What's Hanukkah?

By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld


Mai Hanukkah?-- "What is Hanukkah?"--asks the Talmud.

Upon reflection, this is a strange question for the rabbis of the Talmud to be asking.

Did they not themselves ordain Hanukkah as an eight-day celebration beginning with the twenty-fifth of Kislev?

All of us are aware to some degree of the story of Hanukkah, of the victory of the brave Maccabees against the Greeks and of the miracle of the cruse of oil that burned for eight days instead of one. Yet upon closer examination, the early history of the holiday of Hanukkah is not clear, and the story is not so simple.

The common version is worth a brief review before we examine its sources in detail.


In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great with his Greek armies conquered the Near East including Israel. After his death, his empire split apart. The land of Israel, after a period of struggle, came under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled the region of Syria. In the year 167 B.C., the king Antiochus Epiphanes decided to force all the peoples under his rule to hellenize. The practice of Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision was outlawed. The worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of pigs replaced the traditional worship in the temple. Some Jews eagerly flocked to the gymnasium, symbol of the Greek emphasis on the beauty and strength of the body. Others resisted Hellenism and died as martyrs.

One day the Greeks came to the village of Modi'in and set up an altar. They commanded the Jews to bring a pig as a sacrifice to show obedience to Antiochus's decree. Mattathias, an old priest, was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to do so that he killed him. He and his five sons then fought the Greek detachment, retreated to the mountains, and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died of old age, Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah the Maccabee. Judah led his forces against a series of armies sent by Antiochus, and through superior strategy and bravery he defeated them all. Finally, he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the temple from its defilement by the Greeks. They could find only one small cruse of oil, enough to last one day, but when they lit the temple menorah with it, a miracle occurred and the menorah burned for eight days. Since then we celebrate Hanukkah to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for independence against the Greeks, and most of all the miracle of the oil.


Hanukkah is the most historically documented of the Jewish holidays. We have early sources for the story in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees and in the works of Josephus. We have somewhat later accounts in the Talmud and other rabbinic literature. There is even a medieval work called Megillat Antiochus--The Scroll of Antiochus--which is modeled after the biblical Book of Esther. The problem we face is that in none of these accounts do we find the story as outlined above and as it is popularly known. Let us examine each of these accounts and speculate on why this is true.



The earliest versions are found in the First Book of Maccabees and the Second Book of Maccabees. While these books tell the history of the Maccabees, they did not become part of the Hebrew Bible. They were preserved by the church and can be found in collections of Apocrypha literature. Thus Hanukkah is the only major holiday that has no basis in the Bible.

The story found in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees (with some variations between the two books) is fairly similar to the traditional story outlined above except for one major exception--there is no mention of the cruse of oil nor of the miracle. While both books mention the cleansing and rededicating of the temple and even briefly mention the relighting of the lamps in the temple, nothing is said of the miracle. Hanukkah is instituted specifically for eight days not because of the miracle of the menorah but because it is modeled after the holiday of Sukkot, which the Maccabees could not observe while they were still fugitives in the mountains of Judea.

In the next account we have, that of Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century of the Christian Era, there is again no mention of the miracle, but he does call the holiday "Lights."


So where's the miracle?

Where are the Maccabees?

By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

As for rabbinic sources, we would expect to find the laws for the candlelighting in the Mishnah (the early collection of rabbinic material). in fact, we might expect a whole tractate devoted to Hanukkah as there is to Purim (the tractate Megillah ). Instead we find virtual silence in the Mishnah about Hanukkah.

Only in the Gemara (the later rabbinic material that together with the Mishnah makes up the Talmud) do we find our long-lost miracle of Hanukkah. In the tractate Shabbat 21b, the Gemara asks, "What is Hanukkah?" and answers by saying that the Greeks defiled the temple, and when the Hasmonaeans (another name for the Maccabees and their descendants) defeated them, they found only one cruse of oil with its seal unbroken. It contained enough oil for only one day, but a miracle happened and the menorah burned for eight days.

It should be pointed out that the Talmud's account pays scant attention to the military victory of the Maccabees and focuses instead on the miracle of the oil.

Scholars speculate that the differences in these texts reflect the history of the festival.

