Which Chanukah are YOU Celebrating? Part One
I learned about Chanukah from a big white book my parents read to me called (as far I can remember) The Story of Hanukkah. In it, the story was, as is the case with children’s books, straightforward. No doubts, no questions of historical accuracy. Fine for a five-year old. Funny thing is, my understanding of the story of Chanukah didn’t change much through Hebrew School, day school, or yeshiva. Only as an adult, a rabbi and a Jewish educator did I approach the story with a more critical eye, and with a recognition of the multi-faceted holiday that Chanukah really seems to be.
At first glance the Chanukah is about the following: Alexander the Great conquers the land of Israel. While taking control of the political governance of the land, he allows the priestly group (Kohanim) to continue to lead the ritual and religious life of the people. After his death, the kingdom is divided. In a few generations one group, the Seleucids, are led by Antiochus IV. As the result of a series of events, he comes to back a group of Hellinized Jews against the traditionalists. Antiochus outlaws many Jewish practices, including circumcision, appoints his own kohen, and introduces Zeus as a focus of religious life. A war erupts, led by the Maccabee leaders, a priestly family. The traditionalists emerge victorious over the Hellinized Jews and the Seleucid rulers. As the revolutionaries take control and look to rededicate the Temple to service of one God, they discover that there is insufficient pure olive oil to last until new oil can be obtained. Miraculously, one container of oil lasts the entire eight days it takes to obtain new oil.
Second glance at the story is a little more complicated. It seems that the first two Books of the Maccabees – which date from the era of the revolt or shortly after – as well as some midrashim relate the story of the uprising. In these works, the victorious rebels celebrate the holiday of Sukkot at this time of the year, as they were engaged in war when the holiday had actually fallen on the calendar. Chanukah becomes and eight day festival because Sukkot (with Shemini Atzeret) is. And the menorah part of the story is that upon entering the temple, the Maccabees and their followers fashion spears left by the Seleucid warriors into a menorah and light it. The Al Ha-Nisim prayer appears to largely follow this version of the story, highlighting the victory in battle as the miracle.
Hundreds of years later, the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) describes a different facet of the holiday. There, the war is spoken of, but emphasis is on a newer story: at the rededication of the Temple, not enough pure oil was available to burn for the week that it would take to obtain new oil. The miracle emphasized by the Talmudic text is that the one container of pure olive oil, enough for one day’s lighting, burns instead for eight day. Is it possible that the rabbis develop, or at least emphasize, this religious miracle rather than a military one, in order to impress the dominant powers, particularly Rome, that the Judeans to not plan more uprisings? My guess is yes.
But that’s just the beginning. In addition to the two ancient versions of the story, contemporary versions emerge. To be continued…