The Talmud asks, and answers, that it is a holiday that was established a year after-- in commemoration of-- the miracle of finding one flask of pure, undefiled olive oil in the Temple that was sufficient for one night’s lighting but miraculously lasted for eight days (after the Maccabees successfully defeated the Syrian oppressors around 164 B.C.E.). The highly-regarded Talmudic commentary Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, 1555-1631) thinks that what is being celebrated is the re-dedication of the re-built Temple and that the Talmud’s question is not why we celebrate but why we light candles to celebrate!
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag…
…explores some interesting questions about the holiday: The name Chanukah derives from the acronym “chanu b’ chaf heh”—they rested (from battle) on the 25th (of the Hebrew month of Kislev). But was this date coincidental or intentional? Why is it celebrated for over a week, during the darkest time of the year?
Rabbi Leibtag finds the roots for the holiday in the Torah. In its discussion of pagan holidays during which it is forbidden to conduct business with idol worshippers, the Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) records a fascinating story about Adam and his first winter on Earth. When he realized that the days were getting shorter and shorter (winter solstice), he feared that this was a death sentence for his sin in the Garden of Eden. Instead of despairing he fasted, prayed and repented. When after eight days, the days began to get longer, Adam realized that this light/darkness cycle was a part of Nature and he celebrated for eight days, giving thanksgiving to God. The following year he established these eight days as a holiday. This contrasts with the behavior of his heathen offspring who converted these into holidays of idol worship. [Note: a popular pagan holiday celebrated in late December evolved into Christmas, according to historians.]
The darkest nights of any Hebrew month occur during the last week of the month when the moon is hardly visible—rising early in the morning and waning from a crescent to a sliver. Chanuka begins on the 25th, during the last week of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The dark winter months can bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition in which one’s moods grow darker; when one feels fatigued and may sleep too much; and when one may have difficulty concentrating. Instead of simply giving up or drinking away his sorrows (a la New Year’s Eve celebration for some), Adam chose--and by extension, we are to choose-- to use the time for introspection, contemplation and expression of gratitude. The festival of lights is the celebration of the universal hope (i.e., light) and optimism that can dispel the darkness of hopelessness and depression. The original, primary Mitzvah is for one candle to be lit by each household each night. It is the act of a united family dissipating the world dread surrounding us with a spark of optimism and confidence about our future.
When the Israelites living in the Persian Empire were granted permission from King Cyrus to return home (around 550 BCE) relatively few took him up on his offer. Some twenty years later under the reign of King Darius, the prophets Chagai and Zecharya challenged an apathetic people to both engage in soul-searching and to prepare for the building of the Second Temple. The day before construction was scheduled to begin (on the 25th day of Kislev) Chagai repeats his earlier prophecy that the people will achieve both economic prosperity and political sovereignty. Zecharya stresses the need for the people to repent for God’s Presence to return. He encourages them to rejoice in the expected return of the Divine Presence in a prophecy that concludes with a vision of a menorah surrounded by two olive branches. Although these prophecies unfortunately remained unrealized, Rabbi Leibtag conjectures that “the people annually commemorated the anniversary of the original construction date, the 25th of Kislev…to recall the hopeful prophecies of Chagai, pronounced on the preceding day, the 24th of Kislev”.
The rise of Hellenism came to a head in 167 B.C.E., with the decrees forbidding Jewish practices instituted by of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Greek king of the Seleucid Empire based in Syria, who sided with the Hellenized Israelites). An idol was built on the Altar of the Holy Temple on the 15th of the month of Kislev. On the 25th of Kislev they offered sacrifices and began murdering women who circumcised their sons.
The Maccabees sparked the revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods. The revolt involved many battles, in which the Maccabean succeeded by their use of guerrilla tactics. After the victory, they entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional worship. The Talmud lists the 23rd day of Cheshvan and the 3rd of Kislev as days of celebration because those were dates of key victories in the battle for control of the Temple mount. Furthermore, the Book of the Maccabees suggests that the Temple’s dedication was intentionally set for the 25th of Kislev, even though the Temple Mount was recaptured by the Maccabees a month earlier!
Rabbi Leibtag’s conclusion is that the decision to dedicate the Temple on the 25th of Kislev was intentional, exactly three years to the day that it was defiled. Because on that date the Temple construction began during the time of Chagai, it kept its prophetic and historic significance. The Maccabees may have perceived themselves; their overwhelming military success; and their re-dedication of the Temple and all its parts as the fulfillment of Chagai’s prophecy.
