Photo Credit: Maggid Books
Rabbi Binyamin Lau

In the literature of the period, the story of Chanukah appears in a number of versions, foremost among them in the books of Maccabees. These books, part of the Apocrypha, were written by various authors in different places.

The two most important works regarding the establishment of Chanukah are I and II Maccabees. The first book of Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, and provides a comprehensive description of the period from the edicts of Antiochus (167 BCE) until the murder of Shimon (134 BCE). The book emphasizes the military history of the Maccabees, and is written in a spirit of deep identification with the rebellion and its leaders. This is Israel’s version of the Maccabees’ rebellion.


Second Maccabees was written in exile by Jason of Cyrene, and its primary focus is on the religious situation of the nation during the Maccabean revolt. It was written in order to bolster the observance of the festival of the Day of Nicanor on the thirteenth of Adar. In terms of dating, it is contemporaneous with Maccabees.

The nature of Chanukah differs in the two books, each version reflecting its author and his culture:

First Maccabees (chapter 4) describes how Judah Maccabee and his followers conquered Jerusalem after their victory in the battle of Beit Tzur and renewed the Temple ritual. Thee celebrations of the reestablishment of the Temple ritual and of the purification of the Temple lasted eight days. Upon the completion of the celebrations, it was decided they would be celebrated annually.

The same description appears in II Maccabees, except the latter places the celebration in the context of Sukkot, the celebration of which had been cancelled during Judah’s battles. The eight days of Sukkot were celebrated on the day they triumphed over their enemies, the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The festival was thus referred to as “Sukkot in the month of Kislev” on which staffs were decorated with sprigs and dates (II Maccabees 10).

Josephus mentions Chanukah in Antiquities XII, 325 , where he refers to it as the “Festival of Lights.” He does not mention the lighting of candles or anything similar. He explains the name of the festival in the context of the right granted to the Jews to return to the Temple in order to worship God without disturbance.

Megillat Ta’anit is a work that was regarded as part of the Oral Law of the Second Temple period, although for the main part it was not preserved. The megillah enumerates the dates on which fasting and eulogizing were forbidden, including the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The commentary on the megillah, or scholia, mentions the miracle of the cruse of oil, but it is considered to be a later source and has no bearing on the antiquity of this tradition.

As is well known, there is no tractate on Chanukah in the Mishnah, and it only merits sparse attention in tannaitic literature. A tannaitic reference to Chanukah appears in Tractate Nezikin, where the Mishnah deals with the issue of the liability of a person who lights a fire, the flames of which burn outside his premises. A camel carrying flax passes by and the flax catches fire. Who is liable? The Mishnah states that if the incident happened on Chanukah the owner of the camel would be liable, because he ought to have known that there would be burning lights.

From this brief reference we can deduce that at this time there was indeed a festival of Chanukah and that its celebration was a normative part of Jewish practice. Indeed, the Mishnah recognizes and justifies this, although it does not explain what the festival was. It omits all mention of the Hasmonean Wars or of the warriors’ valor, nor is there any reference to political independence.

There is a view that this was part of an attempt to conceal the miracle of the Hasmonean rebellion, or even a conscious attempt to suppress the record altogether. In this context, the claim is made that during the period of the Mishnah’s compilation, after the Bar Kochba revolt, there was an attempt to pacify the Roman Empire. They were effectively saying: “We are not a rebellious nation. We do not seek political freedom. We despise wars.” A rebellion? Us? Perish the thought!

The Babylonian Talmud, however, does refer to Chanukah. The Talmud asks: What is [the reason for] Chanukah? Why do we light eight candles? The Talmud answers: because of the miracle of the cruse of oil. It is in the Babylonian Talmud, in the profound darkness of the Babylonian exile, that the story of the vial of oil begins to flicker: “a small jug, for eight days it gave its oil.” This is the most familiar of the festival’s stories: the story about a cruse of pure oil that was supposed to last for only one day but which, in the absence of any other oil, provided a miracle for the Hasmoneans and burned for eight days.

