of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism
Originally published December 20th 1998 / Tevet 1st 5759 [&@292;anukah]

Bet Midrash Virtuali
MAI ĤANUKAH? - What is Ĥanukah?

Everyone knows what we celebrate during the eight days of Ĥanukah. Or do they? When we ask different people why we celebrate Ĥanukah we get different answers. One person says that Ĥanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Hellenists in the year 165 BCE - a victory achieved against seemingly impossible odds. Another says that Ĥanukah celebrates an entirely different miracle: the candelabrum in the Temple kept burning for eight days when fed with oil that should have lasted only one day: we celebrate this miracle by lighting candles every evening of the festival. Yet another person says that the reason we light candles on Ĥanukah is because the Maccabean victors lit candles in the Temple court when they cleaned up the mess left by the defeated Hellenists. There are probably even more possible answers. The source of all this confusion lies in the fact that there was no unanimity concerning the Festival of Ĥanukah right from the beginning.

First of all, we note that almost alone of all the festivals of the Jewish year Ĥanukah has no tractate of its own in the Mishnah and Talmud. There are tractates for Shabbat, and Pesaĥ and Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom-Kippur and Sukkot - and even for Purim; but no tractate for Ĥanukah. In the Gemara [Shabbat 21b] the discussion on Ĥanukah is inserted, almost parenthetically, into the discussion concerning the lighting of the Shabbat candles . And the Gemara there poses a most startling question: 'What is Ĥanukah?' When faced with such a question we may legitimately ask ourselves whether the Talmudic sages didn't know for sure what Ĥanukah was all about. After all, they do not ask what Pesaĥ is or what Sukkot is; they do not question what Rosh ha-Shanah is or what is Yom Kippur. So why do they ask Mai Ĥanukah - what is Ĥanukah?'

It seems that immediately after the great victory of 165 BCE a festival was indeed inaugurated to celebrate the rededication to the service of God of the polluted altar in the Temple courtyard. It was for this reason that the festival was called 'Ĥanukah', 'Dedication', or 're-Dedication' - it commemorates the dedication of the new altar. This is the account as given in the First Book of Maccabees.

But Judah and his brothers said, 'Behold, our enemies are discomforted: let us go up to cleanse the holy place and to dedicate it afresh'. And all the army was gathered together, and they went up unto mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary laid desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned down, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest or as on one of the mountains, and the priests' chambers pulled down: and they rent their clothes, and made great lamentation, and put ashes upon their heads, and fell on their faces to the ground, and blew on the solemn trumpets, and cried towards heaven...

And Judah chose blameless priests, such as had pleasure in the Torah: and they cleansed the holy place... And they discussed what they should do with the altar of burnt offerings, which had been profaned: and there came into their mind a good counsel, that they should pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the Gentiles had defiled it. So they pulled down the altar... And they took whole stones according to the Torah and built a new altar after the fashion of the former...

And they arose up early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the month ... of Kislev in the year 148 [i.e. 165 BCE - SR] and offered sacrifice according to the Torah upon the new altar of burnt offerings which they had made - at the same time and on the same day as the Gentiles had profaned it [three years earlier - SR], even on that day was it dedicated afresh, with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals... And they kept the dedication of the altar eight days... And Judah and his brothers and the whole congregation of Israel ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year during eight days...

The First Book of Maccabees is a book in the collection of works called the Apocrypha. These were books that were 'candidates' for inclusion in the third section of our Scriptures, Ketuvim ['Writings'], but were rejected by the rabbis at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century CE. This particular book was written as a piece of propaganda on behalf of King John Hyrkanos. He was the son of Simon, one of Judah's brothers, and he reigned between 135 - 104 BCE - i.e. about half a century after the events described. Since the purpose of the book was to aggrandize and accord legitimacy to the new Hasmonean dynasty, we can assume that any further events that might add legitimacy and approval to the new regime would have been included had they been known to the author. It is therefore with some surprise that we note that there is no mentioned at all of a cruse of oil...

