How did the minor festival of Chanukkah get to be so big? I will return to this question, but first, it’s important to acknowledge that when the rabbinic sages referred to Chanukkah as a minor festival, they meant it in the sense that it wasn’t a biblical festival. The major festivals are those that are recorded in the Torah: Pesach, which celebrates the Exodus, the first fruits festival of Shavuot, ‘the day of blasting’ (later known as Rosh Ha-Shanah), Yom Kippur, that’s the Day for Atonement, the late harvest festival of Sukkot, and Sh’mini Atzeret, which concluded the autumn festivals.[1] That was the festival calendar in biblical times – with a gap of almost six months over the late autumn and winter into early spring.

So, by definition, Chanukkah is a minor festival. Unlike the regulations governing the biblical festivals, there is no prohibition on work for any of the minor festivals.[2] Daily life goes on as usual with the addition of special rituals; in the case of Chanukkah, the nightly eight-day ritual of lighting the nine-branched M’norah, which became known as a Chanukkiyyah distinguish it from the seven-branched Temple M’norah.[3]

Chanukkah commemorates the cleansing and rededication[4] of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE by the Maccabean freedom fighters during their guerrilla campaign against the oppressive Assyrian Greek empire. So, why does the festival last eight days? The simple answer to this question is found in the Second Book of Maccabees (10:6-8):

They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the feast of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before at the festival of Sukkot they had been wandering about like wild beasts in the mountains and caves. That is why, bearing thyrsi and graceful branches and also palm leaves, they offered up hymns to God who had given them success in purifying the Divine place of worship. They decreed by edict and confirmed by vote of the entire nation that the Jews should celebrate these days every year.

A straightforward explanation for the eight-day celebration. But the books of the Maccabees were excluded by the sages from the canon of the Bible and so most people are not familiar with them. Why were they excluded? Because the Hasmonean priestly family that led the struggle became corrupt once they assumed the reins of political power in 140 BCE with the re-establishment of an independent Jewish state.[5] As the famous adage puts it: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.[6]

In place of the more mundane reason for an eight-day festival, the rabbinic sages promulgated the story of a miracle, which is recorded in the Talmud, in the tractate Shabbat (21B). Significantly, the Talmud was edited around the year 500, that is, almost 650 years after the events of 164 BCE. We read:

Mah Chanukkah? What is the reason for Chanukkah? For our sages taught: on the 25th day of Kislev commence the days of Chanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.[7] For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a festival with [the recital of] Psalms of praise [Hallel] and Thanksgiving.

So, according to the sages, Chanukkah is an eight-day festival because, miraculously, one day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days. On the same page of the Talmud we find a discussion of how the nightly lighting inaugurated to celebrate the miracle should be conducted. Should all the lights be lit on the first night, and then successively reduced day by day? This was the view of Beit Shammai, the disciples of the sage, Shammai. The matter was resolved in favour of Beit Hillel, the disciples of the sage, Hillel: An additional flame should be added on each successive night because ‘we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.’ And so, we celebrate Chanukkah by increasing the light night by night. More of that in a moment.

What was the rabbinic rationale for promoting the miracle story? We find it in the reading set aside by the rabbis for the first Shabbat of Chanukkah.[8] The passage is from the prophet Zechariah, and begins by describing the seven-branched Temple M’norah. It then goes on to make this glorious statement (4:6):

Lo v’chayil v’lo v’cho’ach ki im-b’ruchi amar YHVH tz’va’ot.

Not by valour, nor by might, but by My spirit, says the God of heaven’s hosts.

The word chayil is principally used in the TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible, of soldiers in battle.[9] Ko’ach means might in the sense of ‘strength’. Samson, for example, is described as having ko’ach.[10] The word ru’ach, by contrast, a feminine noun, means ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, or ‘wind’. In the second verse of the Torah we read, for example: ‘Now the earth was unformed and void – tohu va-vohu – and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the waters’ – v’ru’ach Elohim m’rachefet al-p’nei ha-mayyim.[11] The philosopher and biblical commentator, Martin Buber likened ‘the spirit of God’ to a great mother-bird hovering over her young in the nest.[12]

So, what do we learn from the biblical text chosen by the sages to convey the message of Chanukkah? The Maccabees may have won a military victory, but it was a triumph of the spirit that made the rekindling of Jewish life possible. But more than this, the central message of Zechariah is that valour and strength do not – cannot – accomplish this. Again:

Lo v’chayil v’lo v’cho’ach ki im-b’ruchi amar YHVH tz’va’ot.

Not by valour, nor by might, but by My spirit, says the God of heaven’s hosts.

