Mah Chanukkah? What is Chanukkah? Jews love asking questions – and usually respond to one question with another one… Significantly, the rabbinic explanation of the Festival set out in the Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Shabbat (21b), begins: Mah Chanukkah? What is Chanukkah? We read:

Mah Chanukkah? What is [the reason for] Chanukkah? For our rabbis taught: on the 25th of Kislev [commence] the days of Chanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation of the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, 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 therein and they lit [the M’norah] with it for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with the [recital of] Hallel and Thanksgiving.

The Babylonian Talmud was edited around the year 500 CE – that is, 664 years after the events described in the Chanukkah story, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the Amoraim, the rabbinic generation that compiled the Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah (the first code of Jewish law,edited around 200 CE), should enquire about the reason for Chanukkah. Of course, most of us know this story – and no one needs to read the Talmud to be acquainted with the miracle of the one day’s supply of oil that lasted for eight days. The trouble is we are so familiar with this tale, that we assume that it emerged directly from the events in 164 BCE, when the Maccabees re-captured the Temple from the Assyrian Greeks. And yet, if we turn to the pages of the First Book of Maccabees, written in the latter part of the 2nd century BCE, just a couple of decades later – a text that was excluded by the rabbis from the biblical canon – we find that there is no mention of the miracle…

The passage in the Talmud begins its explanation with the words, ‘For our rabbis taught…’ So, what did the first rabbis teach? The Mishnah mentions ‘Chanukkah’ in its list of festivals, but says nothing more about it (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:3). M’gillat Ta’anit, ‘The Scroll of Fasting’, an earlier rabbinic text, outlining all the fast days, which is dated between 40 and 70CE – that is, to the last three decades before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans,[1] says simply, ‘On the 25th of Kislev is the day of Chanukkah. For eight days mourning is forbidden’. The commentary on this text, dated to the 7th century, adds the Talmudic account of the miracle. So, if the first rabbis taught about a miracle, there is no written evidence of this teaching. And even if they did speak about it, their deliberations took place more than 200 years after the victory of the Maccabees.

The miracle story was a Talmudic invention. It’s time to turn to the First Book of Maccabees. If the oldest account of Chanukkah doesn’t mention a miracle, what does it say about the festival? In chapter 4 we find that the army of Judah and his brothers went up to Mount Zion, where they found the sanctuary desolated and the altar profaned. Judah then selected priests, who purified the sanctuary and removed the stones that had been defiled. They then went about building a new altar of un-hewn stones, and rebuilding the entire sanctuary, with all its holy vessels. They then burned incense on the altar and lit the lights on the M’norah. They put loaves of bread on the table, hung up the curtains, and completed all the work that they had undertaken. Finally, they proclaimed a new Festival. We read (I: 4: 59):

Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept with gladness and joy at their due season, year after year, for eight days from the 25th of the month of Kislev.

So: an eight day festival – but, for what reason? We read in the Second Book of Maccabees, which was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, some years later around 124 BCE – that is, 50 years after the events described (II: 10: 6):

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.

If there was such a straightforward explanation for Chanukkah being instituted as an eight-day festival, why did the rabbis come up with a new reason – a miracle tale? And: why did they decide, not to include the Books of the Maccabees – which provided the most immediate account of Chanukkah – in the canon of the Bible? A clue to answering these questions lies in the reference to the ‘Hasmonean dynasty’ in the passage from the Talmud. As it happens, the war against Assyrian Greek domination continued until the year 140, when, finally, an independent Jewish state was established. With this development, the Hasmonean family ceased to be freedom fighters prowling around the hills engaged in a guerrilla campaign, and became the rulers. A priestly family, they also assumed the reins of political power and before too long their power got the better of them and they became corrupt. By the time the rabbis were teaching, the radiant glow of the glorious Maccabees had long since dimmed – hence the need to nurture a a very different kind of radiance: a spiritual glow furnished by a miracle. The Haftarah (the reading from the books of the prophets) for Shabbat Chanukkah, selected by the rabbis, says it all – we read in Zechariah, chapter 4 (:6)

Lo v’chayyil, v’lo v’cho’ach, ki im b’ruchi, amar Adonai z’va’ot.

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Eternal God of hosts.

The rabbis did not ignore the Maccabees – rather they marginalised them and put the spirit of God centre-stage. Interestingly, the rabbis adopted a similar strategy in relation to the Exodus story. The Torah narrative describes the important role played by the Israelites and their leaders, Miriam, Moses and Aaron in the Exodus. Indeed, the Torah account makes it clear that if the slaves themselves, had not participated in their own liberation, by daubing blood on the door-posts and lintels of their homes, they would have succumbed to the final plague of death, along with the Egyptians (Ex. 12:12-13; 21-28). And yet, when we turn to the Haggadah, the rabbinic text we use during the Seder to tell the story of the Exodus, the first version of which appears in the Mishnah, we find that the only character that gets a mention is God.

So, what do we make of the two utterly different explanations of the eight day festival of Chanukkah? I suppose the rationalists among us are happy to embrace the down-to-earth account given in the Books of the Maccabees, while the more mystically and spiritually inclined, might prefer to hang onto the miracle story. I would suggest that it is not a matter of either/or – a choice between the historical record, on the one hand, and a spiritual reinvention, on the other. We are heirs to a rich and complex inheritance that includes both accounts of Chanukkah. Rather than choose one or another, I suggest we ask our own questions – beginning with this one: what are we celebrating, when we celebrate Chanukkah? I would imagine that there are several answers to this question – and at least two of these answers are equally important: we are celebrating a blood and guts victory over persecution and tyranny and we are celebrating the triumph of the spirit. Just think again about the Exodus story. On the level of realpolitik, Pharaoh, like so many dictators throughout history, did not let the people go without a fight, and ultimately was overwhelmed by the violence unleashed against Egypt. But the Exodus cannot simply be reduced to a power struggle between God and Pharaoh. When Moses first returned after his meeting with God achar ha-midbar – ‘behind the wilderness’ (Exodus 3:1) – the Torah tells us that the slaves would not listen to him mikotzeir ru’ach u’mei’avodah kashah – ‘because their spirits were crushed by hard bondage’ (Ex. 6:9). And yet, these same slaves later found the ru’ach – the ‘spirit’ – to mark out their house for life, to stand during the night of vigil, loins girded, staff in hand ready for deliverance, and to take flight before their dough had time to rise (Ex. 12:11;34).

The power of Chanukkah, the power of Pesach, lies in the way in which both festivals combine the material with the spiritual – and continue to speak to us through this powerful combination, in our own time. If for the early rabbis, the emphasis on miracles was principally about giving the Eternal One a starring role in the liberation of the people, for us looking back at these foundational narratives from the vantage point of the post-Sho’ah Jewish world, the miracle we experience is the combined spiritual and material revival of the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the diaspora. To be honest, I’m not a great one for miracles, and so, even as a child, I did not believe that one day’s supply of oil miraculously lasted for eight – and I didn’t believe in Father Christmas, either. But when I gaze at the accumulating flames on the Chanukkiyyah each year, I am reminded of the miracle of Jewish survival and of our miraculous human capacity – a capacity that is shared by all peoples, who have been oppressed and persecuted – to overcome tyranny. May the Festival of Chanukkah continue to have the power to inspire us to summon up all our powers, material and spiritual, to the challenge of increasing the light of freedom and justice throughout the world. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

                                                                                               30th November 2013/ 27th Kislev 5774


[1] Megillat Taanit – ‘The Scroll of Fasting’ – Vered Noam