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September 30, 2014 / 6 Tishri, 5775
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Why Do We Celebrate Chanukah?

Megilas Taanis simply proclaims the 25th of Kislev a holiday and it is forbidden to mourn for 8 days. The text does not give a reason for the celebration.

Miniature from a manuscript Speculum Humanae Salvationis. Eleazar the Maccabee kills the Syrian elephant and is crushed.

Miniature from a manuscript Speculum Humanae Salvationis. Eleazar the Maccabee kills the Syrian elephant and is crushed.

It’s understandable that Orthodox Judaism is reluctant to endorse academic approaches to Torah. The basic assumptions of Orthodox Judaism are in direct opposition to the basic assumptions of academic research. We believe God gave the Torah. We believe the Oral Law is the interpretation of the written Torah and it is equally binding. Academics assume none of that. The entire purpose of academic research is to approach the texts with zero assumptions and arrive where the pure analysis leads. Often these two approaches will lead to opposite results and this is not acceptable in Orthodox Judaism. We can’t be undermining our own religion.

I think there is an exception to this policy. The exception is Chanukah. No one thinks Chanukah is Divine. No one thinks that God commanded us to celebrate Chanukah. Everyone knows that the holiday was instituted by the Maccabees and was subsequently established by Megilas Taanis and then by the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud as a holiday to be celebrated every year. So the worst thing that could happen if we follow the academic path is that we might find inconsistencies in the story or in the reasons for the rabbinic commandments of the holiday. But because we already assume it is not Divine, the potential harm from merging our traditional understanding with the academic view is minimal.

At most, we might discover that the version of the story according to the Talmud is not the only version of the story. What’s the harm in that? We are required to keep the holiday because of their power of Beis Din HaGadol, not because what they said is objectively factually true. If it turns out that they had one understanding of the story that is not corroborated by the historical evidence it wouldn’t make an ounce of a difference to us. We would still have to keep the holiday as commanded by the rabbis of the Talmud. If you disagree, stop reading.

With the preamble out of the way, I think it’s safe to dive right in.

The Chanukah story occurred between 167 BCE and 165 BCE. We have two apocryphal books describing the events of the Chanukah story. 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees were written within 50 years of the revolt. Megilas Taanis was written a century later, followed shortly thereafter by Josephus’s Antiquities. In all four of these texts we are told about the Chanukah story and the establishment of a yearly celebration.

In 1 Maccabees we are told that the celebration was for the restoration of the daily sacrifices in the Temple and the general rededication of the sanctuary. Hence the name Chanukah; a celebration of the dedication, as חנך means to dedicate. 2 Maccabees echoes the same sentiments and adds that the first Chanukah celebration was a reflection of the Sukkos celebration of 8 days that they had been unable to celebrate a few months earlier because of the war.

Megilas Taanis simply proclaims the 25th of Kislev a holiday and it is forbidden to mourn for 8 days. The text does not give a reason for the celebration. Josephus slightly editorializes the version of 1 Maccabees in his work. But he adds the first reference we find to the idea of lights being associated with the Holiday:

“Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, [...] they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.”

The Babylonian Talmud famously asks “What is Chanukah?” The response is the quote from Megilas Taanis followed by an unsourced version of the Chanukah story that is familiar to Orthodox Jews.

“…for when the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest, but there was in only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year [the Sages] fix those [days], making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21A, Translation from Sefaria.org)

This may or may not have also been the version of the story according to the scholia (commentary) of Megilas Taanis. The original scholia was likely written between the writing of Megilas Taanis and the Talmud. A hybrid of two fairly early versions of the scholia seems to have the same story. It’s quoted by the Ohr Zarua (1260) in this manner. However, the foremost expert on the scholium is convinced (and for good reason) that the original commentary on Megilas Taanis does not contain the same version as the Talmud. (See: Vered Noam) From what I have seen, it seems that this expert is correct.

