Chanukah stands out from all other Jewish festivals for many reasons. It is unique in its position as a dated festival; its origins clearly marked in history as the revolt against the Greek Syrian King Antiochus and the victory of the Hasmoneans. The events leading up to the revolt and the progress of the war are preserved in great detail in the Book of the Maccabbees.
There was a prelude to the outbreak of war as the push to accentuate and be like the Greeks became more and more popular. Jewish athletes even went so far as to have surgery to make themselves “uncircumcised.”
With so much known about the origins, timeline and development of Chanukah, it is surprising to some that the sages of the Talmud ask, “What is Chanukah?” The sages immediately answer as follows: “When the Greeks entered the Holy Temple they defiled all of the oils that they found there. But when the House of Hasmoneans grew strong and defeated them, they found one vial of pure undefiled oil that had the seal of the high priest. There was just enough oil in it for only one day, but it burnt for eight days. The following year, the eight days of Chanukah were fixed as days of rejoicing and thanksgiving together with the lighting of the candles.”
This is the first time the story about the oil lasting eight days appears. It is absent in other discussions about Chanukah in the Talmud and in Josephus, for that matter in all of the records from 164 B.C.E. until the story appears in the gemoro a span of 400 to 600 years. Nothing about this miracle is evident.
By providing this story, the sages change the emphasis of what was to be celebrated on Chanukah, not just a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greeks, nor merely a second Sukkot, rededication of the Temple, but in this story of oil lasting eight days, we are presented with a celebration of God suspending the natural laws, so that the light of Judaism will shine in abundance once more.
The sages were not adverse to using midrash (legend) to shape the purpose and meaning behind the ritual worship. In this case though, I think it is time to place the emphasis of Chanukah back on the historical events.
The long drawn out war for independence from the Greek-Syrians was a war that should have been impossible for us to win, victory in the Maccabean struggle must be viewed as miracle, one created in man’s partnership with God. The courage, dedication and physical efforts needed the help of God to produce victory. The lesson of needing to do all we can, to strive against seemingly insurmountable odds assured that God will help is a healthier message than a reliance on God to suspend the natural order of creation that God has put in place.
I believe that this interpretation of “What is Chanukah” will allow us to continue creating modern miracles in our response to manmade and natural catastrophes. In partnership with God, we can make this a better world.
Rabbi David L. Goldstein, Gomley Chesed Synagogue.