November 26, 2021

The Three Fallacies of Chanukah and the Genius of Rabbinic Imagination

By Simon Eder

Traditionally Chanukah is renowned for three things. The miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days following the rededication of the Temple, the celebration of the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Syrian Greeks and more widely the triumph of Judaism over Hellenism. It would however, on closer analysis, appear that these assertions are not borne out by history.

The major thrust of the historical story that the Rabbinic imagination seeks to tone down with its appeal to fantasy is Chanukah as a testament to the Jewish military victory.

The Miracle of the Oil
It is certainly true that the miracle of the oil plays a prominent role in the Rabbinic depiction of the festival. The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Shabbat explains this as follows:

‘’What is [the reason for] Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the days of Chanukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recitation of] Hallel and thanksgiving.’’(1)

The issue however is that this is the first historical record of a reference to the miracle of the oil. Josephus the celebrated Jewish historian of the first century does refer to Chanukah as the Holiday of Lights(2) but makes no mention as to any miracle and indeed none of the earlier sources including the two Books of Maccabees raises it either. It would therefore seem that the so-called miracle is a Rabbinic retrojection, a fairy tale that has of course caught the popular imagination but certainly not worthy of historical truth.

Victory over The Greeks
The major thrust of the historical story that the Rabbinic imagination seeks to tone down with its appeal to fantasy is Chanukah as a testament to the Jewish military victory. The Seleucid King, Antiochius IV who went by the name of Epiphanes meaning ‘’God made manifest’’ became hell bent on unifying his kingdom under a process of Hellenization. The First Book of Maccabees has it that he declared: ‘’all should be one people and that they should give up their particular customs’’(3). A statue of Zeus was erected in the Temple, officers were sent throughout the land to ensure that the observance of Shabbat and circumcision ceased and even that sacrifices were made to pagan gods.

In response to this repression arose the Maccabees. The rebellion began in Modiin with a Priest named Mattathias and his five sons together with their supporters. What followed over the next three years and following Mattathias’ death under the leadership of Judah, was a series of victories that culminated in the rededication of the Temple and celebrations that lasted for eight days. The hagiography of the first two books of Maccabees and varying accounts in each of them make it difficult to discern precisely the chronology of events but what is clear is that the military victories were impressive and against considerable odds and ended with the reconsecration of the altar and sacred vessels in the Kislev of 164 BCE.

What is certainly not emphasised today, even when referencing the history, is that the war of the Maccabees was as much a civil war as one against the Seleucids. The years leading up to the revolt included for example several changes in the Temple hierarchy resulting in ever greater syncretism between the Priesthood and Greek culture. In 175 BCE for example the High Priest Onias was overthrown by his brother Jesus, who adopted the Greek name of Jason and established a gymnasium for Greek athletes. Three years later Jason was in turn deposed by Menelaus who assisted Antiochus with the despoilation of the temple.

Indeed it was not only the elite that kowtowed to the Greek authorities. 1 Maccabees clearly attests that ‘’Many even from Israel gladly adopted (Epiphanes) religion: They sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath’’(4). How many in fact supported the abolition of their religion is much debated but the revolt began with Mattathias killing not only an officer of the king, there to impose pagan worship but also his killing of another Jew about to offer sacrifice at the altar. In the words of 1 Maccabees, the ensuing revolt led to their ‘’striking down sinners in their anger and renegades in their wrath’’(5)

Perhaps then in understanding some of the historical intricacies behind Chanukah we may come to appreciate ever more the genius of the Rabbinic mind.

Judaism vs Hellenism
The third fallacy often trumpeted in the context of Chanukah is that of Judaism’s victory over Hellenism and that the Maccabean success quashed any alien Hellenistic tendencies from filtering into the tradition. Of course the pursuit of full assimilation was halted but even the Maccabees themselves were a product of their environment and in the best Jewish tradition appropriated plenty of external influences. The fixed annual observance that the Maccabees chose to establish, unparalleled in the annals of Judaism, was a nod to Greek custom. Even the kindling of the lights was a replication of classic Greek convention.

There are of course broad differences in outlook: Judaism with its monotheistic approach, notion of man as created in the image of God and view of the body as a partner of the soul rather than the Greek pantheon of deities, understanding of gods conceptualised as humans and ideal of beauty. The contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture did nonetheless produce hugely significant literary output including the books of wisdom contained in the apocryhpa and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature too. Greek language and concepts entered and remained in the bastion of Jewish legal codes and rabbinic writings. In her book, Socratic Torah Professor Jenny Labendz  argues that Hellenistic culture was highly influential in enriching rabbinic intellectual life. Far from keeping Hellenism at bay, as some would have us believe, in fact the Maccabean victory led to a continued fusion of ideas and important elements of acculturation, crucial in the development of Judaism’s history.

Perhaps then in understanding some of the historical intricacies behind Chanukah we may come to appreciate ever more the genius of the Rabbinic mind whose incorporation of the miracle of the oil into the story managed to create such a hold over the centuries and continues to this day.

(1) Tractate Shabbat 21b
(2) Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.323-326
(3) 1 Maccabees 1: 41
(4) 1 Maccabees 1: 45
(5) 1 Maccabees 2: 44

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.