The miracle of finding the flask of oil and the miracle of its lasting eight nights no doubt provided the ruling Sages (a year later) with symbolic verification of the prophecy of Zecharya with its emphasis on spirituality and its vision of a menorah and oil.
Thus, the emphasis of oil on Chanuka. Not to be ignored as reasons for celebration are the military victories, the return of Jewish sovereignty and
the re-dedication of the Temple.
Chanukah Guide for the Perplexed, 2018
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
1. The miracle of Chanukah. According to ancient Jewish sages, Chanukah highlights a critical, non-conventional interpretation of the term “miracle,” which is a derivative of – and not superior to – reality. Thus, the Hebrew translation of “miracle” – Ness נס - is the root of the Hebrew translation of “(life) experience” – נסיון.
Accordingly, that which is conventionally perceived to be a super-natural outcome/miracle, attests to the unique capability of genuine leaders to overcome awesome odds, challenges, threats and adversities by leveraging personal, national and global experience, in addition to their outstanding capability to assess and impact future developments. Such capabilities shaped the victories of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Emperor in the 2nd century BCE, the US Founding Fathers over the British Empire in 1776 and the 650,000 Jews over the coalition of invading Arab armies in 1948.
2. The Chanukah-David Ben Gurion connection. Such a unique capability – to realistically and strategically assess past experience and future trends - was demonstrated by a modern day Maccabee, David Ben Gurion, the 1948 Founding Father and the first Prime Minister of Israel, who stated (Uniqueness and Destiny, pp 20-22, David Ben Gurion, IDF Publishing, 1953, Hebrew): “The struggle of the Maccabees was one of the most dramatic clashes of civilizations in human history, not merely a political-military struggle against foreign oppression…. The meager Jewish people did not assimilate, as did many peoples. The Jewish people prevailed, won, sustained and enhanced their independence and unique civilization…. The Hasmoneans overcame one of the most magnificent spiritual, political and military challenges in Jewish history, due to the spirit of the people, rather than the failed spirit of the establishment….”
3. Chanukah’s historical context according to the Books of the Maccabees, The Scroll of Antiochus and The War of the Jews by Joseph Ben Mattityahu (Josephus Plavius):
In 175 BCE, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies of Syria (1/3 of the disintegrated Greek Empire) attempted to exterminate Judaism and forcibly convert Jews to Hellenism. He suspected that the Jews were allies of Egypt, his chief rival. In 169 BCE, upon returning to Syria from a war against Egypt, he devastated Jerusalem, massacred Jews, forbade the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Temple.
The Jewish rebellion in 167 BCE featured the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family: Mattityahu, a priest from Modi'in, and his five sons: Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan and Elazar. The heroic, creative battle tactics of the Maccabees, were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were frequently hired as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome and other global and regional powers. The battles of the Maccabees inspired the future Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire: from the battle against Pompey in 63 BCE, through the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 135 CE.
4. The Maccabees. The name Maccabee (מכבי or מקבי) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for power hammer - Makevet (מקבת). It is also a derivative of the Hebrew verb Cabeh (כבה), to extinguish (fire and/or one’s enemies). Maccabee, מכבי, is also the Hebrew acronym of “Who could resemble you among gods, O Jehovah” מי כמוך באלים יי)). In Latin, the C is sometimes pronounced like a TZ, and Maccabee could be the Latin spelling of the Hebrew word Matzbee, a commander-in-chief.
The Maccabees, in particular, and Chanukah, in general, have become a role model for liberty-pursuing peoples, emphasizing faith in God, morality/light, the spiritual (Bible), the physical (weapon), the centrality of roots/history, heroism on the battlefield and optimism. The first day of Chanukah is celebrated when daylight hours are balanced with darkness, ushering in optimism – brighter days/future.
5. Chanukah and education. ( חנוכהin Hebrew) celebrates the initiation/inauguration (חנוכ) of the reconstructed Temple. Chanukah (חנוכה) is education-oriented (חנוכ). A key feature of Chanukah is the education/mentoring of the family and community, recognizing education as the foundation of human behavior.
According to the First Book of Maccabees, Judah the Maccabee instituted an 8-day holiday on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev in 165 BCE (just like King Solomon’s 8-day celebration of the inauguration of the First Temple), in order to commemorate Jewish history, in general, and the inauguration and deliverance of the holy altar and the Temple, in particular. The Hebrew word, Chanukah, חנוכה, consists of two words, Chanu-Kah ( חנו-כהin Hebrew) which means "they camped/rested" (חנו) on the 25th day (כה equals 25 in Hebrew) of the Jewish month of Kislev.
