Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ma'i Chanukkah?

"What is Chanukkah?" With these words, the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) introduces its discussion of the holiday, which focuses on the "miracle of the oil" that most of us recall when we think of Chanukkah:
The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev there are eight days of Chanukkah... for when the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oil in the Temple. When the kingdom of the Hasmonean dynasty arose and defeated them, they searched but could only find one flask of oil that was set aside with the seal of the high priest. However, it contained only enough to burn for one day. A miracle took place and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established them as festival days with praise and thanks.
The Talmudic story explains the form that Chanukkah takes today, with its eight nights of burning candles and foods fried in oil. Yet the "miracle of the oil" is not mentioned in the books of Maccabees, which were composed at a time considerably closer to the events commemorated by the holiday than the Gemara. These books describe the military victory of the Jews, led by the priestly family of Mattithias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, over the army of the oppressive Seleucid monarch Antoicus IV. 1 Maccabees 4:52-59 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 describe an eight-day festival celebrating the purification of the temple, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the very day on which Antiochus' troops profaned it by offering an impure sacrifice on the altar (1 Maccabees 1:59, cf. 2 Maccabees 6:4-5). 1 Maccabees does not explain why the celebration lasted eight days, but 2 Maccabees provides the missing information: the new festival of Chanukkah was modeled on the eight-day biblical festival of Sukkot (Lev. 23:39-43, etc.). The Jews had been unable to properly celebrate Sukkot at the appropriate time because of Antiochus' oppression (2 Maccabees 10:6), so they compensated now, even incorporating the lulav (palm frond) of Sukkot into their new holiday.

At first glance, the explanation in 2 Maccabees seems reasonable, but then an obvious question arises: if the temple was desecrated the previous year in the month of Kislev, then the Jews would have missed the opportunity to celebrate all three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Why did the victorious Jews single out Sukkot for a late celebration? Perhaps because Sukkot was associated with Solomon's dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:2, 66). By marking their victory with a similar ceremony, the Maccabees recalled a time when Israel was strong, united, and independent, and they likened the newly purified, Hasmonean-controlled temple to the original Jerusalem temple, the legitimacy of which was (at least in their own day) unquestioned.

The new holiday was not immediately accepted throughout the Jewish world, and the book of 2 Maccabees opens with two letters exhorting the Jews of Egypt to observe the "festival of Sukkot in the month of Kislev." Both letters link the festival to the rededication of the temple by the Hasmoneans, but the second introduces a new element, a miracle performed in the days of Nehemiah, the governor of Judah who oversaw the construction of the second temple:

When our ancestors were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone. But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but only a thick liquid, he ordered themm to dip it out and bring it. When the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and on the things laid upon it. When this had been done and some time had passed, and when the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled. And while the sacrifice was being consumed, the priests offered prayer -- the priests and everyone.. . .After the materials of the sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured on large stones. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out (NRSV 2 Maccabees 1:19-23).
The letter goes on to relate the history of the sacred fire, which was carried into exile by the prophet Jeremiah, and the nature of the "thick liquid," which is called naphta (petroleum). The event is likened to the dedication of the tabernacle in the days of Moses, when a miraculous fire from the Lord consumed a burnt offering (Leviticus 9:24), and to a similar miracle said to have occurred at the dedication of the first temple by Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:1). Thus Nehemiah is implicitly compared to Moses and Solomon, the second temple becomes divinely sanctioned like the first (and like its predecessor, the tabernacle), and Chanukkah becomes a festival affirming the legitimacy of the second temple, which was never so severely threatened as in the Hasmonean period.

The legend also links the festival of Chanukkah to a miracle having to do with fire. One wonders whether this was not the original impetus for the practice of lighting candles on Chanukkah -- or at least the prototype for the rabbinic story.

For more on the convoluted history of Chanukkah practices, see last year's post on Judith and dairy products, or this reworked version, which includes a recipe for cheese latkes.