The Biblical Building Blocks of Chanukah
The Hebrew Bible never mentions Chanukah, but this does not mean that it has no biblical precedents. The Hasmoneans utilized a date previously associated with the dedication of the Second Temple for their new holiday of Chanukah and reused symbols previously associated with that festival. Thus, biblical concepts about the Second Temple, its purification, and dedication strongly inform the development of Chanukah’s earliest customs and symbols.
The Significance of the 25th of Kislev Pre-Chanukah
The main ancient sources that discuss Chanukah mention the 25th of Kislev as the date on which temple worship resumed, exactly three years after its defilement (1Macc. 4:54; 2Macc. 10:5; Josephus, Antiquities 12:7.6). This may be related to a significant date from the prophet Haggai, who addressed the first generation of returnees from Babylon to Yehud (Judea) during the year 520 B.C.E. He encouraged the Judean leaders to rebuild the temple on the 21st of the seventh month (Hag 2:1), namely during Sukkot.
The book’s next prophecy is dated to the 24th of the ninth month (vv. 10, 18), and implies that the foundations for the Second Temple were laid either on that day or “from this day on” (v. 15), namely the following day. In other words, according to Haggai, the foundations of the Second Temple were laid on either the 24th or the 25th of Kislev. I suggest that the 25th of Kislev was kept as a day of gathering in the temple, commemorating its foundation, and that is why the Greeks chose it as a day of defilement, and why the Hasmoneans chose it as a day of dedication.
The Menorah as a Symbol of the Temple
Haggai’s contemporary, Zechariah, also urges the people to rebuild the temple, and he too mentions the day of foundation, although without a specific date (8:9). In one of his visions Zechariah sees a golden menorah and two olive trees that pour oil into its pipes (ch. 4). The vision anticipates the rebuilding of the temple and is the first and only biblical text in which the menorah stands as the symbol of the temple. Although the menorah does not appear as an element of the holiday in 1 and 2 Maccabees, it became central to the later understanding of Chanukah. This explains why Zechariah 4 was chosen as the haftarah of Shabbat Chanukah.
For Haggai as well as Zechariah, the completion of the Temple was a first step towards a new era, when the enemies of Judah will subside and turn to worship God in Jerusalem. Strikingly, Rashi interprets both Haggai’s and Zechariah’s prophesies as predicting the Hasmonean victory. For example, Haggai’s promise, “in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land” (Hag. 2:6) is interpreted by Rashi: “in a little while – when the Persian kingdom that rules over you will end, another kingdom will rise to rule over you, the Greek Kingdom. And the time of its rule shall be little.I will shake – the miracles that will happen to the Hasmoneans.” Rashi’s words support my suggestion that when the Hasmoneans set a date of celebration on the 25th of Kislev, they were reviving the anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone for the Second Temple described in Haggai and Zechariah.
A Belated Sukkot in Kislev
The extra-biblical book of 2 Maccabees was written in colloquial (koine) Greek during the Hasmonean rule in Judea, and reached its final form on 143/2 BCE. The book opens with a letter to the Egyptian exile, urging the Jews of Egypt to “keep the festival of booths in the month of Kislev” (2Macc. 1:9, cf v. 18). The following chapters recount the event that led to the establishment of this new holiday, and clarify why this new festival is named after the festival of booths:
Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence….
It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals… They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year. Such then was the end of Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes (2Macc. 10:1-9).
Thus 2 Maccabees suggests that Chanukah lasted for 8 days because it replaced the missing celebrations of Sukkot. Indeed, the connection to Sukkot runs deeper than this, since Sukkot is already connected to the dedication of the temple in the Bible.
Sukkot’s Association with the Dedication of the Temple
The dedication of the First Temple took place, according to 1 Kings 8:2, “at the festival in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month,” namely on Sukkot. The sacrifices and celebrations lasted “for seven days” (v. 65), but only “on the eighth day he [Solomon] sent the people away” (v. 66). By calling the new holiday “the festival of booths in the month of Kislev,” as well as by describing the sacrifice and the riches of the new temple, the author of 2 Maccabees creates a direct link between the Hasmoneans and King Solomon.
