Miracles and Victories
The first Hanukkah candle has been lit. What we know about this ancient holiday comes largely from The First Book of Maccabees, which recounts the rebellion led by Mattathias and his sons against the pagan rule of Antiochus. Although the narrative may seem to be a straightforward historical account that began in 167 BCE, it is anything but.
In the foothills of Judea, twenty miles west of Jerusalem, residents of the village of Modiin were commanded by the king’s soldiers to make sacrifices of swine and other unclean animals. With the observance of Jewish holy days and the rituals of sacrifice and circumcision already forbidden, this further humiliation was unbearable.
The village priest, Mattathias, responded in fury: “I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.” They would not forsake Jewish law or abandon their own forms of worship. Then we read: “a Jew came forward in the sight of all” to obey the royal command. Seeing such a flagrant display of apostasy, Mattathias slew him on the altar to demonstrate his zeal for Jewish law.
What does it mean that the revolt of the Maccabees began with a Jew killing another Jew? After Mattathias died, Judah and his brothers carried on the revolt from their base in the Judean wilderness. Reaching Jerusalem they discovered that the Temple was in ruins and its altar desecrated. After rebuilding and purifying it, they arose early on the 25th day of Kislev to offer a sacrifice, “according to the Law.” Then, for 8 days, they rejoiced in the rededication of the Temple, establishing the holiday of Hannukah that Jews still celebrate “with gladness and joy.”
But there is a conspicuous omission from the text. There is no mention anywhere that the Maccabee brothers found a tiny juglet of oil, with barely enough oil for one day, that miraculously burned for eight, as so many generations of Jews have recounted to their entranced children.
What can be learned from this narrative, with its one conspicuous omission? The story of the determination of the Maccabees, father and sons, to wage a Jewish war for the freedom to preserve Jewish traditions and rituals is a vivid reminder that a people’s survival may depend upon its willingness to fight to preserve itself and its distinctive identity. The fate of the Jew who elevated the king’s laws above Jewish law, triggering Mattathias’s zeal, endures as a powerful warning to Jews against the enticements and dangers of assimilation, whether imposed by military or cultural conquest.
The missing, and lovely, story of the cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days doubtlessly was a subsequent rabbinic insertion, once Jews no longer were a sovereign nation. At a time when Judaism needed to be preserved in exile and dispersion, Hanukkah became a sustaining link to life in the Promised Land. It was a reminder to Jews that military strength must be supplemented by spiritual power: by faith, memory and observance, at least until next year in Jerusalem.
Every year there are attempts to denigrate Hanukkah as inferior to other Jewish holidays and, especially, to Christmas. But its flickering lights in the cold darkness of winter remain a perennial reminder that the yearning of Jews for freedom – both national and spiritual – must not be extinguished or forgotten. Military and spiritual power – neither without the other – remain essential for the survival of the Jewish people.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner