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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Elf. Food for thought as always, recipes included.


Dovid said...

Why would the Gemarra fabricate that about the lights lasting eight days then?

elf said...

Daniel: Thanks.

Dovid: I doubt that the Amoraim invented the miracle. It was probably a popular legend that developed, in part, from confusion about the Nehemiah story. The question "what is Chanukkah?" suggests that, while the practice of lighting candles was sufficiently widespread to be codified as halakhah, the reason for the observance was not so well known, or somewhat confused.

It is interesting that the Amoraim emphasize the "miracle of the oil" over the military victory itself. This may have to do with their general disapproval of the Hasmoneans, or with the fact that they were not in a political position to promote nationalistic revolt, or, as one rabbi I know suggested, because they had "pacifist" tendencies. Then again, they may have emphasized the oil simply because they were in the midst of a halakhic discussion about candles.

Dovid said...

The Rebbe has many sichos about this topic. I suggest you do some research there.

fleurdelis28 said...

You updated! You updated! You updated!

*quits bouncing and goes to read post*

Rishus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mar Gavriel said...

I was worried that this blog was retired...

Anyway, Sukkoth was certainly qonsidered the most important festival in ancient times. Your peshat about Shelomo's dedication is interesting, though, especially in light (get it? hmm) of the haftara that the Rabbis would later choose for the Second Sabbath of Hanukka.

[A year ago, when I told a friend of mine the story from the beginning of two Maccabees, and I reach the part about how the priests from Bayith Rishon hid the holy fire in the hole, my friend responded: "As it is said: fire in the hole!".]

Anyway, I think that at an early period, Hanukka became a catch-all holiday to celebrate all wierd Bayith Sheini stuff. We read about Zerubbavel in the haftara (and in the piyyutim "Ma`oz Tzur" and "Shenei Zeithim"), and we read about Nehemiah at the beginning of II Maccabees. And the story of Judith and Holofernes is entirely fictional, but seems to be set (or at least written) in Bayith Sheini times-- and it, too, gets associated with Hanukka. (It was featured as part of traditional Italo-Ashkenazzic Shacharis this morning.) So, even though the date "25 Kisleiv" seems to be based on the date when the Chashmauno'im rededicated the Beis Hammikdosh, the holiday itself seems to be a catch-all for all Bayith Sheini stuff.

(And, of course, the biggest Chanukko miracle of all is that you actually posted something on this blog! Techiyyas Hammeisim!)

Yaakov said...

Thus Nehemiah is implicitly compared to Moses and Solomon, the second temple becomes divinely sanctioned like the first...

There is a simple point here that a lot of people seem to miss: both of these dedications were seven day events. However, there is another eight day event in tenach, and that is the rededication of the Temple by King Hezekiah. The chanukah celebration may have been modeled after that.

elf said...

Dovid said: The Rebbe has many sichos about this topic.

What do you mean by "this topic"? The connection between Chanukkah and Sukkot? The relationship between the military victory and the "miracle of the oil"? The number of days of Chanukkah? Something else?

Mar Gavriel said: I was worried that this blog was retired

Apparently, you weren't alone. Don't worry, folks; if I decide to retire this blog, I'll let you know. Otherwise, I'm just in one of my funks.

Anyway, I think that at an early period, Hanukka became a catch-all holiday to celebrate all wierd Bayith Sheini stuff.

An interesting perspective. I do think that Chanukkah was meant to celebrate the second temple itself, but that would not explain the Judith connection.

Yaakov said: both of these dedications were seven day events

That depends on your reading. Solomon is said to have sent the people home on the eighth day of the celebration. As with Sukot itself, there is some ambiguity as to whether the observance is seven days or eight.

However, there is another eight day event in tenach, and that is the rededication of the Temple by King Hezekiah.

Yes, Hezekiah's rededication of the temple is explicitly described as an eight-day event, albeit in the month of Nisan. I agree that there may be some connection between this and the eight days of Chanukkah, but I'm not sure exactly what the connection is. Like much of our information on Hezekiah, this tidbit appears in Chronicles (2 Chron. 29:17) but is absent from the book of Kings. [N.B.: The author of Chronicles, aptly named "the Chronicler" by scholars, seems to have lived around the fourth century BCE, before the Maccabees but after the construction of the second temple.] It is reasonable to wonder whether the information is accurate, or whether the Chronicler was trying to fit Hezekiah's rededication ceremony into some prototype. Perhaps he wanted to model it on the Solomonic ceremony, which he understood to be an eight-day event. Or perhaps by his day there was an understanding that temple dedication ceremonies were supposed to be eight days long. There may even have been some sort of proto-Chanukkah, celebrating the founding of the second temple, or the miracle of Nehemiah's fire. (Haggai 2:18 suggests that the construction of the second temple began on the twenty-fourth of Kislev, the day before Chanukkah.) So, while it is possible that Chanukkah was (at least in part) modeled on Hezekiah's temple rededication ceremony, the opposite is also possible, counter-intuitive as it may seem.

Mar Gavriel said...


Perhaps there already existed a minor festival "Hanukko" in early Second Temple times, on 25 Kisleiv, and that could be davqo the reason that Antiochus chose to defile the Temple that day, and why the Hasmoneans, three years later, decided to re-dedicate the Temple on that day.

(I realize that I am being totally speculational, and thus thoroughly unreliable, right now. But hey-- this is a blog. And not even my blog!)

Note the connection between Beth Hammiqdosh, Zerubbovel, priests, and 24 Kisleiv in Haggai 2:10-23.

elf said...

I realize that I am being totally speculational, and thus thoroughly unreliable

Hey, so am I! That's what blogs are for. Anyway, interesting thoughts.

Drew_Kaplan said...

For another way of understanding Hanukkah, and the nes Hanukkah, see my recent posting.

elf said...

Drew: Interesting stuff. I do think that historical inquiry into Judaism has to be coupled with a search for deeper meaning in the stories that have been handed down to us.