6. The uplifting Chanukah Menorah (a 9-branched-candelabra) commemorates the legacy of the Maccabees, highlighting the prerequisites of spiritual and physical liberty, in defiance of formidable odds: value-driven faith, tenacious optimism, patriotism, attachment to roots, adherence to long-term values and interests over political-correctness and short-term convenience.
The Biblical commandment to light candles employs the verb “to elevate the candles” (Numbers, 8:1-3), since candles represent the soul, aiming to elevate human morality, while the candelabra represents the unity of the family and the people.
The Chanukah candles are lit, for 8 days (the shape of 8 represents eternity as is the Jewish covenant with God), during the darkest time of the year, when the moon is hardly noticed, and human mood tends to grow grimmer. The Chanukah festival of lights symbolizes the victory of optimism over depression.
7. The Land of Israel connection:
Chanukah is the longest Jewish holiday - the only Jewish holiday (other than Israel’s Independence Day) that commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (Egypt), Sukkot/Tabernacles and Shavuot/Pentecost (the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia).
The mountain ridges of Judea and Southern Samaria (especially the Land of Benjamin) were the platform of critical Maccabees’ military battles: Mitzpah (the burial site of the Prophet Samuel), Beth El (Judah's first headquarters), Beth Horon (Judah's victory over Seron), Hadashah (Judah's victory over Nicanor), Beth Zur (Judah's victory over Lysias), Ma'aleh Levona (Judah's victory over Apolonius), Adora'yim (a Maccabean fortress), Elazar (named after Mattityahu’s youngest son), Beit Zachariya (Judah's first defeat), Ba'al Hatzor (where Judah was defeated and killed), Te’qoah, Mikhmash and Gophnah (bases of Shimon and Yonatan), the Judean Desert, etc.
When ordered by Emperor Antiochus (Book of Maccabees A: 15:33) to end the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer and Akron, Shimon the Maccabee responded: "We have not occupied a foreign land; we have not ruled a foreign land; we have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation." Shimon’s statement is as relevant in 2018 as it was in ancient times.
8. The US connection:
The legacy of Chanukah – the centrality of liberty and morality, freedom of religion and defiance of immense odds – has played a major role in shaping the American ethos and state of mind from the Early Pilgrims, through the Founding Fathers’ War of Independence and their composition/ratification the US Constitution until today.
The Chanukah holiday sheds light on Judeo-Christian values, which have imbued the United States since the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, including the unique and positive attitude, by most Americans, toward the Jewish State.
On October 16, 2018, the US Postal Services issued the annual Chanukah stamp, portraying a Menorah, which is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day holiday of Chanukah, commemorating the 167 BCE rebellion of the very few, conviction-driven Jewish Maccabees against the most powerful and oppressive Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanies.
On December 8, 2017, President Trump stated, during a candle-lighting at the White House: “The miracle of Chanukah is the miracle of Israel…. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have endured unthinkable persecution and oppression, but no force has ever crushed [their] spirit and no evil has ever extinguished [their] faith….”
On December 14, 2016, President Obama held a candle-lighting at the White House, stating: “We take heart from the Maccabees’ struggle against tyranny, even in our darkest moments, a stubborn flame of hope flickers and miracles are possible…. George Washington was said to have been stirred by the lights of Chanukah after seeing a soldier with a Menorah in the snows of Valley Forge….”
On December 6, 2013, Ambassador Hank Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and former Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, wrote: “On this final day of Chanukah, as Jews complete their celebration of the Maccabee victory two millennia ago, all Americans should remember our common love of liberty, the heritage that has set the West apart, and the common enemy that threatens our very existence and freedom today. We need modern day Maccabees to preserve that heritage of liberty for our posterity...”
In December 1993, a cinderblock was hurled through a window of a Jewish family in Billings, Montana, which displayed a Chanukah Menorah. The response by the 80,000 residents, including 50 Jewish families, was: “Not in our town!” Thus, the Billings Gazette published a full-page photograph of a Menorah, which was photocopied by local businesses, pasted on billboards and on windows of thousands of homes in Billings. In addition, scores of persons marched on Billings’ main street holding Menorahs. Since 1994, an annual Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony has been held at the State Capitol in Helena, Montana. Moreover, in April 1994, a few hundred Billings residents joined the Jewish community for a Seder, the traditional Passover meal.
Founded in 1802, the West Point Military Academy has displayed a statue of Judah the Maccabee along with additional outstanding military leaders such as Joshua, King David, Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon – “The Nine Worthies.”
