Israel and the Hanukka miracle: Blood and oil

In our era, the challenge to live and govern the land also tests our capability to pursue our finest purposes.

Netanyahu lighting Hanukka candles at Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu lighting Hanukka candles at Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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). Yikes.
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 left.”
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 king’s command.
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).
From 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.
The Maccabees routed 50,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, 300 chariots and 22 war elephants. Sources vary regarding the exact numbers, but we get the idea.
The 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 males.
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.
Against 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.
The 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 Maccabean Hanukka.
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 violence.
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 with blood.
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.