Last year I was living in the Mid-west as a professor at Miami University, in Ohio, and the experience of Christmas there thrust me into deep culture shock.  There was snow on the ground and all my neighbors were gentile, white, middle class Americans, and (for the most part) very Christian – their front doors decked with boughs of holly, their lawns with Santa and reindeer and nativity scenes.  There was even a Christmas tree in the office of the Comparative Religion department.  I keenly felt “a stranger in a strange land.” My experience brought the struggles of the Maccabees in the historical account of Hanukkah to the fore — the struggle against assimilation, the freedom to learn Torah, and to observe the mitzvot, and the dignity to maintain difference in the context of a dominant, alien culture.  It also raised the question about why the historical narrative is not recounted in the Talmud, and replaced, instead, by a perplexing story about a small cruse of oil found in the precincts of the Holy of Holies, whose light lasted a miraculous eight days.   What can we make of this omission of history in the rabbinic sources?  How does our own understanding of the Maccabean revolt  reflect the kind of Jews we are?

As recounted in the Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the Hanukkah story begins in the month of Kislev, in 167 BCE, when Antiochus IV plundered the Temple and erected an idol of Zeus in the Sanctuary.  He also issued a series of decrees forbidding circumcision, the keeping of Shabbat, and the study of Torah.  He forced Jews to worship idols and eat pork upon pain of death.  Mattathias’ five sons, led by Judah Maccabeus, instigated an insurgence against the regime.  But the first person killed was a fellow Jew, who had conceded to offer pagan sacrifice on the altar in Modiin (I Maccabees 2:29-41).   So the battle entailed an external as well as an internal struggle for identity.  Who was a Jew?  What was being Jewish?  And the fight is still fought ideologically today.

Mattathias and the Apostate -- Woodcut by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Theodore Herzl Gaster suggests that the Hanukkah story is essentially about the inalienable right to be different.  The festival teaches the value of “the few against the many, of the weak against the strong, of passion against indifference, of the single unpopular voice against the thunder of public opinion.  The struggle was not only against oppression from without but equally against corruption and complacency within.  It was a struggle fought in the wilderness and in the hills; and its symbol is appropriately a small light kindled when the shadows fall.”[1]

On the other hand, David Brooks, in his op-ed in the New York Times (Dec. 10th, 2009), describes Hanukkah as “the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.”  For Brooks, the story of Hanukkah is a “self-congratulatory morality tale,” commemorating a Civil War, a war in which he may have fought on the side of the Hellenizers.

The Rabbis were also ambivalent about the Maccabean revolt, especially in the wake the Hellenization of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the consequences of the disastrous “Jewish War” (66-70 CE), that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple.  The revolt against Roman rule led by Bar Kokhba (132-136 CE), in which over half the Jews in Israel were decimated, may also have been a factor.  As a result of this last insurrection, the Jewish center shifted to the Diaspora where it remained for almost two thousand years.  The consequences of political zealotry have often proved disastrous for the Jewish people.

What does the Talmudic legend of Hanukkah tell us about the rabbinic response to the vicissitudes of history? The historical events behind the military victory are not told.  There is no mention of insurgencies or despotic decrees.   Instead a little cruse of olive oil, sealed with the stamp of the High Priest, becomes the “hero” of the story.  The discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud occupies all of three pages, and is found in the context of laws related to lighting Shabbat candles:

What is [the reason for] Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev the eight days of Hanukkah begin, in which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils there, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed and defeated them, they searched the precincts and found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest. It contained sufficient oil for only one day’s light; yet a miracle happened and they lit [the lamp], and it lasted for eight days. The following year these [days] were designated as a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving (b. Shabbat 21b).

There are many perplexing details in this terse account. How could the Greeks have defiled the oil? Why did the cruse need to be sealed with the stamp of the High Priest? Why did the light need to last for eight days?

The legend of the little jug of oil and the eight days of light is not mentioned in the Book of Maccabees, Josephus, or Philo, yet it resonates with a prevalent motif in the Tanakh – the miraculous descent of fire in the consecration of holy space. At Sinai, a fiery cloud descended upon the Mountain (Exod. 24:15-16). At the consecration of the Mishkan, fire spontaneously emerged from the Holy of Holies (Lev. 9:23-24). In the Consecration of the First Temple, a cloud “filled the House of the Lord” (1 Kgs. 8:10), though, in the retelling, it was “fire [that] descended from Heaven and consumed the sacrifices” (2 Chron. 7:1-2). To add to the intrigue, the consecration of Solomon’s Temple took place during a “seven day festival” in the seventh month of Ethanim – most likely Sukkot (1 Kgs. 8:2, 65-66). The Second Temple was also consecrated during Sukkot under Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8). At that time, according to the account in 2 Maccabees, the priests found “the fire” that Jeremiah had hid (thick liquid called “napthar”), which spontaneously ignited the sacrifices at the Dedication of the Second Temple (2 Macc. 1:20-36).

