Rabbi’s Essays

Darkness & Light

The story of the origin of Hanukkah is almost as familiar to average Americans as the story of the origin of Christmas. We all know about the single cruise of oil that was supposed to last only one day in the process of dedicating the Temple after the Maccabees’ victory over the wicked Syrians. The oil miraculously lasted eight days, and-voila!-the holiday of Hanukkah. The story is, as you might guess, a story. The First Book of Maccabees, a chronicle of the revolt, describes the re-dedication in this fashion:

Then Judah and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been defeated, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and dedicate it.” So they marshaled the whole army, and went up to Mount Zion. (The text then tells of the devastation they found and details the work they did in cleaning, rebuilding and purifying the holy objects.) On the 25th of the ninth month, Kislev, in the year 148 (dating from the conquest of Alexander the Great), they rose at dawn and offered a lawful sacrifice on the new altar which they had made. The altar was dedicated, to the sound of zithers, harps and cymbals, at the same time of year and on the same day on which the pagans had originally profaned it.For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering sacrifices.Judah with his brothers and the whole assembly of Israel, made it a law that the days of the dedication should be celebrated yearly at the proper season, for eight days beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, with rejoicing and gladness. (I Macc. 4)

This is it. No cruise of oil, no miracle is described. We need not stop here. The account suggests that the date of 25 Kislev was picked because it undid the profaning of the Temple that occurred exactly three years earlier. It does not, however, give any reason for an eight-day celebration. There is another account, a Second Book of Maccabees. Unlike I and II Samuels, or I and II Kings, which are a historical narrative and its sequel or continuation, these two books are simply different versions of the same event. Scholars believe that I and II Maccabees were probably written around the same time. The Second Book gives a briefer description of the purification and dedication of the Temple. It adds, however, this sentence: “They kept eight festive days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), remembering how, not long before at the time of the feast of Tabernacles, they had been living in the mountains and caverns like wild beasts.”

The book goes on to say that they performed the dedication in a fashion similar to a Sukkot celebration, and determined to continue to observe the festival each year. Thus, Hanukkah began as a second Sukkot. There is still no mention of oil or miracles. Where, then, did the legend come from? It is recorded in a relatively obscure text called Megillat Ta’anit [The Scroll of Fasts]. The story is then repeated in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 21a). The Mishna makes only a few references to Hanukkah, with no mention of either Maccabees or miracles. Megillat Ta’anit, a discussion of a number of occasions during the year in which fasting is prohibited, was written in the early part of the second century, C.E. The segment in the Talmud was probably recorded a century or two later. The Maccabean re-dedication of the Temple took place in 165 or 164 B.C.E., and the two Books of the Maccabees were written 50 or 60 years later. The story of the cruise of oil is unknown or ignored by the authors of the Books of the the Maccabees; the circumstances of the re-dedication of the Temple and its putative relationship to Sukkot is unknown or ignored by the Talmudic Sages. What we seem to have is a historic event that has created a mythical celebration.

Confusion upon Confusion

How did history become legend? First, we must note that the ancient rabbis were only vaguely aware of the history in the first place. The Books of the Maccabees were not sacred literature. (They are included in the Catholic canon of the Bible, but that is another story.) As a result, they would have remained outside the interest and purview of the Sages. Indeed, the original Hebrew or Aramaic version of the Books have been completely lost, and they were preserved in their Greek translation. The first century Jewish historian Josephus might have known the Books, and incorporated them into his Antiquities of the Jews. This work was written in Latin, and would also have been ignored by the rabbis.

Why would the history be ignored. The Sages were aware of numerous military victories and defeats on the part of the Jews. The victories were good, the defeats sad, but in the broader scheme of things, few of them were particularly significant. Those few-the exodus from Egypt, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, and the defeat of Haman-represented a significant expression of God’s will for both Israel and the redemption of humankind. (The last one, the story of Esther, was quite controversial among the rabbis, and only barely rose to have any religious status.) The Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians would have been appreciated by the rabbis, but worthy of no more consideration than the victory of Joshua over the Canaanites.

Hanukkah, despite the lack of rabbinic interest, was an annual holiday, and was observed by the early synagogue. The Mishna records that the normal reading of the Torah was to interrupted during the days of the observance. From this information we can imagine this plausible scenario: The Temple was dedicated and Judah Maccabee proclaimed an annual eight-day festival. For the next number of years, Jews-particularly veterans of the war-would celebrate a dedication holiday (a Hanukkah) in some festive manner. With a revived Temple, however, the holiday of Sukkot was also revived. This was the major celebration at the Temple. The observance of Hanukkah about two months later would become circumscribed and formalized. As long as the Hasmoneans (the royal house established by the Maccabee brothers) remained on the throne, Hanukkah in some form was certain to be retained.

In 66 B.C.E., the Roman general Pompey entered Jerusalem and essentially put an end to an independent Jewish State. By then, however, the holiday had become routine. The Pharisees, in creating a synagogue service, saw to it that

Hanukkah would be acknowledged, if very little else. This scenario (and the Mishna) leaves out any lighting of lights. The brief discussion in the Talmud, however, begins precisely with this practice. It suggests that lamp lighting (candles are a much later development) goes back at least to the days of Hillel and Shammai, the beginning of the Christian Era. So, displaying lights on Hanukkah is an old custom, but one that is apparently an alternative stream of history.

