Three cheers for Hanukka

The Talmud did not seem to know of the Second Book of Maccabees, which was written in Egypt.

Hanukka is perhaps the most popular festival in the Jewish calendar. It is a week of celebration, when children get presents, parents play petty gambling games and everyone lights candles or oil wicks, which is a holy activity as well as fun. The festival lasts for eight days and there are three official reasons for the eight days.
The most popular reason comes from the Talmud (Shabbat 21B) which tells us that when the Maccabees recovered the Temple from the Seleucids, they found only one jar of pure oil with the seal of the High Priest, which was just enough to light the menorah for one day, but by a miracle it lasted for eight days, by which time a new jar could be prepared for further use. So we celebrate and light our personal menorah for eight days.
But there are two earlier official reasons, found in the Books of Maccabees, One and Two. Book One, which was written some 500 years before the Talmud, says (4:59) that when the Maccabees, also called the Hasmoneans, rebuilt the altar in the Temple, they dedicated it (“hanukka” means “dedication”) for eight days, as Moses and Aaron had done, as Solomon and Hezekiah did, and as Ezekiel predicted for the Temple of the future.
However, the Second Book of Maccabees gives quite a different reason. As the Hasmoneans had been busy fighting the Seleucids to regain the Temple, they had been unable to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles as “they had been living like wild animals in the mountains and caves” (10:5-7) and so they decided to hold that eight-day festival at a time when they were victorious and clean, two months later in the month of Kislev, and that became the reason for the eight days of Hanukka.
The account in the Talmud is the one we all know and believe. But could it have been so simple? Who was the last High Priest whose seal was on the last jar of kosher oil? It must have been the last high priest, Menelaus, who ruled under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, before that Seleucid ruler persecuted the Jews. Menelaus had obtained the post by bribing Antiochus, after the previous high priest, Jason, had also obtained it by bribery, from the last legitimate high priest, Honia III, a son or grandson of the pious Shimon Hatzaddik, “the righteous one.”
When Menelaus was unable to pay his bribe to Antiochus Epiphanes, he raided and sold off the Temple gold, and when this came to the notice of Honia in Jerusalem, he, Honia, set out to Antioch to alert the Emperor Antiochus to the misdeed. But Menelaus caught wind of this and bribed a colleague to have Honia murdered before he could contact the emperor. No one suspected Menelaus of the dastardly deed, and he remained in office and presumably continued to authenticate the phials of kosher lighting oil.
When Antiochus IV Epiphanes wanted to punish the Jews of Jerusalem for having revolted against him while he was fighting in Egypt, he did not know what to do, so he consulted his high priest, Menelaus, who advised him to forbid circumcision and the reading of the Torah, and by these means to quell the revolutionary spirit of the Jews. Antiochus was happy to go along with this advice.
The Talmud did not seem to know of the Second Book of Maccabees, which was written in Egypt, and so did not realize that Menelaus was a multiple and corrupt briber and a thief of the Temple gold, an accomplice to murder and an adviser to enemy royalty on how to punish the Jews. If they had known that, would they have accepted as kosher the lighting oil that he had authenticated and that carried his seal? Or, in the context of today, would you accept his authentication, his kashrut, and would you buy a second-hand car from such a high priest? So let’s go with Maccabees One and dedicate our personal menorah for eight days as the ancients did for Moses’s Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple Altar, which will give us the feeling of carrying on the tradition of a dedication, a hanukka, that stretches back for several thousands of years.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.