One would then expect the Temple’s re-dedication to be graced by divine fire and eight days of festivities during Sukkot. But the Temple had been defiled and Antiochus had absconded with the Menorah (I Maccabees 1:21-23). The clean-up crew needed time. Only months later, could they celebrate “Sukkot in Kislev” in the consecration of the Temple, hanukkat ha-bayit (2 Macc. 1:9). Instead of the gold wrought lamp stand, they found hollow lances, covered these with wood, and lit them with oil for the next eight days (Megillat Ta‘anit 8b). In the Talmudic legend, we find only vestiges of the historical account. The “little cruse of oil” (sealed with the Cohen’s stamp) is parallel to the divine fire that descended from Heaven in the consecration of the Tabernacle and the First and Second Temple. And the light burned for eight days, reminding us of “Sukkot in Kislev.” This then becomes the central symboly of Hanukkah that we celebrate today.

Menorah outside the Knesset (Israeli Parliament)

Why did the Rabbis repress the historical account, leaving us to piece the puzzle together from ancient Greek texts?  On the one hand, the sages felt a palpable discomfort with military victory in the wake of the Jewish Wars.  Deuteronomy warns the Israelites that, after conquering the Land, they “may say to [themselves]:  ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me [כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה].’” And so we are commanded to “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth [הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל]” (Deut. 8:17-18).   Hubris aroused by military victory and wealth  must be checked.  On the other hand,  God’s presence is palpable throughout history — symbolized by the fire that descends from Heaven  at Sinai, as the flame that consecrated the altar of the Tabernacle and First Temple, as a thick, combustible liquid that miraculously ignited the sacrifices in the renewal of the Second Temple, and as a small cruse of oil found in the Holy of Holies.  Sanctification comes not by force, but by the effort of finding that divine spark.  Zechariah’s words, explaining the vision of the Menorah in the Haftarah of Hanukkah, remind us of that hidden force:  “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם בְּרוּחִי —said the Lord Hosts” (Zech. 4:7).

Today, we are realizing a resonance between legend and history with the awakening of Jewish consciousness  — both as inner light and an assertion of national autonomy. This year, may the  lighting the Hanukkiah and retelling the stories arouse in us a divine spark, in the inner sanctum of our being, “the holy of holies,” resonant with the “external hand of God” in history — “not by [our] own spirit or the might of [our] own hand.”  And may this resonance lead to a true Hanukkat Ha-Bayit, a renewal and re-dedication of the house of Israel.  Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in the United States, eloquently articulated a vision of the significance of Hanukkah for the contemporary Jew:

If the observance of Hanukkah can awaken in us the determination to reconstruct Jewish life, by informing it with a religious spirit characterized by absolute intellectual integrity, unqualified acceptance of ethical responsibility and the highest degree of aesthetic creativity, it will indeed be a Festival of Dedication.  It will mean a cleansing of the temple of our faith to render it again fit as a habitat for communion with God.  So long as the Jewish people is thus linked in communion with the Eternal, it can look forward to an eternal life for itself.[3]

Hag Urim Sameah (A Happy Holiday of Lights)!

*I originally presented this as a talk at Congregation Beth Israel, in Berkeley Ca, December 2009.

**It was published, recently, in a slightly different version for the MaTan Website:  See

[1] Theodor Herzl Gaster, Hanukkah and Tradition:  Feast of Lights (Henry Shuman Publisher), 85.

[2] The Talmud also alludes to Sukkot,  in the justification for Bet Shammai’s injunction – to light eight candles on the first day, and thereafter gradually reduce by one, corresponding to parei ha-chag (b. Shabbat 21b , see Rashi loc.cit., and  numbering of  bullocks offered on Sukkot, Num. 29:13-32).

[3] Mordecai Kaplan, “In Praise of Active, not Passive Assimilation,” quote in Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, A Different Light, p. 230.

One Response to “History versus Legend in the Hanukkah Story”

  1. Robert Blair says:

    I got here by googling ‘Edward Long’ (the painter) …

    … as a Christian, with Jewish forebears (some of whom were victims of the Shoah) and an interest in Jewish culture, and Torah, I found most of your article very interesting.

    But the opening paragraph just seems, well, kind of wierd. Is there any real argument that 21st century middle-America, in particular the Christian segment, is the most jewish-friendly culture in more than a thousand years? Is there anywhere on earth (outside of most, but not all, parts of Israel) that is more accomodating and supportive? There sure as heck are a lot worse places for a jew to be.

    Hanukkah is about the attempted forced suppression of the Hebrew religion by a pagan, with murder and desecration. As you have so ably described. You are equating that with the sight, in your eyes (oh, shock, horror) of Christians doing Christian stuff. Even worse, “white, middle class” Christians!

    Play yourself a short mind-movie:
    Imagine me, a Christian, in India, in the Punjab, watching the people prepare for the Lohri bonfire festival. The houses are decorated and I keep getting invitations to attend bonfire parties. Everyone is happy and perked-up for this “Hindi Christmas”. Their enthusiasm, happiness and amity make me happy. I attend the bonfire of a particular friend and really enjoy the whole festival. I don’t feel threatened by it, only happy for the people, even though they are fundamentally misguided pagans …

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