This powerful statement raises an important question: When oppression and tyranny reign, how can we create change and transform society? When I was a sociology undergraduate at the London School of Economics in the mid-1970s and a member of the International Marxist Group, I shared the commonly-held revolutionary socialist belief that the oppressor never gives up their power without a fight. Of course, the French Revolution of 1789 was the model for violent insurrection. But look at what followed: the tyranny and narcissism of Louis the 16th was replaced by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. And the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 also involved massive bloodshed, which continued through the dictatorship of Stalin. The past hundred years have seen many more violent revolutions – which for the most part have only replaced one form of tyranny with another. By now, we must have learnt, surely, that violence only begets violence.

But the problem isn’t just that violence does not achieve justice – look at Northern Ireland, look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but our understanding of how we create change is based on a false dichotomy. We think that all we have is a binary choice between evolution and revolution; between minutely gradual change that takes aeons to achieve and total apocalyptic transformation. Given that choice, in the face of oppressive regimes, I for one would go for revolution – minus the violence – every time. But generating change is not a matter of evolution or revolution; it’s about taking steps, real steps for change. It’s about the day by day work of creating change. Seventy years ago, on 10th December 1948, in the shadow of the Sho’ah and in response to the havoc wreaked by two world wars in less than fifty years, the United Nations, which was established in New York on 24 October 1945, promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration set a new standard for the nations based on the acknowledgement that each and every human being, wherever they live, whatever their ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, sexuality, physical or mental ability has equal rights. The Torah, which includes texts that go back 3000 years, puts it more simply using sacred language: the human being, regardless of gender, is created b’tzelem Elohim – ‘in the image of God.’[13] The implications of this awareness were explored by the early rabbis. We read, for example, in the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200:[14]

Why was the human being created singly? A human sovereign has coins stamped out in a press and they all look alike. But the Holy One Who Is Blessed [Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu] stamps each of us in the imprint of the first human, and no two human beings are the same.

A paradox: We are all essentially the same; we are all different. The concept of human rights is rooted in the notion that we are one human race and the practice of human rights depends on the recognition that all the ways in which we are different from one another are equal and demand equal treatment.

One of the chief architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the French Jewish lawyer, René Cassin. The Jewish human rights charity, René Cassin, based in Britain has adopted his name to remind us of the Jewish links with the Universal Declaration. I’m very proud that one of our young people who grew up here at this shul, Hannah Swirsky, is now working as Campaigns Officer for René Cassin. With her colleagues, Hannah is engaging in the day by day work needed to make human rights a reality – including in the UK, which as a René Cassin briefing paper puts it, ‘is currently contravening its own Home Office guidance with the practice of indefinite detention of asylum seekers’; adding that ‘the UK is the only European nation not to have a time limit on detention.’[15]

To return to my original question: How did the minor festival of Chanukkah get to be so big? A cynic would say that the minor festival of Chanukkah got so big under the influence of the commercialised extravaganza that Christmas has become. If this is the reason, it’s rather ironic, given that the Maccabees were also fighting against the assimilation of their fellow Jews to Greek culture.[16] Not being of a cynical disposition, I like to think that Chanukkah has become so important because as technological developments make us increasingly conscious of what is happening across the globe, we are increasingly determined to increase the light; to muster the spirit of hope we need to engage in the work of tikkun olam, repair of the world.

Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

8th December 2018 – 30th Kislev 5779

  1. See Emor, Leviticus chapter 23 for the biblical festival calendar.

  2. The minor festivals include the New Year for Trees on Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1), Purim, which tells the story of a victory against anti-Semitism recounted in the biblical book of Esther, and Tishah B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and of the last Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. On Tishah B’Av, observances include the reading of the biblical book of Eichah, Lamentations, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

  3. The first description of the M’norah is at T’rumah, Exodus 25: 31-39. The lighting is prescribed at T’tzavveh, Exodus 27: 20-21.

  4. Chanukkah means ‘dedication’.

  5. See Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1980), pp. 178-183.

  6. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, the first of Baron of Acton, a Liberal peer in the second half of the 19th century, who was also an English Catholic historian, politician and writer.

  7. See Ta’anit 9, the ‘Scroll of Fasts’, a work of the ta’anim, the ‘teachers’, the generation of scholars whose teachings are recorded in the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, edited around 200 CE

  8. The passage from Zechariah is read after the weekly Torah reading as the haftarah, the ‘concluding’ scriptural reading, which like all haftarot (pl.) is taken from the second section of the TaNaKH, the Hebrew Bible, N’vi’im, ‘Prophets’. If Chanukkah begins on a Shabbat, then there are two Shabbatot in Chanukkah. The haftarah reading set aside for the second Shabbat is: First Kings 7:40-50.

  9. For example, see Joshua 1:14.

  10. Judges 16:6 ff.

  11. B’reishit, Genesis 1:2.

  12. ‘People Today and the Jewish Bible: From A Lecture Series’ by Martin Buber (November 1926) pp. 4-21 in Scripture and Translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, translated by Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Indiana University Press; Indianapolis,1994.

  13. B’reishit, Genesis 1:27

  14. Sanhedrin 4:5.


  16. See Seltzer, 1980, pp.155-158.