Hanukkah. It’s such a great festival. The candles, the dreidls, the latkes. Everything about it seems so heimishe, so wholesome, so Jewish.
Would you believe me if I told you that, in the biggest, most important corpuses of Jewish literature, it barely gets a mention?
Of course, it doesn’t appear in our Bible, the Tanach. Hanukkah is one of the only festivals we celebrate that isn’t ordained by the Torah. That’s because everything recalled by the Hannukah festivities took place in the 2nd Century BCE, right at the time our canon was closing. All the stories that were going to be in our Bible were already there.
The accounts of what happened – how the Hasmoneans rose up against Greek occupation – were only preserved by the Catholic Church, who considered them ‘Apocrypha,’ or intertestamental books, leading up to the time of Jesus. The Jews didn’t hold on to them.
But it’s not just our Bible that omits Hanukkah. Even our rabbis, the creators of Judaism as we know it, scarcely paid attention to the festival.
The Talmud is an enormous compendium on every aspect of Jewish life. Want to know about marriages? There’s a book for that? Divorces? There’s a book for that. What to do if somebody swears an oath that they won’t cut their hair and then wants to renege on it? There’s a book for that. What to do if your ox attacks another farm animal? Book for that.
Every festival has its own book. Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, Purim, Sukkot, and Shavuot all get extensive tractates. But not Hannukah.
If you want to know what the Talmud says about Chanukah, you have to look in a completely different treatise, on the topic of Shabbat. There, it gets a brief mention, in amongst a much larger conversation about candles.
In the whole library that is rabbinic literature, Chanukah only gets four pages (or two sheets, front and back) dedicated to it. What did this poor Festival of Lights do to deserve such neglect?
You might say, well, it’s just a minor festival. It’s not one of our big ones. It’s only really become a major holiday in response to the booming of commercialised Christmas.
But, looking at what the Talmud actually says about Chanukah, we are confronted by a bigger mystery. The Talmud begins with a debate between the two great Sages who founded rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai. Shammai says that we should start by lighting eight candles, and decrease each day. Hillel says we should start with one and work our way up. As usual, we follow Hillel.
Here’s the thing. This debate does not appear anywhere earlier in the tradition. It’s not in the Mishnah or the Tosefta, where we would expect to find it. It’s certainly not attested from the time of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel would only have been born about 50 years after the Maccabees came to power. Surely we would expect to find something contemporary?
The Talmud seems to have invented this debate, nearly 800 years after the event took place and the rabbis named were alive.
There’s a good reason why they would want to do that. When we tell the story of Chanukah, we tell the rabbis’ version. We tell the story as it appears in the Talmud. You’ve probably heard it already. The invading Greeks defiled the Sanctuary and all that was left was one cruse of oil. That cruse of oil lasted eight days, which was an astonishing miracle. Now, as a result, we light candles for eight days.
The story from the time paints a very different picture. The Books of Maccabees were probably written as military propaganda by the Hasmoneans themselves. They show a zealous army of militants, who rose up against Greece, but spent a good chunk of their time massacring Jews who they thought had assimilated too much. They were, effectively, a terrorist organisation.
When they won power, they set up a theocratic dictatorship. They put themselves in charge of the monarchy, the Temple, and the economy. They ripped up centuries of checks and balances in Israelite politics. They engorged themselves with wealth and crushed all dissent.
At the time when Hillel was alive, they would still have been in power. It is unlikely they thought highly of the rabbis, whose interest in Jewish law would have threatened their power. They probably didn’t think much of the early rabbinic schools either, which looked suspiciously like Greek philosophy academies. There’s no way Hillel and Shammai would have celebrated their festivals.
It seems that, centuries later, the celebration of the Hasmonean victory persisted, but people had forgotten why. So, our rabbis came up with a new story to replace it. They replaced war with joy. They replaced spears with candles. They replaced military victory with faith in God.
That’s why they omitted the story of military conquest. Instead, they developed the stories of miracles and burning lights that we recognise today. They replaced the corrupt rulers and zealous extremists with pious sages, who saw the festival as a celebration of God’s surety, rather than of human strength.
The rabbis concocted a festival lectionary, giving us biblical readings to focus our mind on its themes. They chose for our haftarah the prophecy of Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power, but only by My Spirit, says God Almighty.”
This verse directly contradicts the Maccabee myth. Not might. Not power. But God, and faith, and peace.
That is the Judaism we have inherited. That is the Judaism our rabbis intended for us when they created the Talmud. They wanted us to live as the prophets of old dreamed: in peace with our neighbours; seeking justice at every turn; and walking humbly with our God.
Faced with persecution under the corrupt tyranny of the Maccabees, our rabbis reinvented Judaism so that it would be a positive guiding force for all people.
That is a much greater revolution than the Hasmonean victory.
That is the real miracle of Chanukah.
May this Festival of Lights bring you boundless joy. Chag urim sameach.
May this Day of Rest bring you peace. Shabbat shalom.