Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Chanukah

Chanukah is celebrated along the same general time as Christmas, giving us Jews a way to share in the celebration of the season. But what is Chanukah about? What are the religious origins of Chanukah; what are its traditions and requirements?

I attended a lecture given by an Orthodox Rabbi about Chanukah. This Rabbi stated that there are two historical reasons for why Chanukah is celebrated:

1. Chanukah is celebrated in remembrance of ancient wars fought by the Macabees (a group of Jews) against the Greek Empire.
2. When The Macabees fought the Greeks and won the battle for Jerusalem, and when the Jews recaptured the Holy Temple (Beth Hamighdash), they searched their stores and were able only to find enough oil to light the Holy Temple for one day. Yet, by a miracle, the oil lasted a full eight days! Chanukah is celebrated as a remembrance of this miracle of lights.

Chanukah, therefore, according to this Rabbi celebrates first the Military victory of the Macabees against the Greeks and second the miracle of Hashem in causing the light to last longer than expected. This is the traditional explanation that is given for the festival of Chanukah.

I have heard this explanation before regarding Chanukah, and I am willing to bet that the reader has also heard a substantially identical explanation for this holiday. Sounds good, doesn’t it, that we as Jews fought and won a war, aided by God, and celebrated the outcome, having been gifted a miracle in the process?

As usual, though, when it comes to religion, things are a lot more complicated than they seem. Let us analyze the holiday of Chanukah.

Is Chanukah a religious holiday? I asked my Rabbi whether Chanukah is a religious or secular festival. He looked at me as if I had two heads and said, “of course it is a religious holiday”.

But if Chanukah is a religious holiday, then it should be mentioned in the Torah, right? Well, it turns out that the five books of the Torah do not mention Chanukah at all. In fact, the five books of Torah end with the death of Moses, more than a 1,000 years before the Macabees. I looked up the so called, ‘Tanakh’, which are the later books of the so-called ‘Torah’, and, again, Chanukah is not mentioned in these texts at all.

So I went back to my Rabbi, somewhat timidly, and asked whether he can tell me where in the religious books is the festival of the Chanukah mentioned. He told me that I should look in the “Books of Macabees”.

In the Jewish library at Aish, I found the Books of Macabbes. There are two books of Macabees, in fact, which describe the goings on of the wars of the Syrian division of the Greek Empire with the Jews. The Macabees, it turns out, were a family of Jews, Kohens, who were outraged at the tyranny of the Syrian rule of the Jews around year 170 BC. The Macabees were five brothers, who were amazing fighters and were able to win several battles against their enemies. In one battle, by no means the last, the Macabees were able to capture Jerusalem and to free the Holy Temple. The Book of Macabees describes the devastated state in which the Temple was found, and the desecration that was done to the temple by the Syrians. The Macabees cleaned the temple and resumed the sacrifices. They also proclaimed that from that date forward, the battle should be commemorated as an eight-day holiday.

But here is the problem: the Book of Macabees is not considered to be part of the Torah. I carefully studied the contents of books that are considered to be part of the Torah, and the Book of Macabees is not part of the Torah. In fact, I was able to find documentation, wherein the earlier Rabbis had debated which book to include and exclude into the Torah. The Book of Macabees, alas, did not make it!

So, again, I have a problem: If Chanukah is a religious holiday, then where is this holiday sanctioned? The book of Macabees cannot be such a source, since it is not considered a holy text. As usual, when it comes to religion, things are more complicated than they appear.

At the risk of digression, I want to spend one paragraph pointing out that it seems ludicrous that the Rabbis have decided what text is holy and what text is not. They have decided, for example, that the Book of Jonah, where prophet Jonah is swallowed by a whale only to survive, is indeed a holy book. Questioning the contents of the book of Jonah is therefore tantamount to blasphemy. The Rabbis have included texts into the religious cannon as they saw fit. We must say that the Book of Jonah is the Torah, because they decided that it is so. If we question it, we are heathens! In their ultimate wisdom, they have decided that the Book of Macabees is not part of the Torah. So they have to live with that consequence as well. The tradition of Chanukah as a religious holiday, then, cannot come from this book.

But let us assume for the moment that the Book of Macabees is a holy text. Let us say that it carries religious authority. I have carefully read the book, and there was no mention whatsoever of any miracles of oil lasting longer than its usual time. Nowhere in the book is such a miracle mentioned. Judah Macabee declared the holiday of Chanukah as a joy of a military victory, not as a celebration of a miracle of God. If this event of a case of oil lasting more than one day was so miraculous, why I wonder was it not mentioned at all in a book that chronicles those events from a Jewish perspective?