The Talmudic Sages briefly discuss the procedure for lighting the lights, and then ask an intriguingly ambiguous question: “What is Hanukkah?” Are they asking, ‘what is the meaning of the word,’ or ‘what is the purpose of the holiday?’ The answer given is the citation from Megillat Ta’anit about the miracle of the oil, but this does not seem to answer either version of the question. The story explains why a certain practice is done, not what the holiday is.

The discussion in the Talmud leaves us with the distinct impression that the Sages were virtually at a loss to explain what was going on? Here was an annual celebration being observed for no Jewishly compelling reason, and by a thoroughly mysterious ceremony that had no direct relationship with Dedication. (Thus, with an air of desperation, rabbis tried to suggest that ‘Hanukkah’ actually meant “they [the Maccabees] encamped on the 25th [hanu kaf heh],” or “8 [het] lights on the 25th.”)

Distinguishing Fact from Feeling

Let us ask a simple question: where did the lighting of lights on Hanukkah come from? They did not seem to be proclaimed or prescribed, either by the Maccabees or the rabbis. They are derived exegetically from any text in Torah. (The blessing over the lights, containing the expression “Blessed is God, Who commands us,” is however an exegetical interpretation.) We might therefore assume that it is a folk custom. It is something the people just did. But why did they do it? Perhaps it is just as the Talmud says. There was a miraculous cruise of oil that lasted eight days. I think it is more likely that the story of the oil is an explanation for practice that was already occurring. We need to look elsewhere for an answer.

We need not look far. The world is filled with folk customs that involve lighting lights. Most prevalent among them is a solstice ceremony. In the Northern Hemisphere, the November and December days are shorter and shorter as the sun rises each day to a lower point in the sky. We know now that this is a result of a combination of the earth’s tilt and its revolution around the sun. From a more primitive standpoint, it appears each year as if the world is slowly running out of steam; that the days will continue to get shorter until the sun no longer rises at all, and we are plunged into eternal darkness. I have used the term ‘primitive,’ but I do not employ it in a historical fashion. Rather, I want to refer to human feelings unchecked by intellect or knowledge. Most of us get discouraged by the brevity of light and the lengthening nights. In our weaker moments, we might actually think that all is going to go permanently black. In this ‘primitive’ state, we have to principal ways of dealing with our depression. We can either grit our way through it, and then celebrate as the days begin to lengthen once again and the darkness withdraws. Or we can confront the encroaching darkness with light of our own.

Either way has its own value, and I have no interest in promoting one over the other. Both approaches represent a triumph of light over dark, and both, in the ancient world, were celebrated precisely with the lighting of lights. So Jews lit lights at the darkest time of the year. How and when they came upon this practice is lost in the mists of history. It might very have been quite ancient, even something practiced during biblical times, but not in an organized or ritual fashion. It might very have been discouraged by religious leadership as being pagan, idolatrous, or at very least questioning of God’s creative will. The incident of the rededication of the Temple on the winter date of the 25th of Kislev in 165/4 B.C.E., opportunistically provided a framework for turning a practice into a ceremony, and the rabbis, equally opportunistic, gave the ceremony authentic Jewish religious authority.

We readily see the same dynamic at work in the Christian world, as the event of the birth of Jesus (which many biblical scholars suggest must have taken place in the spring) is set in the Church Calendar to coincide with a pagan solstice celebration of light, thus turning the light of the lengthening days into the light of the ‘son of God.’

In God’s Light Do We See Light

If my reading of the sources is correct, then Hanukkah (and Christmas!) was created by the co-opting of a celebration that the people were already doing. I think we can agree that this was politically astute; the old adage regarding leadership is being able to figure out which way the parade is going and then running to take one’s position up front. The rabbis (and the promoters of the early Christian church) saw what the people were doing and turned it into an occasion for the praise of God’s grace and goodness.

Did these leaders of our tradition transform a pagan act into a Jewish one? Or rather, did they see the will of God in the activities of the people and thus translate it into a Jewish idiom? I prefer to believe it was the latter. Throughout rabbinic literature, the heroes of the Book of Genesis are depicted as being scrupulous in their adherence to the laws of Torah. The assertion is plainly anachronistic as those laws were given to the people at Sinai many years later. Why would the rabbis have Abraham, Rebecca, Joseph and others follow commandments revealed well after their death? One reason might be that they recognized that God’s will was not revealed solely at a single place and at a single point of time; that it was revealed, at least in part, in the very majesty of nature. It was written in the stars.

When we celebrate the triumph of faith over power-the story of the Maccabees-by lighting lights in order to dispel the darkness, we are responding to an ancient and powerful urge. It precedes the Hanukkah story, precedes Torah and the people Israel themselves. It responds to God’s creative will, and makes us one with all of humanity who prefer to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness.

May this Hanukkah be one of light and peace, of happiness and fulfillment.