the Book of Kings, there is a story about a miraculous oil flask, but no holiday was established because of it. (Kings II, 4:1-7)

WHY SHOULD the miracle of an oil flask be a reason for a holiday? Besides that, doesn’t the Talmud say that there were no miracles during the Second Temple period in the Temple? (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:4). If so, why did the Talmud quote a source making it look like the oil flask miracle was central to the story?

To understand this, we have to go back in time. If you had lived at the time of the Hasmonean revolt – when the Maccabees, with their guerrilla warfare tactics, were able to bring the Seleucid Empire to its knees, enter Jerusalem and restore Jewish sovereignty therein, purify the Temple and restore its glory – you would have been in total shock.

The jubilation and disbelief would surely have been beyond our ability to fathom. As with any military victory, there are stories and legends of miracles, as anyone who fought in Israel’s wars is aware of.

The legend of the oil flask might have been an early one and was appropriate for this type of victory, but it was secondary to the jubilation over the regained sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple. From then on, Hanukkah was the Independence Day of the Second Temple – probably even after the Hasmonean dynasty ended.

Yet, after the destruction of Jerusalem and after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, our Talmudic scholars, sitting in Babylonia, wondered how to make Hanukkah relevant to Jews living in the Diaspora. They then realized that the legend of the oil flask, tucked away in a version of the scroll of Taanit, contained a message relevant to Diaspora Jews: The light of Judaism must burn, no matter what winds of change or assimilation threaten it.

This new message of the importance of the survival of Jewish tradition, even in a foreign country, would be a profound message for Diaspora Jewry and would make Hanukkah relevant even in times when Jewish sovereignty was gone.

Today, however, in the sovereign State of Israel, both messages have equal relevance for us. 

The writer, a rabbi, is a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s School for Basic Jewish Studies.