I went back to my Rabbi and once again asked: “Rabbi, if Chanukah is a religious holiday, where is to be found in the Torah?” This time, the Rabbi told me to look in the Talmud.

Once again, I went to the Aish library and studied the relevant portion of the Talmud. It turns out that even in the Talmud, Chanukah is mentioned very briefly. There is a paragraph, encompassing one third of the page about this holiday. There, indeed, the Talmud mentions the miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of one, and there, the purpose of the holiday is given to be entirely this miracle. The Talmud does not mention the Macabees and does not at all describe the battles of the Jews. It simply states that a case of oil that was supposed to last one day actually lasted eight days.

So there we have it - the source of Chanukah is the Talmud.

But wait a minute! Isn’t the Talmud a chronicle of the so-called ‘Oral Torah’? I thought that Orthodox Rabbis consider the Talmud as the writings of oral communications of Moses with God on Mount Sinai. This is what the Talmud supposed to be, is it not? Put more simply, I thought that the Talmud was the written communication of oral teachings of God to Moses. So, do the Rabbis mean to say that the Holiday of Chanukah, which occurred over 1,000 years after Moses’ death was communicated to Moses on Mount Sinai? Am I missing something?

Either the Talmud is not the culmination of oral teachings at Mount Sinai, or if it is, the story of Chanukah does not belong in the Talmud. There is, of course, the possibility that the Rabbis have added the story of Chanukah to the Talmud after the fact, conveniently inserting a ‘miracle’ in order to transform a military victory celebration into a religious holiday.

It is important to keep in mind that the Talmud is a vast book, encompassing many sections. The Talmud began to be written about 500 years CE and took hundreds of years to complete (The Mishna was written around 200 CE and the Talmud about 500 CE). At the earliest, then, the passage mentioning the miracle of Chanukah must have been written some six hundred years after the Macabee wars. The so-called miracle of oil was not reported until six hundred years after the event. The book of Macabees, which was written at the time of the war, does not mention the miracle. Yet the Talmud, which was written 600 years later, does. Does this sound suspicious to you as well?

Did a miracle really take place? You can see that there is room for doubt.

But let us assume that the miracle of lights really did take place. Let us say that when the Jews reclaimed the Holy Temple, there was only enough oil left to light the Menorah for one day, but somehow the oil lasted for eight days. Let us assume that this was an intervention from God. My question simply is, SO? Is it really important that the light lasted longer than it was supposed to?

Remember that during the wars talked about in the Macabee period, thousands of Jews died. Entire generations of Jews were lost. The Holy Temple was desecrated. Even when the Jews through the Macabees sustained a victory, the bloodshed did not stop. For years after the Jews retook Jerusalem, the war raged on at a terrible cost to the Jews. Ultimately, the Jews lost the war and were once again subjugated. So if God were to intervene on behalf of the Jews, was it enough that he caused a supply of oil to last longer than it was supposed to?

In what way was the light that lasted eight days a necessary event? If the lights dimmed or went out of the Menorah briefly, would that have been a terrible tragedy? The Holy Temple had been desecrated by the Syrians; Pigs were slaughtered at Beth Hamighdash; unspeakable horror was committed there. Given this, if the Menorah ran out of oil, would it have been such an earth-shattering event? Couldn’t the Jews simply go out and produce some more oil to rekindle the candelabra? This is what God’s miracles are made of? This is the majesty of God?

God did not interfere when hogs were brought to the Holy of Holies and slaughtered at the alter. Yet he caused a miracle of lights such that a can of oil lasted longer. Big deal!

I remember about a year ago, I had bought a cellular phone and forgot to recharge it. But to my pleasant surprise, the phone functioned some two days more than the manufacture’s suggested charge life. A miracle, right? No doubt that six hundred years from now, when my bones have turned into pulp, someone will write about my cellular phone and state that this is a miracle of God, and that we have to celebrate this occasion!

Who are we kidding?

In preparation for this article, I scanned the books that were available for sale at “Amazon.com”. There are many books on the subject of Chanukah. The books deal with a number of subjects from cooking for the occasion, to Chanukah songs, to describing Chanukah to children. I even found a book of Chanukah told from a perspective of a Jewish lesbian in a household composed of a child with “two mommies”. But what I did not find was a realistic treatment of the holiday, its true origins, its true history, and its objective historical analysis. It is as if the Jews have forgotten to ask questions about their religion and their religious holidays. What has become of us?