The Hasmoneans were not the first to claim kingship through the establishment of a temple holiday based on the authority of Sukkot. In the Book of Kings, Jeroboam establishes the temple worship in Bethel after splitting from Judah by declaring a holiday on the 15th of the eighth month (Marcheshvan) as a replacement for the holiday of the 15th of the seventh month (Tishrei) that was celebrated in Judah (i.e. Sukkot.) This reflects a key difference between his strategy and that of the Hasmoneans: Whereas Jeroboam tried to replace Sukkot and the place of worship in order to strengthen his rule, the Hasmoneans attempted to strengthen their rule through an addition of a holiday resonant with Sukkot at the same place of worship.
Designing a Temple-Dedication
2 Maccabees calls the new holiday “Sukkot of Kislev,” but the popular name for the holiday, as evident in the rabbinic sources, was “Chanukah,” namely “dedication/inauguration.” Since Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the temple, the rituals chosen by the Hasmoneans for this day recalled the temple and temple service, and later rituals related to the same theme. Three symbols stand out as being connected with temple-dedication: the holiday of Sukkot, the menorah, and fire.
- The connection to Sukkot goes as far back as the account of Solomon’s dedication of the temple on Sukkot, and is reiterated by Haggai in the early Second Temple period.
- The menorah is described by Zechariah in his vision concerning the inauguration of Joshua, the first high priest who ministered at the newly rebuilt Second Temple.
- The connection between temple dedication and fire appears in 2 Maccabees in a story about the miracle of fire that occurred in the time of Nehemiah, when he was rededicating the altar.
I explored the first two symbols above, and turn now to the third.
Nehemiah’s Miraculous Fire at the Dedication of the Temple
The story retells and elaborates on the celebrations of Sukkot mentioned in Neh. 8:16-18, and names them “the festival of the fire” (2Macc 1:18).
18 Since on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the festival of booths and the festival of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices. 19For when our ancestors were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone. 20 But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but only a thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it. 21When the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and on the things laid upon it. 22 When this had been done and some time had passed, and when the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled. (2Macc 1:18-22 NRSV)
2 Maccabees (2:9-10) explicitly connects the dedication of the altar by Nehemiah to the story of the dedications of the tabernacle in the wilderness (Lev 9:24), and Solomon’s temple (2Chron 7:1). Noting that these dedications lasted eight days, 2 Maccabees is offering another reason why the Hasmoneans made Chanukah an eight day holiday.
The association between this new Sukkot of Kislev and fire may shed light on Josephus’ name for Chanukah, “Lights” (Antiquities 12:7.7). The miracle of the oil, only recorded much later in the Babylonian Talmud, may have its beginnings here as well.
Chanukah and Sukkot in the Mishnah
Another possible connection between Sukkot and Chanukah is evident in Mishna Bikkurim 1:6, which states that Chanukah is the last date on which a person may bring produce—presumably olive oil—to the Temple to fulfill the mitzvah ofBikkurim. This regulation shows that the connection between Chanukah and Sukkot envisioned by the Hasmoneans was still felt in the rabbinic period. The Mishna likely reflects the reality of the olive harvest and pressing of oil taking place between Sukkot and Chanukah, further strengthening the connection between olive oil and Chanukah.
The establishment of Chanukah by the Hasmoneans served not only to celebrate the purification of the temple and the Hasmonean victory, but also to justify their position as the legitimate leaders, even of diaspora Jewry. The Hasmoneans did not replace Sukkot, nor did they attempt to commandeer a popular biblical holiday. Rather, they used an existing Jewish date that was not central in Jewish worship but already had associations with temple dedication to create a new temple festival that could be celebrated outside the temple, even in the diaspora.
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Dr. Yael Avrahami is a Senior Lecturer for Biblical Studies and Biblical Hebrew at Oranim: Academic College of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical studies from the University of Haifa and an M.A. in Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University. Yael is the author of The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Experience in the Hebrew Bible, for which she won the Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise. She is also a co-author of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition. Her studies focus on Socio-cultural interpretation, Semantics, and Inner biblical interpretation. She is mostly interested in the windows that ancient texts open for us into ancient cultures and minds. She is also amazed by the extent to which reading ancient texts can improve our understanding of contemporary cultures and minds.
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