The Myths of Hanukkah
There are several myths about Hanukkah, such as that Judah Maccabee defeated the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus decisively and regained independence for the Judean state. Or that when Judah did regain control of the Temple, a miracle took place.
The primary historical sources for Hanukkah 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). 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 among his generals. Egypt was ruled by the dynasty of the Ptolemies 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, but his son was a different matter. The Judeans called him Epimanes (the mad). When he became Antiochus the Fourth, he 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 Matisyahu 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, 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. When eventually the general Bacchides came down with a serious army, Judah was killed in battle. It would take some 20 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 at the altar. But that was some 200 years previously. The book also refers to an eight-day rededication — a rerun of King Solomon’s dedication of the first Temple, which also took eight days over the Festival of Sukkot.
Josephus the Judean who went over to Vespasian in 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 Sukkot.
The Festival of Lights may have been called that 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 worshiped fire, and the Judeans needed a Jewish response at that time. And it has been argued that the emphasis of lights on Hanukkah was also a Jewish response to Christmas and the lights of the Winter Solstice.
Only later was the festival called Hanukkah. 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 Hanukkah 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 Hanukkah, it talks about Matisyahu and his sons defeating the Greeks, God’s deliverance, purifying the Temple, lighting lights, and fixing these eight days for thanks and 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 the Maccabees. It mentions the Hasmonean dynasty but not Judah.
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 or glorify his successes. They wanted to stress Hanukkah as a spiritual success. 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 Hasidim. But we do not know for certain who the Hasidim 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.
The Biblical code for mysticism was fire. Think of the Burning Bush, 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. Light and fire are the clues that this festival was seen as the triumph of mysticism.
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 ecstasy.
Jeremy Rosen is a rabbi and scholar, currently living in New York.