So you think you know what Hanukkah is all about? Think again. What most people (even Jews) know about Chanukah is either wrong, half the story, or laden with legends. Despite what you may have been told, the meaning of the holiday is not “Let’s come up with a holiday around Christmas time so Jewish kids have something to do at the end of December” (although a liberal Rabbi did try to tell me that over the weekend).
Neither is the meaning of Hanukkah “Let’s come up with a holiday with many different English spellings so we can drive the Gentiles crazy.”
I can’t speak for the other holidays, but I can tell you that as Jewish holidays go, Chanukah is among the least important. Unlike the “big ones” like Passover, Sukkot, or Shavuot, you can work, drive, etc. on Chanukah. Heck, the Books of the Maccabees weren’t even included in the Jewish canon (that’s another and longer story).
The most common view of the holiday generally includes the miracle of the one day of oil that lasted eight days, the defeat of the superior forces of King Antiochus, the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and so on.
In truth the oil thing never happened and the battle Judah and brothers won was a civil war against Jews who turned away from their faith. Antiochus and his army were there to intervene in the civil war; they just picked the wrong side to support.
Antiochus invaded Judea, at the request of the assimilated Hellenized Jews who were expelled to Syria around 170 BCE when the high priest Onias (a buddy of Cleopatra’s husband Ptolemy) wrested control of the Holy Temple from them. The exiled assimilated Jews lobbied Antiochus to recapture Jerusalem. Judah the Maccabee’s dad Mattathias, a Priest in the town of Modiin started the revolt because the king had issued decrees that forbade Jewish religious practices.
Two hundred years later the failed Judean General-turned traitor-turned-historian Josephus wrote:
The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.
Now as far as the holiday goes, Hanukkah is not an important Jewish holiday because like Purim, it was created by rabbis. The command to observe the big holidays such as Passover, Sukkot, or Shavuot is in the Torah that was given to us by God. Since God outranks the rabbis, his holidays are much more important. The Books of the Maccabees weren’t even included in the Jewish canon and it was all because of politics (sort of). And they can’t be added back because no Hebrew version of the full text has ever been found (for all of you pickers out there, here is an opportunity).
From the time of Moses and Aaron the offices of head of state and high priest were separate. Once the Kingship was established with Saul, the separation became permanent as the priestly family was from the tribe of Levi and Saul was from Binyamin. David who succeeded Saul was from the tribe of Judah, which is why the land eventually became known as the Kingdom of Judah and its people were called Jews.
Y’hudhah HamMakabi or Judah the Maccabee was a nickname it means Judah the Hammer, Maccabee is also an anagram for a Hebrew phase which translates into “Who is like You among the heavenly powers oh God?”
Once the Jews regained Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah’s family (the Hasmoneans) took over and became both the Kings and the Priests, a biblical no-no which some people say eventually lead to the destruction of the second Temple. Before you liberals start claiming biblical proof of separation of church and state, the reason for the biblical separation wasn’t a fear of religious influence on govt., but the possibility of a corrupt government’s influence on religion. God knew that governments could become corrupt and the plan was for an incorruptible Priesthood was supposed to keep the politicians in line.
Chanukah was really Sukkot. When the Maccabees finally retook the Temple in the month of Kislev, they decided to celebrate Sukkot, the seven-day pilgrimage holiday which they had missed during their battles with the Greeks. At the end of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, an eighth day of celebration. So the Maccabees rededicated the Temple and immediately set out to celebrate for eight days.
Also the story the oil, eight days, etc. was a nice fairy tale, but it never happened. The first celebrations of the re-dedication of the Temple were called the festival of lights Josephus says:
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies
I believe it is called the festival of lights because Jews believe that God’s teachings brings light into the world, and the festival was not only a re-dedication of the Temple but a re-dedication of the Jews to the Torah and the light of God. Neither Josephus nor the Book of Maccabees discusses any oil that lasts eight days.
Sorry if I destroyed any of your childhood myths by telling the truth about the candles, but (to me) the miracle of Hanukkah was the victory of the Jews against superior forces and faith is all about believing that God is involved even when you don’t see him. God repeated the miracle of Hannukkah with Purim, with Israel in 1948, the Six-Day-War and in even more recent times, and the miracle year of New York Sports 1968-69 (the Mets, the Jets, and the hobbled Willis Reed Knicks).
The oil lighting story and candle tradition is very nice, and it teaches all about the Jews role of helping the light of God spread throughout the world. It also helped established the tradition of eating greasy donuts and potato latkes on Chankukkah, Hannukkah, Hanukkah or however you wish to spell the holiday.
The Rabbis tell us that we are not to use the Chanukah candles for reading or seeing, as we would with a regular candle or a light bulb. The Chanukkiyah (it’s not a menorah which was in the Temple in Jerusalem and when fully lit had seven instead of nine candles) is supposed to be placed near a window so the light of God and his miracles will shine outward into the world.
Even though Chanukah is a minor holiday it is one of my favorites, not because of the eight days of gifts (that is an American custom based on trying to one-up Christmas) and not because of the greasy clogged artery-inducing food. Chanukah is a holiday about Jews fighting against assimilation a lesson which needs to be reinforced over and over here in the diaspora. The holiday and candles is also a reminder that in Judaism, the light of God begins in the home lit by the observance of a single family unit and just like the Chanukiah (Menorah) that light is supposed to radiate from the home to the community and eventually throughout the world.
May you all have a Chag Chanukah Samayach, a happy Hanukkah holiday, and may the light of God soon radiate throughout the world and bring us peace. As the words said over and over during every prayer service wishes;
Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol yisrael, ve’imru amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. Amen.