At first Hanukkah was celebrated as a reminder of the victory of the Maccabees. It also marked the rededication (Hanukkah means dedication) of the temple. Only later did the miracle of the oil come to dominate the military victory. This shift in focus can perhaps be attributed to the subsequent history of the Hasmonaeans. The Hasmonaean dynasty, with the passage of time, became hellenized and, more important, some of them opposed and even persecuted the rabbis. This dark later history superseded the brief bright period of their beginning. This may explain the Mishnah's silence about Hanukkah.

Others speculate that in Mishnaic times, the rabbis, living under Roman rule, may have felt obliged to censor a story of a successful revolt by a small number of Jews against a powerful enemy. The Mishnah was composed after the disastrous revolts of A.D. 70 (when the second temple was destroyed) and of A.D. 135 (the Bar Kochba rebellion). Both to appease the Romans and to discourage Jews from being inspired by the Maccabees, the Mishnah may have minimized the military significance of Hanukkah.

Finally, one can speculate that because the independence of the Hasmonaean state lasted less than a hundred years, the importance of the Maccabees' victory diminished as time went on, until it seemed like a relatively brief moment in the history of Israel. Other dates in the Jewish calendar from that period also subsequently passed into obscurity--for example, the day of Judah's victory over the general Nicanor was celebrated on Adar I3 (which later became the Fast of Esther). To ensure Hanukkah's lasting importance, then, the tradition decided to emphasize its spiritual meaning and its symbol --the menorah.

In spite of this ambiguous history, Hanukkah remained popular and the rabbis established rules for the lighting of the candles. While these commemorated the miracle of the oil, the tale of the Maccabees never completely disappeared from Hanukkah. Thus we also recite the al ha-nissim prayer in the amidah and the Grace after Meals-birkat ha-mazon--which stresses the military victory and only mentions lighting the temple menorah in passing, without any reference to the miracle.

Hanukkah's Changing Role

By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Hanukkah as a holiday continued to change and develop.

During the Middle Ages, the focus of Hanukkah remained on the miracle of the oil, though stories of the bravery of the Maccabees were well known. While First and Second Maccabees, as well as Josephus, were unknown to most Jews, these stories were recorded in various midrashim or collections of folk tales or in Megillat Antiochus. Some communities read The Scroll of Antiochus during Hanukkah.

Strangely, this scroll, which does speak both of the miracle and of the victory, downplays Judah's role and instead makes his brother Jonathan the chief hero. Megillat Antiochus can be found in some prayer books-- for example, Ha-Siddur ha-Shalem (Daily Prayer Book) by Philip Birnbaum (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1949), which has an English translation.

Another important focus during the Middle Ages was the religious martyrdom of the story. All the accounts speak of Jews who preferred to die rather than submit to Antiochus's decree. The Second Book of Maccabees in particular has many such accounts. One tells of Eleazar, a scribe in his nineties, who refused to eat pork and died by torture.

The most famous is that of Hannah and her seven sons. Each son is asked by the king to eat pork (or in some versions to bow to an idol), and each refuses. After proclaiming his faith in God, each is horribly put to death. Even the seventh and youngest refuses and both he and Hannah die. This story (and that of Eleazar) with some variations also appears in rabbinic literature (Gittin 57b, Lamentations Rabbah 1:16:50). These martyrs have served as models to Jews under persecution throughout the ages, but particularly to the Jews of the Middle Ages.

In America, Hanukkah has been influenced by the celebration of Christmas. While a tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt--money--is an old one, the proximity to Christmas has made gift giving an intrinsic part of the holiday. In general, the attempt to create a Jewish equivalent to Christmas has given Hanukkah more significance in the festival cycle than it has had in the past. Indeed, in most American Jewish families, Hanukkah is much more important than the biblical holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot.

In the state of Israel, the nationalist and military aspects of the festival have once again come to play a central role. The heroic struggle of the Maccabees against a larger foe is, of course, much in keeping with Israel's self-image. Celebrations are held in Modi'in, the hometown of the Maccabees, and torches of freedom are carried by runners from there to all parts of Israel and even by plane to other countries

And so the answer to the simple question Mai Hanukkah?--What is Hanukkah?--has continued to be like the flickering flame of the menorah. The flame never looks the same from one instant to the next, but at its core it remains unchanged.