Transforming Hanukkah

Emphasizing God's role in the Hanukkah story.

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Embedded in a three-page treatment of Hanukkah and its ritual in the Talmudic tractate Shabbat 21a-24a is a seemingly offhand, yet surprising question: “What is Hanukkah, anyway?”

This question appears, seemingly out of nowhere, in the midst of a rabbinical discussion about kindling the Hanukkah lights. But shouldn’t it have been obvious to the Rabbis what Hanukkah was? People were presumably celebrating it already in commemoration of the Maccabean victory, and one might think that the Rabbis simply needed to clarify the legal and ritual requirements.

It turns out, however, that the Rabbis were uncomfortable with the existing rationale for Hanukkah, namely the Maccabean victory; and their answer to the question “What is Hanukkah?” provided an entirely different source for the holiday, the miracle of the single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. The Rabbis taught:

“On the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukkah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day's lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit with that oil for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival, with Hallel (prayers of praise) and Thanksgiving” (Shabbat 21b).

The historical story of Hanukkah--as it is related in First and Second Maccabees, ancient works that the Rabbis decided not to include in the Jewish biblical canon--is of the Maccabees’ military victory over Antiochus’s Syrian Greek armies and their Hellenist sympathizers. That being the case, why do the rabbis decide to focus entirely on this miracle of the oil?

The 16th-century Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, offers a concise answer to this puzzling rabbinical emphasis on the miracle of the oil: “The main reason that the days of Hanukkah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was all by a miracle, the war as well.”

The longer answer about why the Rabbis changed Hanukkah’s meaning in midstream has to do with the Rabbis’ historical context, their lives under Roman rule, their attitudes toward the decadence of the Hasmonean dynasty, and their rabbinic theology, which celebrated learning and prayer over physical strength.

Historical Circumstance

For the Rabbis, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the devastation following the Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 C.E. were historically too close for comfort. They knew that Jewish attempts to challenge mighty powers by military means had failed dismally, and they feared the repercussions of celebrating the military victory of the underdog Maccabees against the powerful Syrian Greeks and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in Judea.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.