Chanukkah, oh Chanukkah, Come Light the Menorah

The historical festival of Chanukkah commemorates the victory of a small band of Jewish guerilla warriors against the superior army of the Seleucid Greeks in 165 BCE. Its name is derived from the Hebrew word for “dedication” and refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was sacked and defiled during that war.

Historical Background


The only contemporaneous accounts of this war are found in the apocryphal books of Maccabees I and II. The works themselves were penned by different authors, and with decidedly divergent agendas and themes.

Contemporary scholars of that period maintain that Maccabees I was most likely written by a historian in the service of the Hasmoneans, the Maccabean dynasty that ruled Judea following the successful revolt against Syria. The narrative of Maccabees I underscores the military prowess of Judah and his army, attributing their success to human rather than divine agency.

Source #1: Maccabees I: 3:3-9 says of Judah:

He extended the glory of his people.
like a giant he put on his breastplate;
he girded on his armor of war and
wages battles, protecting the host by his sword.
He was like a lion in his deeds,
like a lion’s cub roaring for prey.
He searched out and pursued the lawless;
he burned those who troubled his people.
Lawless men shrank back for fear
all the evildoers were confounded;
and deliverance prospered by his hand
He embittered many kings,
but he made Jacob glad by his deed,
and his memory is blessed forever.
He went through the cities of Judah;
he destroyed the ungodly out of the land;
thus he turned away wrath from Israel.
He was renowned to the ends of the earth;
he gathered in those who were perishing.

In this account, Judah is celebrated as the hero and victor. The language is reminiscent of biblical language, often used about god the warrior, and sometimes even other biblical heroes who were infused with the “spirit of the LORD”.

Source #2: Maccabees II is an abridgement of a later work of Jason of Cyrene who lived in the diaspora. It employs a mixture of Hellenistic and biblical literary style, is dramatic in tone and clearly attributes the Maccabean victory to God.

At the end of Maccabees II: 15-21ff. we read the following:

Maccabeus, perceiving the hosts that were before him and the varied supply of arms and the savagery of the elephants, stretched out his hands toward heaven and called upon the LORD who works wonders; for he knew that it is not by arms, but as the LORD decides, that he gains the victory for those who deserve it. And he called upon him in these words: “O LORD, you did send your angel in the time of Hezekiah king of Judea, and he slew fully a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the came of Sennacherib. So now, O Sovereign of the heaves, send a good angel to carry terror and trembling before us. By the might of Your arm may these blasphemers who come against your holy people be struck down.”

In this prayer at the end of Maccabees II, Judah acknowledges that their victory is the result of Divine intervention and salvation. How remarkably different is this account from that in Maccabees I where there is scant reference to God.

Source #3: Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, basing his account of Hanukkah on Maccabees I, does not even mention the term hanukkah. In his work, Jewish Antiquities 12:323-325, Josephus writes:

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained 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 Miraculous Oil: Whither Thou Goest?

In all of the contemporaneous accounts, Maccabees I and II and [later] Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, when describing the rededication of the Temple, there is no mention of the miraculous one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days.

A more prosaic and historically defensible explanation is that the eight-day rededication was intended to hark back to the dedication of the first temple by King Solomon that also lasted eight days. To the Maccabees who thrived on symbolic acts, this was a return to Davidic dynastic power.

In fact, the kindling of Chanukkah lights does not appear in any Jewish sources until the later rabbinic era, most often discussed within the context of Shabbat candles. Rather, what is emphasized in these stories is the miraculous, not the militaristic character of Chanukkah. Living under Roman rule, the Rabbis were not eager to call attention to Jewish rebellion.

One such source, BT Shabbat 21b, relates:

Rava inquired: Where the choice is between kindling a Chanukkah light and sanctification of the Sabbath day by blessing the wine, what is the law? Is sanctification of the Sabbath day preferable since it is a frequent obligation (whereas kindling the Hanukkah lights is only an annual event) Or perhaps kindling the Chanukkah light is preferable since its purpose is publicizing the miracle that God wrought for the Jewish people? After Rava asked this question, he himself resolved it: Kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable, since its purpose is publicizing the miracle.

Thus for the Rabbis the miracle of the oil was the spiritual goal of the Chanukkah ritual and the story that has prevailed to this day.

We continue to cling to the story of the miraculous little cruse of oil because it is majestically romantic and affirms God’s continued presence in Jewish history.

But with the rise of Jewish nationalism in the late nineteenth century, many Jews began to view this narrative as a reflection of Jewish passivity that perpetuated Jewish homelessness. Embracing the earlier military tenor of the Chanukkah story, one devoid of miracles and divine intervention, early Zionists looked to the Jewish warriors of Maccabees I who took matters into their own hands, and set in motion their own redemption.