The story of Chanukah arose out of a military victory. Chanukah is the celebration of a battle won by the Jews – a battle in a war that the Jews ultimately lost. There is nothing magical about this event or this battle. Jews fought, probably courageously, with considerable loss of life. The Macabees were probably brilliant military tacticians who may have overcome military superiority of the enemy. It is not unusual in the military chronicles for a numerically inferior force to win battles, especially in circumstances where the force is defending its homeland. The Jews fought courageously and well. Their winning of a battle is indeed a cause for celebration. To invoke a miracle, and somehow ascribe the achievements to God’s intervention is to cheapen their efforts. To say that Chanukah is a commemoration of a miracle is to lower the value of Jews’ efforts at winning freedom for their homeland.

Forget that the oil was supposed to last one day but lasted longer. I do not care! Remember, instead, that our ancestors rose up against a mighty enemy, and courageously fought back. Remember that the Jews united in an effort to preserve their way of life. Remember the Jewish heroes. Sing songs about Judah and Simeon Macabee who fought brilliant battles. Light candles (in a Menorah if you want) to commemorate the brave Jews who fell in those battles. Remember your fellow Jews who came and went through the arrow of history. Remember your brethren; forget the meaningless ‘miracles’ concocted by the Rabbis’ imaginations. Celebrate Chanukah for what it should be – the commemoration of the triumph of the Jewish people against adversity.
When people ask you, “Why do we celebrate Chanukah?” tell them we celebrate the victory of the Jewish people from their enemies. We light candles to remember the joy of winning as a united nation of Jews. Take religion out of Chanukah.

11 comments:

Holy Hyrax said...

>But if Chanukah is a religious holiday, then it should be mentioned in the Torah

Why does something need to be in the holy text in order for it to be considered a holiday? I mean, we have a rule that we should remember any day that the Jews prevailed and remember it. I forgot what the source of it is, but its just common sense.

>I want to spend one paragraph pointing out that it seems ludicrous that the Rabbis have decided what text is holy and what text is not

A canon had to be formed, no? Not all books could make it for whatever reason (you can do some research as to their criteria)

>Questioning the contents of the book of Jonah is therefore tantamount to blasphemy

Why? My rabbi says none of it ever happened and believes chazal used it as a mashal.

>We must say that the Book of Jonah is the Torah

How come you are using the word Torah? Its not part of the Torah. Its part of the Canon of the Bible, not Torah. And its certainly not to be treated the same.

>The tradition of Chanukah as a religious holiday, then, cannot come from this book.

Who says it came from this book? The holiday was kept. It was recorded later on. The holiday would still be around had maccabees not been recorded by whomever the author is.

>I have carefully read the book, and there was no mention whatsoever of any miracles of oil lasting longer than its usual time.

You are right.

>Judah Macabee declared the holiday of Chanukah as a joy of a military victory, not as a celebration of a miracle of God.

It goes together. They clearly beleived the victory to have come from God.

>So there we have it - the source of Chanukah is the Talmud.

No, you are getting it wrong. Chanukah predates the Talmud. It was recorded later on. The origins of whether chanukah is ONLY a military victory is another issue.

>But wait a minute! Isn’t the Talmud a chronicle of the so-called ‘Oral Torah’

Clearly Talmud contains much more than just oral tradition. I mean, it contains aggadot as well and discussing laws of other holidays that come after the Torah. You are looking at this too black and white. Or, you were just being facetious

>The so-called miracle of oil was not reported until six hundred years after the event.

We can't know that for sure. We know it was recorded at that time. The story of it may have started earlier.

>Is it really important that the light lasted longer than it was supposed to

Well, the menorah HAD to be lite, right? It would still be impressive, no?

>God did not interfere when hogs were brought to the Holy of Holies and slaughtered at the alter. Yet he caused a miracle of lights such that a can of oil lasted longer. Big deal!

Well no. Its a sign of great hope. With everything that happened, that God was still with them at the moment the temple was rededicated.

>To invoke a miracle, and somehow ascribe the achievements to God’s intervention is to cheapen their efforts. To say that Chanukah is a commemoration of a miracle is to lower the value of Jews’ efforts at winning freedom for their homeland.

Not unless Chazal had a specific reason to downplay the maccabee victory. I mean, the Hashmoneans DID turn into tyrants and slaughtered fellow Jews.

