A Young Holiday

Hanukkah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Where does it come from then?

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Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.

The underpinnings of Hanukkah differ from those of the other Jewish holidays, because the origins of Hanukkah and the development of its practices are not drawn from the Bible and are only given slight mention in the Mishnah. The first notable mention of Hanukkah appears circa the sixth century CE in the Gemara with this question: What is Hanukkah (Shabbat 21b)?

Most likely, the question is rhetorical. We can surmise that the sages were already aware of Hanukkah, because its story was widely circulated within sources known to Jews. The talmudic Rabbis would have been familiar with the Books of the Maccabees, which we generally consider the primary historical sources for the story of Hanukkah. These are found in the "deuterocanonical" books, most of which are in a fifth century CE collection called Apocrypha.

Although such books are not part of the canonized Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), they were popular among Jews and early Christians and were set in the biblical canon of the Catholic Church, as well as the canons of Ethiopian, Oriental, and Eastern Orthodox churches.


Centuries earlier, however, the Books of the Maccabees had been part of the first Greek translation of what was then described as the Hebrew Bible. This translation was called the Septuagint (literally "The Seventy"), and the story of its origin comes from a legend found in the fictional "Letter of Aristeas." Retold by Philo of Alexandria, the first century CE, assimilated Jewish philosopher, the legend saysthat the Greek king of Egypt in the third century BCE requested a Greek translation of the Bible for the magnificent library of Alexandria.

The High Priest of the Jews commissioned six members from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, for a total of 72 (not 70, but close!) who were taken to Alexandria and placed in separate chambers.

Therein they transcribed their own translations. After exactly 72 days, each of the translators emerged with an identical translation of the Torah. This legend served to affirm the validity and sacred status of the books of the Septuagint as a legitimate Bible. A version of this legend would later appear in the Talmud itself (Megillah 9a-b).

The process of translating the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible (different in totality from today's Tanakh) into Greek continued gradually. Some of the newer books that were selected for inclusion, such as the Books of the Maccabees, were written centuries after the initial translation and often composed in Greek. These were placed in a separate category within the Septuagint called Anagignoskomena.

Within the Septuagint, there are four Books of the Maccabees. The first two of them, each written around the start of the second century BCE, provide parallel accounts of the Maccabean history, spanning from approximately 180 BCE to 160 BCE. The Third Book of the Maccabees has nothing to do with the Maccabees and tells instead of an earlier Jewish persecution, under the ruling Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt, from 222 to 205 BCE. The Fourth Book of the Maccabees (circa 1st century C.E.), is about the Hanukkah story and Jewish martyrdom but seems to be a completely independent work from the other books in both style and philosophy.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.