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Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives

One of the famous and most important questions asked about Hanukkah reads: What is Hanukkah? [i.e., “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?”]. The question strikes a modern reader as odd. Surely, the Jews must have known about the holiday’s significance for several centuries! On the surface, one could argue that the question is purely rhetorical in nature. It serves to help provide the rabbinical teachers with a new interpretation of the famous Maccabean triumph over the Syrian-Greeks: The Talmud replies:

  • On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary; they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. When the Hasmonean monarchy emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. There was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The following year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

One 9th century Midrashic work, Pesikta Rabbati, records a legend: Why did the rabbis make Hanukkah eight days? Because … the Hasmoneans  entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils. They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? When the Hasmoneans entered the Temple, there were eight iron spears in their hands, which they covered with wood and drove into the ground, lighting oil in each and using them as lamps.[1] This reinterpretation of the Hanukkah story has no support in none of the 2nd century B.C.E. literature, or for that matter in the  1stcentury stories concerning Hanukkah, which we will soon examine in detail. The miracle of the Hanukkah has a different narrative in the Book of Maccabees 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 —the oldest record of the Hanukkah story that differs considerably from the Talmudic version found in BT Shabbat 21b that was recorded several centuries after the holiday had become a commonplace Jewish observance.

  • 36Then Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”37So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.38They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished. 39Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes 40and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
  • 41Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.42He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; 43these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place. 44They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. 45The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. 46They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them. 47Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.
  • 48They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. 49They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. 51They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
  • 52Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, 53they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made.54On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. 55All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.  56For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. 57They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors. 58There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.  59Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev.

Note that the original date of the Hanukkah celebration occurred on December 14th, 164 B.C.E. Hanukkah was thus called, “The Feast of Dedication” and this name also appears in the Book of John 10:22 of the NT. Josephus refers to the celebration as the “Feast of Lights.” Josephus adds an altogether different spin on the story of Hanukkah.

  • (321) This desolation happened to the temple in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apelleus, and on the hundred and fifty-third olympiad: but it was dedicated anew, on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apelleus, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, and on the hundred and fifty-fourth olympiad. (322) And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before; for he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship [for some time]. 7. (323) Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. (324) Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. (325) And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (326) Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

One might wonder why did Josephus refer to Hanukkah as “The Festival of Lights”? Curiously, he does not mention anything about the custom of lighting the menorah, as we commonly do today. One would think he would have gone to greater lengths explaining the tradition, since he wrote The Antiquities of the Jews as guide to curious gentiles who wanted to learn more about the Jewish people. Josephus stresses that the holiday of “Lights” represents the light of religious freedom—the ability to worship God in a manner that is free from foreign interference.

It would seem that the last thing Josephus wanted to do was the extoll the military victories of the Maccabees over their enemies—especially since Titus captured the menorah as the Romans displayed it in the streets of Rome after defeating Judea and destroying her Temple. From this perspective, one may conclude that both the Rabbis and Josephus wished to stress the spiritual victory of the Maccabean revolt—one which would not appear threatening to an anxious Roman government.

Still and all, why did the early Sages choose to glorify and embellish the “miracle” of the oil? Here is one possible conjecture I have thought about after I taught my Talmud class on Hanukkah. The menorah in Jewish symbolism represents the Jewish people whose mission is to serve as “a light unto the nations.”

Why light? Because Israel’s mission to the world can only be achieved through peacefulness, and this may help explain why olive oil was the only oil used for the Temple menorah. The olive has been a symbol of peace since ancient times (cf. Gen. 8:9). Every person–whether adult or child–who lights the menorah, acts as the harbinger of ethical monotheism to a world that still lives by the sword. For this reason, the Haftorah of Hanukkah from the Book of Zechariah stresses, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zec. 4:6). Thus the message of Hanukkah served to help detoxify the Jewish people of the militarism that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. The spiritualization of Hanukkah may be one of the most lasting reformulations of the holiday that promoted peace between the Jewish people and her neighbors.



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