>When people ask you, “Why do we celebrate Chanukah?” tell them we celebrate the victory of the Jewish people from their enemies. We light candles to remember the joy of winning as a united nation of Jews.

I do. But I don't see this as any less of a miracle.

badrabbi said...

- "Why does something need to be in the holy text in order for it to be considered a holiday?"

LOL, well, if you think of a 'holiday' as a holy day, then it must have a divine source. But if you are saying that Chanukah is a holiday in secular terms only, such as, say, Thanksgiving is, well then ok. Take the miracle crap out, and let's celebrate!

- "A canon had to be formed, no? Not all books could make it for whatever reason"

Stop and think about it for a minute. God sits down and dictates a bunch of stuff to a bunch of people. Then you have critics, saying this god work is not good enough, or that god work is worthy!
Who are we as mere humans to pass judgment on the works of God!

Unless....wait...maybe these are not the works of god after all!

- "How come you are using the word Torah?"

Let's do this exercise together: Do me a favor and define the word 'Torah' to yourself. Then, note this definition on the next three religious lectures you attend. When the word "torah" is mentioned in these lectures, ask yourself whether this conforms to the definition you have come up with.
You see, I originally thought that the ‘Torah’ meant the 5 books of Moses. I came to understand that the rabbis use the words so liberally, that even the petty midrashim are considered Torah.

- “They clearly believed the victory to have come from God”

Whether they believed this or not is not relevant to what I am saying. What I am saying, holyhyrax, is that THE MIRACLE OF LIGHTS DID NOT HAPPEN.

- “No, you are getting it wrong. Chanukah predates the Talmud. It was recorded later on. The origins of whether chanukah is ONLY a military victory is another issue”

No, I am saying exactly what you said. The origin of the holiday was a celebration of a military victory, which did not sit well with the rabbis, so they INVENTED a miracle to turn this holiday into a religious one.

- “Clearly Talmud contains much more than just oral tradition.”
Great, I am glad you admit this. Now, let’s stop calling it ‘Torah she be al pe” or ‘Oral Torah’ (By the way, you see how the word ‘torah’ invades things everywhere?).

- “Well, the menorah HAD to be lite, right? It would still be impressive, no?”

No it did not. When the Greeks had the Beth Hamighdash, it was not lit at all. What would have been the giant tragedy if the lights were not lit for another week or so? Compared with one Jewish child’s life, I would turn off the Menorah for a century!

- The miracle of lights - “Its a sign of great hope. With everything that happened, that God was still with them at the moment the temple was rededicated.”

LOL, HolyHyrax, THE MIRACLE NEVER HAPPENED! Don’t you get it?

- Regarding the victory of Jews over the Greeks, in your last sentence, you wrote: “I do. But I don't see this as any less of a miracle.”

But HolyHyrax, you need to make up your mind. Is the miracle the longer lasting candles, or is the miracle the military victory? Decide which is which, and then we can debate it. I thought that the miracle was the candle lasting longer than it should. This blog is about that. If you wish, we can, in the future, talk about why military victories and losses can not be thought of as miracles from God.

Holy Hyrax said...

>LOL, well, if you think of a 'holiday' as a holy day, then it must have a divine source.

Its a comemoration of a unique event. Why does it need a source. The victory happened. They saw this as God playing a part. Judaism has to leave and breath with our everyday lives. Things occur, and we see the hand of god in them.

>Who are we as mere humans to pass judgment on the works of God!

Who's passing judgment? Clearly the Israelites kept on writing on things that they found meaningful and to teach the nation. So its canonized, but it was never given the status of Torah.

>I came to understand that the rabbis use the words so liberally, that even the petty midrashim are considered Torah.

Its part of the torah knowledge. What we extract from it etc etc. But nobody says Chanukah is Torah or that Purim is Torah. You are right, they use it more liberally. But it is used more of a way to convene the continuing thought, tradition and relationship with God that Torah gives us. Philosophy when aimed at Torah issues can also be classified as Torah. There is no stirah here.

>What I am saying, holyhyrax, is that THE MIRACLE OF LIGHTS DID NOT HAPPEN.

And I agreed with you.

>No, I am saying exactly what you said. The origin of the holiday was a celebration of a military victory, which did not sit well with the rabbis, so they INVENTED a miracle to turn this holiday into a religious one.

right. Ok?
I was simply saying the source of chanukah is not the Talmud, merely the story of the lights.

