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.