“The modern-day Maccabees” were the 18th century key leaders of the American revolution against the British Empire such as…
The “Father of his country” President George Washington
The “Colossus of Independence” President John Adams
The “Apostle of Democracy” President Thomas Jefferson
“Lightning Rod” Benjamin Franklin
“Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry
“The British are coming” Paul Revere
Common Sense” Thomas Paine
The organizers of the Boston Tea Party, etc.
Just like the Maccabees, so were the rebels against the British Crown, initially, a minority opposed by the “loyalists”/ “pragmatists.”
In 2018, the US and Israel are the only two Western democracies, which adhere to the legacy of the Maccabees, displaying allegiance to liberty and morality, while refusing to retreat in the face of threats, pressure and seduction; unwilling to sacrifice long-term realism and conviction on the altar of short-term opportunism and gratification; demonstrating tenacity-at-any-price in face of ruthless and cunning rogue regimes, which benefit from the Western tailwinds of appeasement, vacillation, wishful-thinking and oversimplification (the modern day “loyalists”/’pragmatists”).
Rav David Bar-Chayim of Machon Shilo Institute in Israel thinks that Chanukah’s being celebrated for eight days is because the Maccabees celebrated the joyous eight-day Succoth holiday which they were unable to until their victory over the Greeks.
Support for this idea is found in the Second Book of the Maccabees, one of the oldest sources, preserved in Greek and written closest to the time of the Chanukah story-- which does not mention a commemorative practice of lighting a menorah.
[ Note: Book of Maccabees is one of the texts written within Jewish religious tradition referred to as Apocrypha, defined by Jewish Encyclopedia as “Writings having some pretension to the character of sacred scripture, or received as such by certain sects, but excluded from the canon”. These books were treasured but never incorporated into the Holy Tananch, which consists of 24 books.]
This source describes the cleansing and reconstruction of the Temple and the eight day celebration just like Succoth which the Israelites were unable to observe properly because “they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts…and now see that ye keep the feast of tabernacles in the month of Casleu…keep the purification of the temple upon the five and twenty day of the month Cacleu, we thought it necessary to certify you thereof, that ye also might keep it, as the feast of tabernacles”[Chapter One]… Now Maccabeus and his company, the Lord guiding them, recovered the temple and the city…Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu. And they kept eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of tabernacles, when they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts. Therefore, they bare branches and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.” [Chapter Ten]
Resisting Religious Corruption
Rabbi Marc D. Angel
“After their glorious victory and rededication of the Temple, the Hasmoneans established the holiday of Hanukkah to be celebrated by Jews for all future generations. The festival of lights is an occasion for thanksgiving to God, celebration of Jewish pride, remembrance of the importance of religious freedom.
It wasn't too long, though, before this great spiritual and military victory lost its luster. The Hasmoneans--a priestly family--set themselves up as kings. Once they centralized so much power in themselves, corruption soon set in. Their "kings” became ruthless despots; the high priesthood became a political prize going to the highest bidder. Although the original spirit of Hanukkah managed to survive, the actual state of Jewish religion and spirituality was severely compromised under Hasmonean rule.
There is an ongoing lesson in this story. When authority is centralized in a few hands, this often results in corruption and spiritual deterioration. The few in power become arrogant and greedy. They feel that they can do what they want, and force others to comply. They come to think that they are above the law.
This lesson applies not merely to the world of politics, but to the world of religion. It is especially poisonous when religious and political power become intertwined. How painful it is to read of the ugly political maneuvering of "religious" parties in Israel. How frustrating it is to read of "religious" authorities--who are quick to assert their own power and who delegitimize others--who betray the ideas and ideals of Torah through their perverse, illegal and immoral behavior. How unfortunate it is that the Orthodox "rabbinic establishment" in Israel and the diaspora is viewed by so many as being insensitive, obscurantist and even hypocritical and dishonest.
The lesson of Hanukkah is that religion and spirituality need to rise above petty politics. The light of Torah is not spread through arrogant, self-righteous authoritarianism; it is not spread by those who usurp power and who think they are above the law. As the prophet Zechariah taught (and as we read in the haftarah last Shabbat): "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts."
We need to re-focus on the spirit and righteousness of Torah, on the light of Torah that enhances life and reflects love and compassion to all. We need to resist religious coercion and authoritarianism, and to understand that the power of Torah is in its wisdom and mitzvoth. As we conclude the observance of Hanukkah, let us remember that true religion is not found among those who seek might and power; but in those who sincerely seek the Spirit of the Lord. Let us be sure that we are among the latter.”