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The Myths of Chanukah


There are several myths about Chanukah. That Judah Maccabee defeated the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus decisively and regained independence for the Judean state. That when Judah did regain control of the Temple, a miracle took place. 

The first act on re-possession was to light the Ner Tamid, the eternal light on the seven-branch candelabrum. All Temple vessels and materials had to be purified. After the desecration they found a single sealed container of oil that had enough for one day. However, it would take a week for a new supply with its kosher stamp (certified by the different kashrut supervisory agencies who all claimed that they were holier than the other and argued over it for eight days) to get to Jerusalem. By a miracle that one measure lasted until the new batch came.  

The primary historical sources for Chanukah are the Books of the Maccabees. They were written in Hebrew within a generation shortly after the events. But they were not accepted into the Jewish Biblical Canon (possibly for political reasons) and preserved in the Greek and Latin versions of the Bible and which were included in the Christian canon. Nevertheless, most scholars (there is no such thing as unanimity in academia) accept them as reliable. 

Judea had been a province of Persia. It was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.  After his premature death, his empire was divided up amongst his generals. Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemy dynasty and Syria by the Seleucids. They squabbled and fought each other. Judea kept on changing hands.  But everyone had allowed the Jews to run their own affairs, religious and civil under the High Priest.

During this period the Greek way of life became the dominant political and cultural ethos of the Middle East.  Many Jews including priests saw themselves as Greek and admired its culture. The poorer Judeans tended to be more national and traditional. The country was divided.  There were tensions between the rival priestly dynasties too. Each one resorting to bribes, deceit and violence to gain power. It was not pretty.

In 175 BCE. Antiochus the Third had maintained a policy of non-interference in religious affairs. His son was a different matter. Perhaps having been held as a hostage in Rome, and probably went to a Roman Private school, he must have had a huge chip on his shoulder. Perhaps this is why he liked to call himself Epiphanes (the holy), but the Judeans called him Epimanese (the mad). When he became Antiochus the Fourth  he had hoped the Judeans would support his campaign against Egypt . They didn’t. And when he lost he turned on them.

In 168 BCE to force the Judeans to become totally Greek, he banned Jewish religious practice, and sent his army in to squash opposition and to desecrate the Temple. He installed a pro Greek High Priest. While many rich  Judeans did not much care, the countryside erupted. It was a country priest Matityahu who inspired the revolt and his five sons Yohanan, Judah, Elazar, Jonathan and Simon. Led by Judah, they  began a guerrilla war against far superior Syrian forces. Since the Syrians did not take them seriously, they succeeded in defeating a list of second-rate generals and ambushed small military detachments. In 165 BE they recaptured the Temple and rededicated it.

However, they did not drive the Greek forces out completely and they remained in the Citadel or Akra in Jerusalem. He held on because politically Greeks argued and plotted amongst themselves so that Judah was able to hold onto much of the country. When eventually the general Bacchides came down with a serious army Judah was killed in battle. It would take some twenty years before the youngest brother Simon would be crowned first High Priest and then King.

The books of the Maccabees describe the battles in detail and the rededication of the Temple but say nothing about the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. There is a reference to Nehemiah rededicating the Second Temple and a miracle of fire lighting the altar. But that was some two hundred years previously. The book also refers to an eight-day re-dedication. A re-run of  King Solomon’s dedication of the first Temple which also took eight days over the Festival of Sucot. 

Josephus the Judean who went over to Vespasian in the 67 CE and spent the rest of his life in Rome on a pension writing about Jewish history and its traditions, follows the narratives of the Books of the Maccabees and also describes it as a Festival of Lights. No fasting. Eight Days of joy and feasting as on Sucot. Interestingly Josephus’s father’s name was Matityahu too. I wonder what  he would have thought of him! 

The Festival of Lights may have been called that way because the light in the Temple was relit. But it might also have been because the dominant religion of the Persian empire was Zoroastrianism which worshipped fire and the Judeans needed a Jewish response at that time.  As it has been argued that the emphasis of lights on Chanukah was also a Jewish response to Christmas and the lights of the Winter Solstice.

Only later was the festival called Chanukah. Chanukat HaBayit means a dedication of the Temple or a house).Other first and second century Jewish documents including the Mishna contain  lists of festive days on which fasting, or eulogizing is forbidden. “On the 25th of [Kislev] is Chanukah of eight days, and one is not to fast or eulogize only rejoice.” No mention of Judah. The ambiguity continues In the Al HaNissim prayer that was introduced to be said on Chanukah. It talks about Matityahu and his sons defeating the Greeks, God’s deliverance, purifying the Temple lighting lights and fixing these eight days for thanks celebration. But no miracle. 

The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud ( Shabbat 21b ) completed about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees. It mentions the Hasmonean dynasty but not Judah, it talks about the miracle of the one light lasting for eight days and goes into detail about how and where to light the lights for eight days in order to publicize the great miracle.

Judah never regained the whole of the land and a Syrian garrison remained in Jerusalem. What freedom he did achieve was due to the confusion of Seleucid politics as much as his guerrilla warfare. But you could say it was Divine intervention that kept them busy.

As for the miracle of the oil, there are several possibilities. By the time of the Talmud the Hasmonean dynasty had become a memory of  a decadent, assimilated and corrupt period in Jewish history that hardly served as a shining example of the Jewish religious mission. After the Roman defeats, the rabbis had seen the disasters of militarism. They refused to mention Judah the Hammer, the Maccabee, nor glorify his successes. They wanted to stress Chanukah as a spiritual success. To quote the prophets message in Zechariah 4.6 “neither by strength not by might but through the spirit of God” are victories won. Which is the haftara on Shabbat Chanukah.  It is a lovely message even if it is not historical. And that is what a myth is. It’s the message that matters rather than the facts.

I have another theory. We know that the rebellion was instigated by Hassidim. But we do not know for certain who the Hassidim of those days were. Certainly not the forerunners of today’s lot.  We also know that alongside the established state religions of the Kings and Priests there were always prophetic and mystical sects keeping the flame of Torah alive. From the very beginning these movements showed all the characteristics of ecstatic ,charismatic non-establishment religious life. 

The Biblical code for mysticism was fire. Think of the Burning Bush, and Elijah’s Chariot of Fire, and Ezekiel’s vision. Two and a half thousand years ago the Jewish world was similar to our own in the competition between the State religion and the populace. The Chief Rabbinate as opposed to Chassidic and Sephardic circles who are standard bearers of Jewish mysticism today. Light and fire are the clues that this festival was seen as the triumph of mysticism. Which in due course through different iterations turned into the Kabbalah. 

If you go to Meron in Israel on Lag BaOmer, the anniversary of  the greatest Jewish mystic of all Shimon Bar Yochai, you will see thousands and thousands of pilgrims and lights ( not mention a lot of alcohol). All celebrating mysticism. The triumph of light over darkness. The Festival of Lights becomes the festival of religious extasy.