Transforming Hanukkah

Emphasizing God's role in the Hanukkah story.

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They may have worried about potential Roman reprisals, but certainly did not want to encourage Jews to engage in a suicidal rebellion against their Roman rulers. They may have also been concerned about the possibility of harsher religious restrictions being imposed by the Romans.

Hasmonean Decadence

The Rabbis also had little admiration for the Hasmonean dynasty, which descended from the Maccabean heroes. First of all, the Hasmoneans had illegitimately usurped both the priesthood (which belonged to the descendants of Zadok, one of the High Priests during the time of King David) and the kingship (destined for descendants of King David).

Worse yet, they had combined the priesthood and the kingship, nullifying the separation between religious and political power that had been traditional in Israel. Ultimately, the Hasmoneans became the very Hellenists against whom the Maccabees had fought. Eventually, they invited the Roman Empire to be protectors of Judea, paving the way for the Roman conquest. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Hasmoneans had supported the Sadducees, the priestly party, against the Pharisees, the spiritual progenitors of the Rabbis. Indeed, the Pharisees suffered a period of intense persecution during the late Hasmonean period.

Rabbinic Ambivalence and the Transformation of Hanukkah

Given their ambivalence about the Maccabean victory, the Rabbis had a problem: What could they do about the popular holiday established by the Maccabees and celebrated each year on the 25th of Kislev? They could get rid of it, as they had done with other holidays instituted by the Maccabees and their descendants—after all, Hanukkah was not a holiday of biblical origin. Or they could transform the meaning of Hanukkah in line with their own theology, which is what they did.

The Rabbis’ first tack seems to have been to try to suppress the holiday altogether. The books of the Maccabees, which recount the historical events surrounding the genesis of Hanukkah, were not included in the biblical canon. (The books of First and Second Maccabees are still accessible today only because they were incorporated into Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles.) Among the Jews, these books are called sefarim hitzonim, external books, or in Greek, apocrypha, and the Rabbis expressed their opinions about such books in no uncertain terms in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. Following a list of several categories of individuals “who have no share in the world to come,” Rabbi Akiva adds, “Also one who reads the external books….” Otherwise, the Mishnah is virtually silent about Hanukkah, except to refer to a "ner Hanukkah" in Baba Kama 6:6.

Only later, in the Gemara, particularly in Shabbat 21a-24a, do we see the Rabbis begin their transformation of Hanukkah with a new rationale for the holiday’s significance, the miracle of the oil. This legend about the oil is the most revealing clue of the Rabbis’ intentions for their re-imagined holiday of Hanukkah. Through this story, the Rabbis were able to give prominence to God while diminishing and even nullifying the role of the Maccabees. The miracle was no longer the military victory, but rather that a single cruse of oil sustained the lights in the Temple Menorah for eight days.

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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.