Want to know more about Chanukah?

November 30, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple

The Chanukah issue of the Jewish Chronicle on 1 December, 1961, carried an article by Raphael Loewe on the subject, “Did Greece harm Judaism?”

Professor Loewe questioned the widespread view that Chanukah was merely a fun festival or a populist celebration of heroism. He argued that it was a serious moment for national reflection.

He brushed Antiochus aside as an egotistical nobody who played for time for political reasons, hoping to prevent the engulfing of his realm into the Roman empire.

According to Loewe, the Jews found themselves caught up in the struggle, but the real problem was neither the feelings of the Jews nor the pretensions of Antiochus. It was a cultural tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism. Loewe says the two cultures were not such implacable enemies as people imagine. The choice was how much or how little Hellenism to adopt.

Was Hellenism something new? Unlikely: Jews had long been tempted by other civilisations. Was it that Greek culture promoted idolatry? The Bible was full of idolatrous episodes. Was it that human characteristics were ascribed to the Greek pantheon? Again nothing new. Judaism had long been concerned about human terminology applied to God (the arm of God, the hand of God, the mouth of God).

Was immorality the problem? The Greeks did not invent immoral orgies or unethical excesses, and the Hebrew prophets had been attacking moral lapses for centuries. Was the problem a lack of ethics? The fact is that Greek ethical teaching had its commonalities with Jewish ethics.

Did Hellenism threaten Jewish nationalism? The truth is that Jews had been tolerant of other ethnicities for generations. But now what Loewe called “a dramatic danger signal” shocked the Jews – perhaps the representational art of the Hellenistic world which challenged the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God. After all, the Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they admired physical handsomeness. Judaism saw all this as an expression of “avodah zarah”, graven images.

What Judaism valued was not physical man but non-physical God, not “avodah zarah” but “avodah shebalev”, inner virtue. What mattered was not looks but books. What mattered with God was His message.

Solomon Schonfeld’s book “The Universal Bible” says the Greeks appreciated beauty as an end in itself, whereas Jews believed in beauty for goodness’ sake. The sages say that when the Torah speaks of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen. 10:27) it is making a statement that the beauty of Greece must not overwhelm the ethics of Israel. Samson Raphael Hirsch said Yefet beautified the world whilst Shem enlightened it.

Loewe was wrong to belittle the hurt that Antiochus caused the Jews. He was wrong to brush aside the symbolism of the Greek adulation of art. The Jewish objection was not to art itself but to how it reduced Divine truth from Revelation to Reason.


There is a solid link between Chanukah and Sukkot even if it’s not immediately obvious.

The Second Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha commences with letters addressed “to their Jewish brethren in Egypt” by “the Jews in Jerusalem and those in the country of Judea”.

They describe the events that followed the desecration of the Temple and conclude, “And now, you must observe a Feast of Tabernacles in the month of Kislev“.

Sukkot in Kislev, not in Tishri?

Josephus tells a similar story. The explanation, as recorded in the halachic works, seems to be that during the Maccabean struggle Sukkot could not be celebrated in the normal way and was postponed until after the fighting.

A Second Sukkot may have been suggested by the law in the Torah that if a person is prevented from celebrating Pesach, a Second Passover was to be kept a month later.

In the case of Sukkot-Chanukah, there were hymns and processions with garlands and branches. Our emphasis on the little jar of oil for the Temple lamp is missing from the Apocrypha and Josephus, though there was a re-kindling of the altar fire.

So the observance of Chanukah was highly reminiscent of Sukkot – and not only in general terms but in a number of specific features:

• Chanukah became an eight-day festival, emulating the eight days of Sukkot (seven days plus Sh’mini Atzeret).

• The Hallel psalms are recited in full throughout both festivals.

• Bet Shammai’s view, eight lights on the first day reducing to one on the last day – Bet Hillel began with one and increased to eight – echoes the practice of reducing the number of Sukkot offerings day by day.

• Both festivals celebrate light – in the case of Sukkot, through the “Simchat Bet HaSho’evah”, the festival of the water-drawing, when Jerusalem was lit up with torches (Mishnah Sukkah 5:3).

• Both festivals emphasise “publicising the miracle” – in the case of Sukkot, deriving from Lev. 23:45, which ordains “that your generations shall know”.

• Both occasions promote hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying the commandment”. The Talmud recommends a beautiful sukkah and lulav (Shabbat 133b); it also speaks of how the mehadrin (“beautifiers”) kindle the Chanukah lights (Shab. 21b).

• Both festivals are connected with the dedication of the Temple. The building of the sanctuary began just before Sukkot. By 25 Kislev, which was later the date of Chanukah, the project was completed. The enemy chose to desecrate the Temple in Kislev in order to insult the Jews and undermine the anniversary of the dedication of the Temple. No wonder that there was such great Jewish rejoicing when the rededication took place on the same date that had always been so important in the Jewish calendar.

• Both are messianic festivals, symbolising the time to come when the whole world will serve the One God. Chanukah stands for the freedom to believe and worship; Sukkot yearns for all the nations to sit together in the messianic sukkah.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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