Hanukkah has no biblical mandate - here's why it's a big deal

Why have we been celebrating Hanukkah for 80 generations because of the way some candles burned?

 LIGHTING THE first candle in Mea She’arim: The holiday made the candles.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
LIGHTING THE first candle in Mea She’arim: The holiday made the candles.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

As everyone knows Hanukkah is the only holiday that is not mentioned in the Bible.

Well, that isn’t exactly true; we do have other holidays but they are minor like Tu Bishvat, which has taken on new meaning as of late, and Independence Day, which is ignored by the haredi population and barely given a nod by the Modern Orthodox population still living in exile. One does not need a degree in psychology to guess why.

Yet, Hanukkah is odd in that it has universal acceptance even without the biblical mandate, which begs the question of “What is Hanukkah?”

Long ago, the Talmud asked that question and gave a very succinct answer: “On the 25th of Kislev there are eight days of Hanukkah on which we do not eulogize nor do we fast. When the Greeks entered the [Temple] Sanctuary they desecrated all of the oil. When the Kingdom of the House of the Hasmoneans were victorious over them, they checked and found but one flask of oil still bearing the stamp of the high priest, and in it, there was only enough for one day of lighting. A miracle occurred and they were able to light for eight days. The next year they established these days as a holiday with praise and thanks.”

It is a story we all know and grew up with children, but upon closer examination makes you think, “So what?” Is that really it? Oil burning longer than it should? A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night on Shabbat and went to the kitchen to get a drink. It must have been four in the morning. And you know what? My wife’s Shabbat candles were still burning. Even though she only put in enough oil for three to four hours, it was still burning seven hours later! Obviously, this was no miracle and had something to do with the way the wick was positioned so that it was only consuming a fraction of the oil it usually consumed.

Which begs the question “Why have we been celebrating Hanukkah for 80 generations because of the way some candles burned?”

The answer is that of course, it isn’t the candles that made the holiday but the holiday that made the candles. The preceding war, a war for religious, not political freedom, the first of its kind in human history, is what we commemorate.

Until the Jews met the “Greeks,” every culture they met may have been technically superior but they had nothing to offer in terms of theology and philosophy. Egypt had its pyramids, Canaanites their iron and Babylon their ziggurats but all of them offered a world view that was not just inferior, but ridiculous in the eyes of the Jew.

Greek literature on the other hand offered wisdom and philosophy that for the very first time, rivaled what Judaism had to offer. By the time of the Maccabean revolt, Socrates, Plato and Euclid were already part of the Greek curriculum for 200 years.

There is a reason why I can throw out their names now and all of you reading this know about whom I am talking about. If you have a high school diploma, even from a haredi school, you had to have studied Euclidean geometry even if you didn’t realize its source.

The Jews who encountered these teachings in ancient Judea had a hard time finding a problem with them. It was only when the Jews were barred from the observance of the Torah did they revolt. (One might make the argument that had Jews not been forced into Greek culture, they would have assimilated away like the rest of history. It was only because they were forced did they violently react, which led to the war and the preservation of Judaism.)

While the teachings of the Greeks were informational, they were not transformational. Meaning, like Moses, Buddha, and Confucius, Socrates too taught ethics, but unlike them, he never taught people how to live by those ethics. For him and his school, they were theoretical exercises in life. As the rabbis would later remark, Greek teachings were a flower that bore no fruit.

Among our people, one of the greatest compliments you can give is to say of someone that they are a “walking Sefer Torah.” It means they are the full embodiment of everything the Torah teaches. Some of our most famous rabbis aren’t known by their names, but by the books they authored. This was because they too were the personification of their teachings.

What the Greeks taught us was how to observe the world, giving us the very beginnings of modern math and science, but the Torah taught us that there was something beyond the observable universe. The Greeks taught about the mechanics of life, but the Torah made life worth living. This is the difference between “an examined life” and a “holy life.” Examination is theoretical, holiness as taught by Judaism, is practical.

The reason we commemorate Hanukkah is to continue the light of the Torah. We light those candles in the darkest days of the year not just to light up our homes, but to light up the world. It was a light that was preserved for us by our ancestors and it is what allows us to continue to be a light onto the nations. 

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.