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The Historical Roots of Chanukkah: Miraculous or Militaristic?

The story of the miraculous cruse of oil that burned for eight days – hence the reason for the eight day festival of Chanukkah – is one that endures, ensconced in a cloak of Divine miraculousness. This captivating story, however, is a late addition to our understanding about the historical roots of this holiday.

Chanukkah (meaning dedication), known also as the Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of the small Judean army led by Judah Maccabee over the far superior army of the Seleucid Greeks under the command of Antiochus Epiphanes (mid-second century BCE). At the conclusion of the war, when Jewish patriots reclaimed the Temple and the surrounding precincts of Jerusalem, they purified the desecrated Temple and rededicated it in an eight day festival. The contemporary accounts of these events are found in the Apocryphal books of Maccabees I and II (written in the late second century BCE by two different authors). Josephus (Jewish Antiquities), writing a century later, presumably bases his account on earlier ones.

In the following descriptions of that first observance on the 25th of Kislev, there is no mention of a miraculous cruse of oil. Rather, the dedication is prescribed for eight days, with no stated reason for that duration, but presumably modeled after the eight day dedication of the first Temple by King Solomon.

First Maccabees: 4:52ff.

(52) Early in the morning on the twenty fifth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev in the year 148 [BCE] they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. …So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise…. (59) then Judah and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty fifth day of Kislev.

2 Maccabees: 1:18

Since on the twenty fifth day of Kislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who build the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.

Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xii. 7, § 7, #323

Now Judah 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 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.

So where does the story originate? It first appears centuries later in an aggadic account in the Babylonian Talmud. During a discourse on Shabbat candles, the Rabbis discuss lighting Chanukkah candles as well. At the conclusion of that discussion they ask:

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b
What is the reason for Chanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving.

This story reflects an important shift in how Jews will remember and celebrate Chanukkah. The Rabbis, writing centuries after two disastrous Jewish uprisings against Rome, determined that Chanukkah should be observed as the result of Divine miracle rather than human military prowess. The Maccabean victory was thus principally attributed to God’s hand in vanquishing an evil imperialist power that was attempting to lead Torah true Israel astray. The rabbis’ re-interpretation of those historic events was soon codified in the siddur with the ‘al haNissim addition to the Amidah:

We thank You for the heroism, for the triumphs, and for the miraculous deliverance of our ancestors in other days, and in our time.

In the days of Mattathias son of Yochanan, the Hasmonean kohen gadol, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot. You, in great mercy, stood by Your people in time of trouble. You defended them, vindicated them, and avenged their wrongs. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of the pure in heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You delivered the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Your Torah. You have wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day, revealing Your glory and Your holiness to all the world. Then Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and reciting praises to You.

Their theological agenda – maintaining the tenets of the covenant – prevailed over the more prosaic, and perhaps dangerous, realities of Jewish military might. A tiny cruse of sacred oil miraculously replenishing itself, rather than bloodied iron swords and shields, became the iconic historical narrative – one that was sustained for nearly two millennia.