By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
In just about a week, we will be lighting the first candle of Hanukkah. It’s a beautiful holiday, filled with glowing lights, songs, delicious foods and family traditions. Yet maybe because of its commercialization, or perhaps because of the repetitious nature of the ceremony over eight days, sometimes we forget to see the fuller meaning of Hanukkah.
The Talmud’s explanation of the holiday begins with the famous words, “Mai Chanukah,” “What is Hanukkah.” Perhaps it should start instead with mah nishtana Chanukah—why is this holiday different from all other holidays. Of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah actually has the most variations—not only in its many customs, but also in the number of different stories that became interwoven, resulting in the holiday as we know it today.
The purpose of Chanukah is simple: To recall the victories of the few against the many and the miraculous survival of our faith and people, despite the many obstacles that at times seem to overwhelm us.
Yet even the two names by which the holiday is known—Hanukkah and Chag ha-Urim, the Festival of Lights, reflect several sources.
Unlike most of our other holidays, Hanukkah is not mandated in the Torah. In the middle of the 3rd century BCE, about 250 years after the Torah was sealed, the Kingdom of Judah became part of the Greek Empire. It was a peaceful takeover; but less than a hundred years later, tyrannical rulers, competition among rival priestly factions, and strife among the Judean aristocracy, evolved into a full-fledged rebellion against the Greeks.
As the popular summary of all Jewish holidays has it, they tried to kill us, they lost, let’s eat! That pretty much characterizes Chanukah, too, but of course things are never as simple as they seem. As with many other oppressors, the Greeks weren’t interested only in our physical destruction. They took aim at our religion, which they saw as barbaric and unenlightened. They forbade the study and teaching of Hebrew and the observance of our most important rituals: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (essentially, our calendar with all its holidays) and circumcision.
At first, what the Greeks offered as replacement was indeed enticing: art, literature, theater, science and, of course, Olympic contests of strength and beauty. But what they failed to take into account was our typical Jewish obstinacy. With each new oppressive measure that the Greeks enacted, so did our resistance grow. Led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his five sons, the rebellion slowly gained momentum; and despite the tragic loss in battle of Judah—known as The Maccabee—the hammer—the Greek army was ultimately defeated. Jerusalem was liberated, and the Temple, where the Greeks had placed a gold statue of Zeus and whose compound they used as a garrison for their soldiers and beasts, was cleansed and rededicated to God.
Dedication. That is the root meaning of the word Chanukah.
However, the holiday would not become known by this name for many years yet. Three hundred years later, the Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, relying on a couple of earlier histories, still called it “Urim,” The Festival of Lights.
There is a reason for that. The timing of the historical events that Hanukkah celebrates coincided with the winter solstice, the season when ancient peoples used to perform magic rituals, almost all of them involving lights and fires, in the hope of restoring to the sun its full power and strength. In Josephus, as well as the accounts he relied on, the Maccabees marked their victory with seven spears which they stuck in the ground, and to which they attached flaming torches. Those were the “lights” to which the name of the holiday referred in those days.
And why eight days? The Talmud offers two explanations: One had to do with the eight days of dedication of the original Temple—the Tabernacle, which Moses and the Israelites had constructed in the Sinai Wilderness. The other was that this number corresponds to the number of days in the fall pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. The restoration of Temple rituals meant that now Sukkot could be celebrated properly, with all the appropriate sacrifices and celebrations.
So how did the story of the little cruse of oil originate?
The wars of liberation that the Maccabees fought didn’t end with the defeat of the Greeks. Soon after came the Romans, a people whose penchant for cruelty and repression was legendary. By the end of first century, the Romans had not only conquered all of Judea, killing in the process over half a million people; but they also destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple down, leaving intact only the Western Wall. The Jewish People were reduced from a political structure to existence as a spiritual-cultural entity. The Romans replaced the Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, with governors of their own choosing, while the role of the Priests as spiritual leaders was now taken over by the Rabbis.
The dangers of persecution led these ancient teachers to offer a new explanation for Hanukkah. While keeping the original intent and purpose, the holiday would no longer celebrate the military triumphs of our ancestors. Instead, the Rabbis now taught Chanukah as a spiritual victory. Quoting a verse from the prophet Zechariah, אֽוֹת׃בָצְ יְהוָ֥ה אָמַ֖ר אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י יכִּ֣ בְכֹ֔חַ וְלֹ֣א בְחַ֙יִל֙ לֹ֤א—“Not by power, not by might, but by My spirit alone,” the Rabbis de-emphasized military strength in favor of prayer and faith.
It’s not known who first told the story of the small cruse of olive oil that was found with the seal of the High Priest still intact on it. The miracle of the oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights—the time it takes to press fresh olive oil—was innocuous enough to pass the scrutiny of the Romans, yet meaningful enough to sustain our people through the next two thousand years. The story makes its first appearance in the Talmud, some five centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem. By then, hope for Jewish independence had all but disappeared. Survival of Judaism against all odds—though not without great sacrifice—thus became the holiday’s chief and lasting message, while its new official name—Hanukkah—evolved to reflect not physical, but rather spiritual dedication. During good times, the light of the Hanukkah candles danced in the windows and open doorways of Jewish homes. In darker times, the light was hidden deep within, serving to inspire us with its eternal message of hope, unification and redemption.
Today, with Israel once more a political reality, with Jerusalem once more our busy and flourishing capital, Hanukkah carries with it yet one more meaning. Today it reminds us that we need to remain strong not only spiritually, but also physically. A beautiful wildflower grows in Israel. It is called Dam Ha-Maccabeem—Blood of the Maccabees—and legend has it that where it grows, a drop of blood had been spilled in defense of our Land, our People and our Faith. The symbolism of this eternal crimson flower is clear to every man, woman and child.
The light of the candles we kindle in our own chanukioyt—our own Hanukkah menorahs—now extends like a rainbow all the way from our most distant past, through the blessing of the present moment, far into the future. Their many colors remind us of the diversity of our customs and traditions. They remind us of past victories as well as of terrible sacrifices we’ve had to make. Yet they also hold out hope for a bright future, a future that depends not only on God, but also on our own dedication to our people, our land, and our faith.
May the light of our Hanukkah celebrations inspire us to rededicate ourselves as have our people since time immemorial. As one candle’s light joins its fellows to produce a wonderful, great glow, so may we all unite and shine a magnificent light for all the world to see—the light of faith and hope, the light of freedom and joy for all the world to enjoy.
Kein y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will.