The Stories of Hanukah

by Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch

Hanukah is first and foremost a historical holiday, originally proclaimed by Judah Maccabee at the end of a bloody and violent guerrila war that was both a rebellion against the Seleucid empire as well as a civil war among Jews.  It took several gener­ations before Hanukah was universally celebrated by Jews all over the world.  There are several stories about Hanukah in the origi­nal and rabbinic texts from which we can delineate the history of how early generations reinterpreted the historical significance of the holiday and of its central ritual, the lighting of the hanukiyah, or eight-branched menorah.

When Judea achieved full autonomy and de facto independence from the Seleucid empire, the guerilla army of peasants removed the items used by their Jewish foes in the Temple Service, made new items (including a menorah which provided light while they cleaned the inside of the Temple), tore down the “profaned” altar and built a new altar, and (on Kislev 25) celebrated with the first sacrifice on the new altar.  At the end of this service, Judah proclaimed to the assembled people that "days of dedica­tion" should be celebrated for eight days every year. ( ch. 4. [1]  Unable to celebrate their favorite festival, Succot, () for two or three years because of the wars, the first Hanukah celebration was "Succot in Kislev" and celebrated like Succot (replete with lulavim).   (II Maccabees ch. 10.)[2]

Lighting candles soon became part of the holiday celebration.  A variety of rabbinic stories began to be told to answer the questions: (1) Why do we light candles on Hanukah? (2) Why is Hanukah 8 days?  Each story represents part of the oral tradition of the Pharisees and rabbis whose relationship to the Hasmoneans changed over time.

"[At Hanukah] we commemorate the dedication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans who fought and defeated the Hellenists, and we kindle lights -- just as when [we] finished the Tabernacle in the Wilderness . . . ."  (Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 6)

"Why do we kindle lights on Hanukah?  Because when the sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priest, defeated the Hellenists, they entered the Temple and found there eight iron spears.  They stuck candles on them and lit them."  (Pesikta Rabbati ch. 2)

"Why did the rabbis make Hanukah eight days?  Because . . . the Hasmoneans entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils.  They were kept busy for eight days.  And why do we light candles?  Because . . . when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple there were eight iron spears in their hands.  They covered them with wood and lit candles on them.  They did this each of the 8 days." (Megilat Ta'anit ch. 9)

After a descendant of the Hasmoneans joined forces with the Sadducees and after the decline of the Hasmonean dynasty and after a civil war (ca. 67-61 BC) during which perhaps more than 100,000 Jews were killed, another "traditional" story gained dominance: 

"What is Hanukah?  When the Hellenists entered the Temple, they desecrated all of the oil.  And when the Hasmonean dynasty grew and defeated them, they searched but found only one cruse of oil sealed with the stamp of the High Priest, and there was only enough in it to burn for one day.  A miracle happened and it burned for eight days.  The next year they made these days a fixed annual commemoration . . ." (TB Shabbat 21b; also Schol. Megilat Taanith 25 Kislev)

Each of these classical texts represents the point of view of a particular political group at a specific point in time with conflicting visions of the present and future needs of the Jewish people.  One of the crucial issues for them was whether or not Jews should glorify the Hasmoneans, the leaders of the fight for independence who devolved into the tyrants that led Israel to one of its greatest catastrophes.  Our tradition answered by honoring the earlier generation that achieved independence and by criticizing their heirs who corrupted the polity and plunged it into an escalating spiral of 100 years of internal and external wars culminating in the destruction of the Second Commonwealth and the end of Jewish sovereignty.

[1]) I Mac. was written as propaganda for Alexander Yonai, the first member of the Hasmonean dynasty to switch political affiliations and ally himself with the Saducees.

[2]) II Mac. was written as counter propaganda to I Mac.