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 is 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 repeated his earlier prophecy that the people will achieve both economic prosperity and political sovereignty. Zecharya stressed the need for the people to repent for God’s Presence to return. He encouraged them to rejoice in the expected return of the Divine Presence in a prophecy that concluded 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, because it was 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.
From the Rebbe
The name Chanukah comes from the word chinuch, which means "inauguration."
Chanukah serves as a model for all inaugurations, including the most significant inauguration of all—education, a child’s inauguration into life
Light, brightness, radiance, are metaphors we use when we wish to speak about hope, wisdom, or goodness. Once a year, we celebrate this truth. For eight days and nights, we celebrate the power of light: in ascending number — one little flame on the first evening, two flames on the second, three on the third — we kindle the Chanukah menorah, recalling that miraculous victory, 22 centuries ago, of quality over quantity, spirit over materialism, right over might.
It's luminous, it's warm, it's romantic; but most of all it's spiritual. "The soul of man is a candle of G d”. For the soul of man, too, is a clash of divergent forces and contrary strivings. The candles evoke the memory of the small group of Jews who fought those who had opposed the Torah. Today, we each battle our own evil inclination as well. Our victories, as well, will be eternally remembered.
Lighting Chanukah Candles
The first night we place and light the candle at the right side of the Menorah. As the holiday continues, we first kindle the light which had been added that evening and make the blessing on it to show that the greatness of the miracle increased on each successive night. We want to first light the additional, newer candle every day before we light the previous night’s candles to follow Talmudic aphorism “all the rotations that you do, should be to the right.”
The right is considered the stronger side and we want to be there and/or move in that direction. That is the reason that on the first night when there is only one candle, we light it on the right side. In order maintain the right candle’s strong position we place the subsequent night candles to the left and begin lighting the leftmost candle first and lighting the more recent ones as we move to the rightmost one where we want to be.
Chabad adds: “The lights should be lit so that they are in an even line. The holders should be the same height so that one light is not higher than the others. The holders should also be placed in a straight line so that some lights do not protrude, and they should not be in a circle. There should be sufficient space between the holders so that the flame of one light does not join that of another and so that the heat from one flame does not melt the wax of another.”
Chanukah and Succos
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 (Greek and Latin word meaning secret or non-canonical), 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, because of dubious authenticity, unknown authorship, and lack of divine inspiration, never were incorporated into the Holy Tananch, which consists of 24 books canonized by the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesses Hagedola). The books that may not be sacred, but some (such as 1 and 2 Maccabees) are useful in that they provide valuable information, not unlike history books. On the other hand, some books contain stories or ideas that contradict Scripture and/or Jewish thought.
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]
Chanukah Guide for the Perplexed 2019
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger,
1. Chanukah’s historical context is narrated in the four Books of the Maccabees, The Scroll of Antiochus and The Wars of the Jews. The Greek Empire was split following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), who held Judaism in high esteem. In 175 BCE, the Syrian/Seleucid Emperor Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies – who claimed the Land of Israel - suspected that Jews were allies of his Egyptian enemy. Therefore, he aimed to exterminate Judaism and convert Jews to Hellenism. In 169 BCE he devastated Jerusalem, massacred Jews and prohibited the practice of Judaism. The 166/7 BCE rebellion was led by the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family – Mattityahu, the priest, and his five sons, Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan and Elazar – whose dynasty lasted until 37 BCE.
2. The first day of Chanukah – the holiday of light – is celebrated when daylight hours are equal to darkness, ushering in longer daylight hours – rising optimism.
3. The impact on the formation of the US spirit:
Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, December 1915: “Chanukah, the Feast of Maccabees…celebrates a victory of the spirit over things material… a victory also over [external, but also] more dangerous internal enemies, the Sadducees (the upper social and economic echelon); a victory over the ease-loving, safety-playing, privileged, powerful few, who in their pliancy would have betrayed the best interests of the people; a victory of democracy over aristocracy…. The struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal worldwide interest…. It is a struggle in which all Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews… are vitally affected...”
Benjamin Rush, a key signer of the US Declaration of Independence and a major player in the ratification of the US Constitution, paved the road to the Boston Tea Party, 1773: “What shining examples of patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, the Maccabees and the illustrious princes and prophets among the Jews…”
The West Point Military Academy’s Academic Boardroom displays the statue of Judah the Maccabee among the “Nine Worthies” – the top nine military leaders in human history: Joshua, King David, Judah the Maccabee, Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon.
Ambassador Hank Cooper, former Director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative: “We need modern Maccabees to preserve that heritage of liberty for our posterity…. (Where are Today’s Maccabees? December 2013).
4. The name Maccabee ( מכביorמקבי ) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for sledgehammer (מקבת), describing Judah the Maccabee’s tenacious and decisive fighting capabilities. It may be a derivative of the Hebrew word for extinguishing (כבה), which was the fate of most of Judah’s adversaries. It could also be a Hebrew acronym (ימ כמוך באלים י'): Who could resemble you among Gods, O Adonai.” The four Books of the Maccabees were possibly written in Latin, which sometimes pronounces C like TZ. Therefore, the origin of the Hebrew word Maccabee could be the Hebrew word Matzbee, the commander.
5. 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 Exodus in the Sinai Desert) and Purim (Persia).
6. 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 Maccabee 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.
7. 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 2019 as it was in ancient times.
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.”