A New Light on the Festival of Lights…writes Yanai Peles

December 21, 2016 by Yanai Peles
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Some of my fondest childhood memories involve celebrating Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrations have been part of my life as far back as I can remember.

Yanai Peles

It always seemed to be a very straight forward occasion, celebrating the last time the Jewish state became independent before it was destroyed for 2000 years.

It was also the Feast of Lights during the coldest and darkest time of the year and for children it is a happy time with special games, presents and foods.

Then I started to read a bit deeper into the historical background of Hanukkah and things started to become more complicated and less certain.

What do we tell our children about Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the story of a group of warriors, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu the priest and his sons who rose up to defend their religion against the Hellenists who ruled Syria and Judea, united the Jews, reclaimed the Temple, and then lit its menorah with one day’s supply of oil which miraculously lasted for eight days. This momentous event started a brand new Jewish feast called Hanukkah. The Maccabees’ fight for their religious identity became a fight for the independence of Judea and brought Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel for the next 100 years.

Except that when we look more carefully into the history of the Hanukkah story almost every part of that story is either debated by scholars or highly doubtful.

So here are the true stories behind some of the most prominent aspects of the Hanukkah.

The Miracle of the Oil that Burned for Eight Days

Most Jewish feasts relate some miracles as part of the story of the feast. In the case of Hanukkah this is the story of the jug of oil which was enough for only one day, but lasted eight days.

If the miracle of the burning oil was so amazing then why was this miracle never referred to in any of the contemporary accounts of the revolt and of the Temple rededication?

  • The Maccabbees Book, the most contemporaneous account, describes in detail the rededication of the Temple, but with no mention anywhere of the miraculous oil.
  • Both the Maccabean revolt and the feast of Hanukkah are mentioned in detail by Flavius Josephus, but not the burning oil miracle.
  • Similarly, “al hanissim”, the special prayer said during Hanukkah, refers to a miracle, but it’s the miracle of a military victory, not of oil that burned for 8 days.

The first mention of the miracle oil appears in the book “Bava Taanit” which was later retold in the Talmud. Bava Taanit was written during the 1st century CE, over 100 years after the Hanukkah events and the Talmud was completed about 600 years after these events.

So why was the story about the oil burning for eight days introduced?

The most likely explanation was that the Rabbis wanted to change the focus of the feast from a military rebellion to God’s presence.

After the tragically unsuccessful revolts against the Romans (in 70CE and 132CE) and as  the Jews were living under Roman rule in the Land of Israel and under Persian rule in Babylon celebrating stories about a military rebellion might not have been viewed too positively by the respective rulers.

Later on the feast was renamed by the sages “Hanukkah” (or “Chanukkah”), which is Hebrew for “dedication,” to further remove it from its military and rebellious origins. The name was derived from the Torah’s references to the dedication of the Mishkan’s alter, “chanukat ha-mizbe’ach” (Numbers 7:10).

So the Talmudic sages put a new spin on the established feast: God wrought great miracles enabling the people to reclaim the Temple and celebrate the “Feast of Lights” (“Chag Haurim”) and the jug of ritually pure oil, which was sufficient for only one day, lasted for eight days.

Hanukkah as a late version of Sukkhot

If there was no magic oil jug that burned for eight days, why is Hanukkah being celebrated for eight days?

The explanation is that Hanukkah was modelled on Sukkot, which is celebrated for 8 days.

When the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple, purified and cleansed it they rededicated it with the belated celebration of the eight days festival of Sukkot.

In fact, the book of Maccabees doesn’t even call the festival “Hanukkah”, instead, it refers to the celebration as “Sukkot B’kislev”:

The connection between Hanukkah and Sukkot was maintained right through the 2nd Temple days and it explains one of the famous anecdotes told in the Talmud about the order of lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel disagreed on the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles. Beit Shamai said light all eight candles on the 1st night and then one less candle for the next seven nights, while Beit Hillel said light one candle on the 1st night and one more each night for the next seven nights.

Beit Hillel’s reason for the increase from one to eight candles was “in sacred matters we increase and do not decrease”. The rule of “ma’alin bekodesh”.

Beith Shamai’s reason was the connection between Hanukkah and Sukkot. The reason for advocating a decrease from eight lights was to correspond to the bull sacrifices of Sukkot, which were in diminishing numbers of bulls.

Why celebrate Sukkot on Hanukkah?

Why did the Maccabbees celebrate Sukkot in Kislev?

Most sources say that the reason for celebrating Sukkot was because it was not celebrated for the previous 2 years. However other Jewish feasts were not celebrated either.

The real reason was that the feast of Sukkot was closely associated with the dedication of the “Mishkan” (the Tabernacle, the desert sanctuary) and of both the first and second Temples.

  • It was on Sukkot when Moses and the people of Israel completed construction of the Tabernacle (Lev 9:1).
  • King Solomon dedicated his newly built Temple during the holiday of Sukkot (1 Kings 8:2).
  • Similarly, the Second Temple’s alter was dedicated by celebrating Sukkot (Ezra 3:4).
  • The celebration of the completion of the rebult Jerusalem Wall was concluded with the public Torah reading and the celebration of Sukkot (Nehemiah 8:18).

When the Maccabbees recaptured the Temple and were looking for a way to legitimise the reclamation of the holiest place and to tie it back to the old Temple the obvious feast to associate with the re-dedication was the Dedication Feast, Sukkot. Sukkot rendered the re-dedicated Temple the legitimacy the Maccabbees sought.

The date of Hanukkah

Why was the date of 25 Kislev chosen for Hanukkah?

It was no coincidence that an already known date was chosen for the rededication. The 25 of Kislev was already a noted Jewish date:

  • It was the day the foundations of the 2nd Temple were laid (Haggai 2:18)
  • Nehemiah chose this date for the first sacrifice in the newly built 2nd
  • That is why the Hellenists invaded the Temple and desecrated it on that date.

It was on the anniversary of that desecration that the Maccabbees decided to undo the desecration and to celebrate the Temple rededication.

However, we should not let dry history spoil the great feast of Hanukkah

So, enjoy the candles, enjoy the dreidels, enjoy the donuts and don’t get me started on the lattkes.

Happy Hanukkah☺

Yanai Peles has lived in Sydney for over 40 years, but never lost his attachment and interest in Israel and Jewish issues. He is a member of the North Shore Temple Emanuel Chatswood and is active in this congregation.

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