>No it did not. When the Greeks had the Beth Hamighdash, it was not lit at all. What would have been the giant tragedy if the lights were not lit for another week or so? Compared with one Jewish child’s life, I would turn off the Menorah for a century!

What about all the Jewish children that die now. Maybe we should not celebrate passover either, or do brit milah, or shabbat. No halacha should be kept until God performs a grand miracle that saves us all.

The tragedy of one, has no bearing of a need of something else.

>LOL, HolyHyrax, THE MIRACLE NEVER HAPPENED! Don’t you get it?

Go back and see what I was responding to. You said even if it DID happen, then its no big deal. I disagreed with you. But I know it did not happen.

>But HolyHyrax, you need to make up your mind.

I am saying the miracle is the victory, not the lights, but I don't see any less divinity in that then of lights lasting for 8 days. So I don't see the need to toss out the religious aspect as you said should be done.

badrabbi said...

Holy,
If you view Chanukah as “the commemoration of a unique event”, not being religious in nature, then we are in agreement. Isn’t it nice to agree on things from time to time?

You write, regarding the naviim and katubim: “So its canonized, but it was never given the status of Torah”.
I do not agree with you here. These works are considered to be “inspired by God”. If this so, then they are the work of God. If, as you claim, they are not holy works at all, then, again, I agree with you: we could canonize anything we want!

 Philosophy when aimed at Torah issues can also be classified as Torah.

LOL, even you are liberally using the word “torah”! I do agree with your general comments though.

 I was simply saying the source of Chanukah is not the Talmud, merely the story of the lights.

100% in agreement!

 What about all the Jewish children that die now. Maybe we should not celebrate Passover either….

No, HolyHyrax, that is a false choice. What I was saying was different. I am saying the following: suppose you have a choice between God performing a miracle such that the battery on your cell phone lasting another 24 hours, or extending the lives of members of your family. Of course you would pick the latter over the former, right? Similarly, if I had a choice between some candle flickering or saving Jewish children, I would take the latter! It is a no-brainer. It is curious that God chose the candle, though. Of course all this is immaterial, since you also agree that the miracle never took place.

 You said even if it (the miracle of lights) DID happen, then its no big deal. I disagreed with you. But I know it did not happen.

This is altogether confusing. Based on this last sentence of yours, you seem to be saying that if indeed the miracle of lights did happen it would be significant. Can you please tell me why so?

 So I don't see the need to toss out the religious aspect as you said should be done.
Ok, let’s review: To claim that something has religious origins, one must find a source for this origin. I stated clearly that such a source does not really exist, other than a fraudulent mention in the Talmud. The religious aspect of Hanukah is the so-called miracle of lights. You and I agree that such a miracle never occurred. So, what religious aspect remains in Chanukah?

LakewoodShmuck said...

the tora gave chazal the power to create a holiday and they did. end of story. k'chol asher yorucha

badrabbi said...

lakewood Schmuk;

First, I am not certain that the Torah gave the right to creating Holidays to the Chazal. The Torah does mention that we must respect, listen and give authority to our elders, so perhaps this is what you are referring to.

Second, I would have no objection to Chazal or even contemporary Jewish leaders to inventing Holidays. In fact, I encourage it, as generally holidays are nice events. What I am saying is that the Chazal "Invented" a miracle, one which never took place, in order to transform a secular holiday into a religious one.

In short, I am not disputing the power of Chazal in creating Holidays. I am objecting to their lying! As you say, Period, end of story!

BrooklynWolf said...

I know it's a minor nitpick, but I thought it too funny:

Rabbis have included texts into the religious cannon as they saw fit.

Rabbi A: Have you loaded up the religious cannon yet?

Rabbi B: Hold on, I think there are some other books that we want to blow up.

The word you're looking for is canon, not cannon. :)

The Wolf

SDR said...

Badbabb:

You don't believe in G-d and therefore you are a rasha of the worst sort. WHO CARES WHAT YOU THINK? Shem rashaim yirkav!

BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you, sdr, for displaying some of the worst traits a frum Jew could have.

The Wolf

badrabbi said...

Brooklynwolf;

First, thank you for pointing out that it is "canon" and not "cannon". I feel a bit embarrassed, but thanks for the education.

Second, thanks for your last comment. I have always respected your comments. I enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up.

badrabbi said...

SDR;
I do not think that this blog relates to whether I do or do not believe in God. My thoughts about God are complex. Someday, God willing (:)) I will write about that. I should remind you, though that the subject is Chanukah. What are your thoughts on it?