Why an eight-day festival? Because the Menorah remained lit for eight days. And so a new miracle story emerged, one that posed no threat to any empire, and that allowed us to remember and perpetuate the memory of Chanukah without any disturbance. It became a festival bearing the deep imprint of the exile, lacking any suggestion of political independence.

* * * * *

It was only in modern times, with the return to the land of Israel by the Zionist movement, that the story of the Hasmoneans once again became part of the national awareness. The religious world continued to cultivate the story of the miracle, whereas the Zionist world cultivated the earthly valor, that of the warriors and the rebels.

The underlying conflict reflects a more profound dispute over the focus of attention: Who deserves the credit? God or the Maccabees? Should the emphasis be on the military victory or the miracle of the oil? The roots of this dispute already appear in the conflicting accounts appearing in Maccabees I and II. In I Maccabees there is almost no mention of God’s name; all of the wonders are attributed to Judah and his comrades. II Maccabees, on the other hand, is totally indifferent to the issue of the battles and acts of bravery.

In fact, the implications of this discussion are even more fundamental. During hundreds of years of exile, Jews were incapable of putting their military valor to the test; the right to rise up and fight was denied them in their Diasporic existence. On the other hand, the courage locked in their hearts was inviolable: this was the courage required to hold fast and continue seeing the divine image reflected in man in every time and place. Throughout the generations, the Jewish people encountered endless enslavements and harsh decrees, but interspersed among the unending stories of horror we find remarkable accounts of the bravery and valor of Jews who fought to preserve their divine image.

Since these times of darkness, with their tales of grandeur and bravery, we have been privileged to return to the land of Israel to establish the home of the Jewish people. We have now been granted the possibility of defending ourselves with courage of a physical and not purely spiritual kind. Some of the ideologues of the Zionist movement attempted to emulate the models of bravery found in the cultures of other nations, constructing a paradigm of the new Jew, who is powerful, aggressive, muscular, and afraid of nothing. At times it was the kibbutz movement that promoted the image of the muscular farmer. At others, it was the military, which we likened to King David’s soldiers attacking Goliath.

The Jewish calendar likewise underwent a change, adopting the trappings of the Israeli fighter-hero. Instead of the miracle of the cruse of oil, Chanukah became the festival of the warrior Maccabees. The education system stressed the bravery of the people, without reliance upon divine intervention or heavenly miracles. The Lag B’Omer bonfire underwent a similar transformation. The bonfire at which the mystical secrets of Bar Yochai were revered became the assembly point at which the fighters of Bar Kochba prepared their revolt.

The new Israeli attempted to shake off the stigma of the exilic Jew, and in its place forged the image of the warrior-like Israeli. At the same time, however, Israeli society was also undergoing significant changes. With the emergence of a generation that had not personally experienced the War of Independence, the debate that divided the entire nation was whether warfare is a sign of bravery or stupidity. Is there such a thing as a just war? What, if anything, is worth dying for?

Today, from the perspective of nearly seventy years of statehood, we know there are different types of bravery.

There is bravery that relies on the “cruse of oil” tradition – the tradition of that ancient, stubborn Judaism that continues to light candles year after year, indifferent to the exigencies of time. Even in the deepest darkness the Jew can find the small jug of oil. This is the power of survival.

There is also bravery that draws on the Hasmonean tradition of fighting and the celebration of independence. This is the bravery of those who refuse to be subject to the kindness of others, and who are willing to give their lives in order to be sovereign in their land. This is an active bravery, driven by the sense of an earthly mission.

None of these levels is dispensable. Chanukah is a multifaceted festival and we aspire to reveal its many faces so that they may shed their radiance on the nation returning to its land and to its independence. But even in this independence, the small cruse of oil must still be found, to enable the nation to continue its national destiny in light and goodness.


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Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau is an Israeli community leader, educator, and author. He is the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem and founder of the Moshe Green Beit Midrash for Women’s Leadership at Beit Morasha’s Beren College. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati, and received a Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet” and the Sages series (Maggid Books).