So what we have is a very clear summary of the various explanations for the celebration of Chanukah. The most popular version is probably the Talmud’s explanation. Everyone “knows” that the small jug of oil was only supposed to last for one day and miraculously lasted for eight days. The popular English name for Chanukah is not “Dedication” rather it’s the Festival of Lights. Let’s assume the miracle occurred. It was not latched onto as a reason for celebration by the Maccabees. Nor was it a popular reason for the celebration at the time of Josephus. Although it’s safe to assume that candles were lit as part of the celebration of the holiday at the time of the Mishnah (and Josephus) as the Mishnah in Bava Kamma exempts someone from paying damages if a fire was started by outdoor Chanukah candles. Obviously, people lit candles and one was permitted to leave these lights outside the home on Chanukah. Further, as noted above, Josephus called the Chanukah the “Festival of Lights.” Still, there was no particular importance attached to this miracle until the rabbis of the Talmud.

I have a few thoughts on all this plus one thought that I choose to keep to myself for now.

First, 1 Maccabees follows the pattern of the Purim story. God is hidden throughout the story. There is no mention of God in the narrative. Heaven is used as a euphemism for God, but even then, God plays no active role. This is what we would expect from a story that took place after the Purim story. God’s name is omitted from Megilas Esther because God is hidden from them. Purim reinforces the concept of a hidden God pulling the strings from “afar” and arranging events to meet a specific end. It was always strange to me that Chanukah seems to revert to the pre-Purim sort of special event with an overt miracle. Further, what’s the point of this miracle? It was completely unnecessary and completely besides the point of the story. So it makes sense that a miracle would not be the focus of their narrative. The book was written like the Purim story with a focus on the man-made events with God’s tacit approval. Perhaps the sources up to the Talmud were following this pattern.

Second, there is a lot of speculation about why the laws of Chanukah were omitted from the Mishnah by R’ Yehuda HaNasi. Whatever the reason, it was omitted. R’ Yehuda HaNasi needed a “heter” to write down the Mishnah. His justification was that if it wouldn’t be written down, it would be forgotten. To me that means that whatever was not written down is subject to forgetfulness. Yes, there are those who try to say that the reason it was not written down was because it was so widely known, but I don’t think that fits. So it’s okay to assume that because it was not written down it might have been forgotten and the rabbis of the Talmud were using the lapse in memory to reinterpret the holiday for their own reasons. There are other examples of things being forgotten and reestablished in the Talmud. Of course, there is plenty of speculation on the reason the rabbis of the Talmud may have wanted to refocus the holiday on a God-made miracle as opposed to a Hasmonean military victory, and I have written some of my thoughts on that issue here: Chanukah 2012. But most importantly, it seems that just about everyone who celebrates Chanukah, including non-Orthodox Jews, go with the Talmudic version of the story. That’s no small victory for the rabbis of the Talmud.

Third, the rabbis may have been tapping into something else in the rabbinic tradition. That is, the Talmud in Avodah Zara expanding on an idea found in Pirkei d’Rabbi Elazar states that Adam lit candles on the 25th of Kislev as it coincided with the Winter Solstice. Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden in the fall and watched as the nights grew longer and longer each coming day. He feared that that the pattern would continue until the sun would be completely hidden from earth. On the Winter Solstice he discovered that he was mistaken and the light would return so he lit candles. Lighting candles seems to be something so basic to this time of year that it makes sense that it would have become the focus of the Chanukah celebration. Even the biggest non-Jewish holiday of the year takes place this time of year and would seem to have nothing to do with lights. Yet, trees are lit up across the world. Lights are inescapable this time of year and it seems that the rabbis of the Talmud leveraged this for the benefit of Chanukah.

Regardless of the pre-Talmudic reasons given for the holiday, Orthodox Jews make the blessings on the candles because the rabbis of the Talmud had the authority to establish this holiday based on Megilas Taanis. Nothing that has been discussed here jeopardizes anything of significance. And so, we get to enjoy the academic study of the origins of Chanukah risk free.

When we light our candles this year we will be connecting ourselves to a chain of generations who lit candles, sometimes under extreme duress, to celebrate Chanukah. Let us hope that the fire of the Chanukah candles inspires us to light up the night of our exile and vanquish the negative forces in our personal temples of spirituality as they were vanquished from our public Temple 2200 years ago.

Visit Fink or Swim.

About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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