Hanukkah History

Print this page Print this page

It is in the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishnah) of the Babylonian Talmud that we are given more details and can clearly see the development of both the holiday and the stories associated with it. The discussion of Hanukkah is mentioned in Tractate Shabbat. Only three lines are devoted to the events of Hanukkah while three pages detail when, where and how the Hanukkah lights should be lit.

Completed approximately 600 years after the events of the Maccabees, the Talmud contains the extant version of the famous story of the miraculous jar of oil that burned for eight days. The Talmud relates this stories in the context of a discussion about the fact that fasting and grieving are not allowed on Hanukkah. In order to understand why the observance of Hanukkah is so important, the Rabbis recount the story of the miraculous jar of oil.

Perhaps the Amoraim--the sages of the Talmud--were retelling an old oral legend in order to associate the holiday with what they believed to be a blatant, supernatural miracle. Although the seemingly miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks was certainly part of the holiday narrative, this event still lies within the natural human realm. The Rabbis may have felt this to be insufficient justification for the holiday’s gaining legal stature that would prohibit fasting and include the saying of certain festival prayers. Therefore the story of a supernatural event centering on the oil--a miracle--would unquestionably answer any concerns about the legitimacy of celebrating the holiday.

Hanukkah gained new meaning with the rise of Zionism. As the early pioneers in Israel found themselves fighting to defend against attacks, they began to connect with the ancient Jewish fighters who stood their ground in the same place. The holiday of Hanukkah, with its positive portrayal of the Jewish fighter, spoke to the reality of the early Zionists who felt particularly connected to the message of freedom and liberty.

Hanukkah began to find new expression in the years leading up to the founding of the modern state of Israel. In the post-Holocaust world, Jews are acutely aware of the issues raised by Hanukkah: oppression, identity, religious freedom and expression, and the need to fight for national independence. Hanukkah has developed into a holiday rich with historical significance, physical and supernatural miracle narratives, and a dialogue with Jewish history.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.