The Real Story of Chanukah
Tell the story, some of it or all of it. Ask questions, create light, eat, drink, and give the gift of hachnasat orchim, welcoming others. Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom!
Festivus of Lights
It is no coincidence that Chanukah (or chag urim, the “festival of lights”) falls every year on or near the winter solstice. Most ancient near eastern faiths embedded within their religious calendars a practice to create warmth and light at the darkest time of the year. While the famous story of Chanukah, recounted below for your Shabbat dinner table telling, teaches that nes gadol haya sham, “a great miracle happened there,” most scholars of classical antiquity remind us that Judean monotheism did not develop in a vacuum, and was no doubt influenced by the many pagan solstice traditions practiced by neighboring cultures.
Historical Context in Three Sentences
The breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire following his death did not slow the pace of Hellenization in the lands he conquered, including Judea. Among the Jewish people at the time, many welcomed the art, culture, and philosophy that accompanied Alexander’s rule, but forced assimilation isn’t really anyone’s jam. By the time we get to Antiochus Epiphanes (c. 214-164 BCE) things have gotten pretty rough for the Jews, who have been forbidden to study Torah openly or offer the sacrifices that form the basis of Temple-centric worship.
Mattathias, a cohen (or priest who served in the Temple in Jerusalem) was having none of it. He was a pretty intense dude, someone we might today call a fundamentalist. In the book of Maccabees II (part of the apocrypha, the stories that didn’t quite make it into the Torah) we learn that Mattathias not only refused to make an offering to the Greek gods when commanded to do so, he killed the Jew who did. Oh, and then he killed the Greek official who issued the command. Wild.
So we’re in a bit of a tricky spot now, looking back, deciding if Mattathias was a good guy or not. (Just so you know, Mattathias is the Hellenized form of the Hebrew name Matisyahu.) On the one hand, his revolt led to another 100 years or so of Judaism as they knew it, on the other hand, Judaism as they knew it doesn’t bear a tremendous resemblance to Judaism as we know it. Ultimately, the Temple was destroyed (by the Romans in the year 70 CE) and we had to figure out how to be Jewish without Temple-centric worship. Prayer replaced sacrifices, rabbis replaced priests, and the interpretive faith we practice today was born.
Ready to Rumble
But at the time Matthias was all like, “Let everyone who has zeal for the law and who stands by the covenant follow me!” (Maccabees 2:27) and he and his sons headed to the hills, where they became known as the Maccabees, or “hammers” in Hebrew, because of their brutally efficient guerilla warfare against Antiochus’ forces. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, you know it’s basically hills surrounded by hills and a whole lotta caves, so if you know the terrain you can launch a pretty impressive offensive even if you’re seriously outnumbered. Mattathias died, but the Maccabees, led by his son Judah, triumph and reclaim Jerusalem and the Temple for the Jewish people.
About that Oil
Upon returning to Jerusalem, we find that the whole place is literally a dumpster fire. The people do their best to clean up as quickly as possible so they can resume the practice of sacrificial worship, which was on hiatus when they couldn’t access the Temple. The Temple is holy because it’s the place where we encounter the presence of God on earth, i.e. God’s house. Like any house it is well lit, in this case by a menorah, or lampstand, with six branches and a seventh used to light the others. But the menorah can only be lit with oil that has been purified particularly for this sacred purpose. (It’s all about intention, folks.)
During the cleanup, some sanctified oil was found, but only enough to light the menorah for one day. Unfortunately the process of purifying oil takes seven days, which means the people would have to wait another week to resume their practice of Judaism. Yet, as you might have heard, the oil miraculously burned a second day and then a third, and continued to burn for a total of eight days, enough time to prepare more oil. The Jewish people were free to worship without interruption upon that first day of chanukat ha’bayit, or dedication of the Temple. And there you have it… Chanukah: Hebrew for dedication.
Sevens and Eights
Why is Chanukah celebrated for eight days? Well, there’s the eight days of oil burning. But wait a sec, there was enough oil for one day, so… really the miracle is seven days. There’s no right answer here, and our sages have a lot of beautiful ideas to account for that “extra miracle,” including the Maccabees’ military victory, finding the oil at all, and the fact that it is miraculous that we, every single year for two thousand years, choose to celebrate this story. What do you think? What’s your “extra miracle” this year?
Practically speaking, we know that the people rushed to dedicate the Temple to resume the practice of Judaism, and “catch up” so to speak, on the Jewish calendar, which had been put on pause when Antiochus trashed the Temple. The next holiday up was Sukkot, a harvest festival celebrated for eight days, normally in the fall. Many scholars believe that the practice of celebrating Chanukah for eight days began in memory of that first (and only) eight-day winter Sukkot.