Uncovering the Truth About Chanukah
Introduction: The Absence of the Oil Miracle in Second Temple Literature
The holiday of Chanukah now commemorates two very different elements: the celebration of the stunning military victory by the Hasmoneans over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE, and the miracle of the menorah that was lit upon the Jewish restoration of their Temple, whose light lasted for eight days. Which of these two aspects of Chanuka lies at its core?
The Palestinian Talmud, also known as the Talmud Yerushalmi, does not offer a reason for celebrating Chanukah, but the Babylonian Talmud provides a brief explanation in tractate Shabbat 21b:
מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
What is [the reason of] Chanuka? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Chanukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
Upon reading this explanation, one would assume that the essence of Chanuka lies in the miracle of the oil. Yet this statement is actually the earliest surviving source to discuss the miracle of the oil, let alone putting it at the center of the holiday of Chanuka.
The oldest and only eye-witness account to the story of Chanuka, the book of 1 Maccabees, preserves only the military victory. Likewise, the book of 2 Maccabees, which was probably written a few generations later, also focuses solely on the military achievements of the Maccabees. Many readers of these early sources are startled to find no mention of the miracle of the oil whatsoever in either of these two books. According to 1 and 2 Maccabees, the reason for celebrating the holiday of Chanuka in perpetuity is because the Hasmoneans enabled a Jewish reoccupation of the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish autonomy from the Syrian Greeks. 1 Maccabees 4:52-59 reads:
Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of the burn offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals… So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings… Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.
Similarly, 2 Maccabees, which is a more stylized and less historically accurate account of the story, makes no mention of the miracle of the oil as relating to the reason for celebration. 2 Maccabees 10:5-9 reads,
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….therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.
Even the great first century historian Josephus makes no mention of the miracle of the oil, although he does refer to Chanukah as the Holiday of Lights, and confesses his consternation regarding this title. Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.323-326 reads:
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. 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. 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.
Josephus’ reference to Chanuka as the holiday of Lights, coupled with his lack of awareness regarding any sort of light-related miracle is striking, and it is likely that the title “Lights” had nothing to do with a miracle of oil. Perhaps the rabbis knew of this title, and it served as the basis of their understanding of the holiday’s origin and significance. Alternatively, the practice of the rabbis may go back to an earlier period, reflecting an earlier tradition. In either case, the tradition of the miracle of the oil was not prominent enough that Josephus was aware of it. Given Josephus’ intimate familiarity with Jewish tradition and culture, this absence is telling.
The Rabbinic Period: Chanuka Re-Branded
It is clear that the explanation provided for the celebration of Chanukah in the Babylonian Talmud marks a shift in how Jews in antiquity perceived the reason for celebrating this holiday; prior to this passage, there is no known source that places the miracle of the oil at holiday’s center. Why the shift?
Here is one suggestion. I believe the rabbis may have been trying to distance themselves from the Hasmonean association, which has strong resonances with insurrectionist and militaristic periods in Judean history, especially the final great rebellion against Rome: The Bar Kochba revolt. In this final attempt at forcing the Romans out of Judea, Bar Kochba and thousands of his loyalists led a massive revolt the devastated the Roman economy for years. Between 132-135 CE, Shimon Bar Kochba (whose real name was Shimon bar Kosiba; he likely changed his name to “Son of a Star” to give himself some messianic mystique) brought major disaster upon the Jews living in Roman Palestine when his rebellion against Rome turned sour and scores of thousands of Jews were killed.
In addition to the human carnage wreaked by Bar Kochba, the Romans razed the city of Jerusalem to the ground and banned Jews from entering it. They gave Jerusalem a Latin name, Aelia Capitolina, and built within it a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter, among others. The Jews of this region moved up north, to cities such as Caesaria, Sepphoris and Tiberias, never to return to their beloved holy city. Jerusalem was not reestablished as a thriving Jewish city again until modern times.
The possibility that Kochba saw himself as an inheritor of the Maccabean tradition is strengthened by the images on his coinage, which included images of the temple and objects associated with the temple, such as trumpets, palm branches, and lyres, and had the coins inscribed with phrases such as “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.” These images on his own coin were a clear statement that he saw himself as a military figure protected by divine favor. Regardless of whether or not Bar Kochba saw himself as an inheritor of the Maccabean legacy, the association between the two and the consequent anti-imperial or anti-government imagery would have been something from which the powerless rabbis may well have wished to dissociate. Celebrating rebellion could both lead their followers astray and cause problems for Jews with their local governments.
Light in the Darkness
A careful reading of the Talmudic passage reveals that the military clash between the Jews and the Greeks is acknowledged but marginalized. The Talmud states:
For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them…
Apparently, the writer of this passage felt that mentioning the military victory was unavoidable in order to explain the context of the miracle of the oil. Yet he describes the clash in such a way as to make it clear that the Hasmoneans were on the defensive, and ultimately successfully “prevailed” against the Greeks. The rabbis did not deny the military victory, but removed it from being the central focus of celebration.
Understanding the history of the Jews living in Roman Palestine in the 4th-5th century helps us to appreciate why the Rabbis were so hesitant to associate themselves with a militaristic history during the centuries that Talmudic material was being arranged and recorded. During these centuries, the quality of life in this region plummeted. The legal code of the 5th century Christian Emperor Theodosius prohibited Jews from holding all governmental posts except for tax collectors. They were also prohibited from building new synagogues within the Empire.
Unrestrained anti-Jewish rhetoric on the part of 5th century Church fathers burgeoned during this period. The situation deteriorated further in the 6th century when the Christian Emperor Justinian wrote his own legal code, in which further restrictions were placed on Jews, such as the prohibition of publicly reading the Torah, and reading the Mishnah. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Rabbis did not want to present themselves as supporters of a political uprising.
The phrase in b. Shabbat 21b that opens the passage, “our Rabbis taught,” “Tannu Rabanan,” indicates its probable origin as a baraita from the tannaitic period. Although our Talmudic source comes from the Babylonian Talmud, the introduction term points to the probability that the baraita preserves an attitude that arose within the milieu of Palestinian Rabbis.
Returning to this article’s original question, what lies at the essence of the holiday of Chanuka? From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.
This message was no doubt profoundly meaningful to Jews living in Palestine at a time when Jerusalem was a Christian pilgrimage city, and when the reading of their own scriptures was prohibited by Justinian. It is also a message that has remained profoundly meaningful to Jews throughout the ages, which explains why Chanukah continues to be branded as a holiday of lights rather than a holiday of military victory.
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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