According to the First Book of Maccabees Ĥanukah was instituted by Judah's contemporaries in 165 BCE. Sometime thereafter, it seems, the celebration of this festival fell into dissuetude - probably when the people's experiences at the hands of the descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean dynasty, turned sour. It could well be that some people in Eretz-Israel continued to celebrate Ĥanukah while others did not. The fact that at the end of the second century CE Rabbi Judah, the compiler of the Mishnah, did not include Ĥanukah among the festivals that have their own special tractate could indicate that he disapproved of this festival. (Ĥanukah is mentioned incidentally in the Mishnah, but not intentionally.)

The Jews of Babylon, however, did celebrate Ĥanukah, but they were not entirely certain what the festival stood for. That is why the Gemara asks its question Mai Ĥanukah?

What is Ĥanukah? There is a Baraita which reads:

On 25th Kislev fall the eight days of Ĥanukah. No eulogies should be made on these days nor should one fast. For when the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils that were in the Temple; when the Hasmonean dynasty was victorious they checked and found only one cruse of oil set aside with the seal of the High Priest. This would suffice for only one day's lighting, but a miracle occurred and they used it for eight days. In another year they ordained them as festive days with Hallel and thanksgiving [Shabbat 21b].

In view of the fact that the miracle of the cruse of oil is not mentioned at all by the author of the First Book of Maccabees (who would have certainly embraced it had he known of it, as we have noted) we must ask ourselves what might be the origin of the story in the Gemara. (While we note that the account in the Gemara may have been committed to writing as much as half a millennium after the historical events, we should also note that the Aramaic of the first sentence at any rate is certainly very reminiscent of the style of the last centuries BCE.)

The Midrashic anthology called 'Pesikta Rabbati, which hails from Eretz-Israel, gives a different slant:

Why do we light lights on Ĥanukah? - When the children of the Hasmonean High Priest vanquished the Greek Empire ... they entered the Temple and found eight metal spits that they set up, and on them lit candles...

This version is probably the original source for the version that blossomed into a full miracle in the Babylonian Talmud. It was the general preeminence of the customs of Babylonian Jewry over those of Eretz-Israel that caused Ĥanukah to be celebrated thereafter rather than ignored; but a supernatural miracle was preferred to a natural one.

In another version of the Pesikta Rabbati we find yet another miracle hinted at:

You find that this [festival of] Ĥanukah that we observe is to commemorate the dedication of the Hasmonean dynasty: they waged war against the Greeks and won, so we now light lights...

This explanation is perhaps the etiology of the version given in our liturgy. Throughout the eight days of Ĥanukah we add a special paragraph into the Amidah, recited thrice daily (four times on Shabbat and Rosh Ĥodesh), and in part it reads as follows:

You [God] stood by them in their time of trouble; You fought their fight for them ... You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few... for Yourself you made a great and holy name, and for Your people Israel a great salvation and victory... Subsequently Your children came to Your holy Temple, cleansed it, and lit lights in the holy courts, and ordained these eight days to thank and praise Your great name...

Thus it seems that all the answers we would get concerning the Festival of Ĥanukah find their expression in authentic Jewish tradition in some way or other. While one person finds religious pleasure in the idea of a miracle such as the cruse of oil, others may prefer to emphasize the historical and more rational aspects. It is all there in the tradition. What should unite everybody is the actual celebration: lighting candles, whose light grows brighter as the week wears on; on the last night the light shines at its brightest, enlightening the darkness.


Gil Nativ writes:

Something is lost in the English translation of the Baraita which is quoted from Shabbat 21b. The first part of the Baraita: "On 25th Kislev fall the eight days of Ĥanukah. No eulogies should be made on these days nor should one fast" is in Aramaic, the dialect which is used by Megilat Ta'anit, a source which predates the Mishnah (apparently, predates the destruction of the second Temple), whereas the second part of the "baraita" is in Hebrew, which in this case, reflects a later source, a source which scholars call the escolion to Megilat Ta'anit.