The First Word: Shedding light on the Hanukka story

The custom of eight lights began only in late Talmudic times.

menorah 88  (photo credit: )
menorah 88
(photo credit: )
This year the first night of Hanukka coincided with Christmas day. The coincidence is unusual, and only occurs because the preceding Jewish year (5765) included an extra month. No doubt in many homes in the United States and the United Kingdom many families were happy to conduct a joint celebration. After all, Hanukka is a festival involving lights and so is Christmas, but there the similarity should end. Christmas celebrates the birth of a Christian Messiah, Hanukka does nothing of the sort. But why exactly is Hanukka a festival of lights, and why do we kindle a progression of lights for eight days on a menora similar to one that stood in the Temple? Every Jewish child knows the answer: We commemorate the miracle of the one-day cruse of pure oil that lasted for eight days so that the Temple menora could remain alight until more ritually pure oil was produced. The one cruse of oil was uncontaminated by the Greeks, the seal of the High Priest being unbroken. But who was that High Priest? It must have been the last one before the Hasmonean Revolt, and that would have been Menelaus. The Book of Maccabees tells us that he was the most wicked of all the priests. He had purchased his position from the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, and ousted the former High Priest, Jason, who was wicked enough. Jason had built a gymnasium and turned Jerusalem into a Greek polis (city), but Menelaus went further. He offered bribes to the king, used the Temple gold to pay him, and allowed Antiochus into the Holy of Holies. When this was exposed by a former legitimate High Priest, Menelaus had the whistle blower murdered. So this was the man whose seal made the oil fit for the cleansed menora! The story is no more believable than is the miracle of the oil, as many Orthodox scholars have shown. It is a good story and serves a good purpose, but it does not explain the menora-like hanukkia on which we kindle the lights. It is unthinkable that Jews would kindle Hanukka lights on a menora while the real menora was still standing in the Temple. Even after it was removed by the Romans in 70 CE, it is unlikely that the hanukkia made its appearance, as there were still hopes of rebuilding the Temple. These were nearly dashed 65 years later, when the Bar-Kokhba revolt was crushed. Could a model hanukkia then have emerged? That is still unlikely, as we are coming up to the time of the Mishna, and that comprehensive book of rules only once mentions a Hanukka light, and then without any suggestion of more than one light. THE FIRST mention of kindling from one to eight lights (or vice versa) is in the Gemara (in the section headed "What is Hanukka?") and the Scroll of Fasts, both dated to the fifth century. That is the date of many ancient synagogues in Galilee and the Golan, which were decorated with Jewish symbols. Curiously enough, three of these synagogues, all in the Golan, showed carvings of a nine-branched menora, two of them now displayed in the Katzrin Museum. The scholars say that the depiction of five- and nine-branched menorot is due to the rabbinic prohibition against showing seven-branched ones, like that of the Temple. But synagogues in Galilee and further south ignored this rule and persisted in showing menorot with seven branches. Furthermore, one of the Katzrin capitals shows a nine-branched menora on one side and a seven-branched one on the other. It does look as if the nine branches had some special meaning, at least in the Golan. THE EARLIEST model we have of an eight- or nine-sectioned hanukkia is from the 10th century, and it was only hundreds of years later that examples multiply, as we see in all the beautiful hanukkiot in private and public collections throughout the world. But where did this idea of eight lamps and a shamash (server) originate? The two books of the Maccabees know nothing of a progression of lights. They emphasize the miracle of the recapture of the Temple and the cleansing of its altar, and every dedication (literally, hanukka) of the altar has always consisted of eight days, from the time of Moses to that of Ezra. The Hasmoneans were mainly concerned with celebrating for eight days as they had not been able to keep the eight-day festival of Succot that year because they had still been fighting and "living like wild animals" two months earlier. The Jewish historian Josephus, in the first century, says nothing of eight lights, and only refers to Hanukka as the "Festival of Lights," in the sense that it celebrates the joy at the resumption of the Temple service. Only in late talmudic times did the custom of eight lights begin to appear. That global traveler of the third century, Rabba bar Bar Hana, reports seeing two old men of Sidon who lit the lights in a different order, and the schools of Hillel and Shamai had similar contradictory ideas. But though they are said to have kindled from one to eight lights, or vice versa, the matter is reported only in the fifth century. After the destruction of the Temple, the hope of its restoration persisted for many years, even after the defeat of Bar-Kokhba. Some 200 years later, when the Roman Emperor Julian abolished Christianity as the official religion of the empire, he allowed local cults, including Judaism, to flourish. There was then an attempt to rebuild the Temple, but it was cut short by Julian's untimely death fighting the Persians. This was in the year 363, when a major earthquake destroyed the little that had been built. That was seen as divine intervention and ever since, all hopes of rebuilding were deferred until the coming of the Messiah. After Julian, Christianity came back with a vengeance, with all its rituals and lighting of candles, especially at Christmas time - the time of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. MIDWINTER IS a miserable time of year, but the Jews could enjoy Hanukka, the "Festival of Lights." Why just kindle one light for eight days? Why not light from eight to one, or one to eight, as the two old men of Sidon had done? That made a total of 36 lights, a magnificent display, and the rabbis insisted on these lights being in a prominent position, "so as to publicize the miracle." Less than 100 years after Julian we see the carvings of the Golan synagogues showing several nine-branched menorot, and the talmudic explanation of the miracle. That will have been the time when the progression of Hanukka lights was formulated, and when each family was told to display them prominently. Meanwhile, to explain the miracle of the eight lights, the Gemara tells us the magical story of the unbroken seal of the High Priest. It was a good story and it served a good purpose. The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research.