Why Do We Celebrate Chanukah?

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It’s understandable that Orthodox Judaism is reluctant to endorse academic approaches to Torah. The basic assumptions of Orthodox Judaism are in direct opposition to the basic assumptions of academic research. We believe God gave the Torah. We believe the Oral Law is the interpretation of the written Torah and it is equally binding. Academics assume none of that. The entire purpose of academic research is to approach the texts with zero assumptions and arrive where the pure analysis leads. Often these two approaches will lead to opposite results and this is not acceptable in Orthodox Judaism. We can’t be undermining our own religion.

I think there is an exception to this policy. The exception is Chanukah. No one thinks Chanukah is Divine. No one thinks that God commanded us to celebrate Chanukah. Everyone knows that the holiday was instituted by the Maccabees and was subsequently established by Megilas Taanis and then by the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud as a holiday to be celebrated every year. So the worst thing that could happen if we follow the academic path is that we might find inconsistencies in the story or in the reasons for the rabbinic commandments of the holiday. But because we already assume it is not Divine, the potential harm from merging our traditional understanding with the academic view is minimal.IRHT_126277-p

At most, we might discover that the version of the story according to the Talmud is not the only version of the story. What’s the harm in that? We are required to keep the holiday because of their power of Beis Din HaGadol, not because what they said is objectively factually true. If it turns out that they had one understanding of the story that is not corroborated by the historical evidence it wouldn’t make an ounce of a difference to us. We would still have to keep the holiday as commanded by the rabbis of the Talmud. If you disagree, stop reading.

With the preamble out of the way, I think it’s safe to dive right in.

The Chanukah story occurred between 167 BCE and 165 BCE. We have two apocryphal books describing the events of the Chanukah story. 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees were written within 50 years of the revolt. Megilas Taanis was written a century later, followed shortly thereafter by Josephus’s Antiquities. In all four of these texts we are told about the Chanukah story and the establishment of a yearly celebration.

In 1 Maccabees we are told that the celebration was for the restoration of the daily sacrifices in the Temple and the general rededication of the sanctuary. Hence the name Chanukah; a celebration of the dedication, as חנך means to dedicate. 2 Maccabees echoes the same sentiments and adds that the first Chanukah celebration was a reflection of the Sukkos celebration of 8 days that they had been unable to celebrate a few months earlier because of the war.

Megilas Taanis simply proclaims the 25th of Kislev a holiday and it is forbidden to mourn for 8 days. The text does not give a reason for the celebration. Josephus slightly editorializes the version of 1 Maccabees in his work. But he adds the first reference we find to the idea of lights being associated with the Holiday:

“Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, […] they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.”

The Babylonian Talmud famously asks “What is Chanukah?” The response is the quote from Megilas Taanis followed by an unsourced version of the Chanukah story that is familiar to Orthodox Jews.

“…for when the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest, but there was in only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year [the Sages] fix those [days], making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21A, Translation from Sefaria.org)

This may or may not have also been the version of the story according to the scholia (commentary) of Megilas Taanis. The original scholia was likely written between the writing of Megilas Taanis and the Talmud. A hybrid of two fairly early versions of the scholia seems to have the same story. It’s quoted by the Ohr Zarua (1260) in this manner. However, the foremost expert on the scholium is convinced (and for good reason) that the original commentary on Megilas Taanis does not contain the same version as the Talmud. (See: Vered Noam) From what I have seen, it seems that this expert is correct.

So what we have is a very clear summary of the various explanations for the celebration of Chanukah. The most popular version is probably the Talmud’s explanation. Everyone “knows” that the small jug of oil was only supposed to last for one day and miraculously lasted for eight days. The popular English name for Chanukah is not “Dedication” rather it’s the Festival of Lights. Let’s assume the miracle occurred. It was not latched onto as a reason for celebration by the Maccabees. Nor was it a popular reason for the celebration at the time of Josephus. Although it’s safe to assume that candles were lit as part of the celebration of the holiday at the time of the Mishnah (and Josephus) as the Mishnah in Bava Kamma exempts someone from paying damages if a fire was started by outdoor Chanukah candles. Obviously, people lit candles and one was permitted to leave these lights outside the home on Chanukah. Further, as noted above, Josephus called the Chanukah the “Festival of Lights.” Still, there was no particular importance attached to this miracle until the rabbis of the Talmud.

I have a few thoughts on all this plus one thought that I choose to keep to myself for now.

First, 1 Maccabees follows the pattern of the Purim story. God is hidden throughout the story. There is no mention of God in the narrative. Heaven is used as a euphemism for God, but even then, God plays no active role. This is what we would expect from a story that took place after the Purim story. God’s name is omitted from Megilas Esther because God is hidden from them. Purim reinforces the concept of a hidden God pulling the strings from “afar” and arranging events to meet a specific end. It was always strange to me that Chanukah seems to revert to the pre-Purim sort of special event with an overt miracle. Further, what’s the point of this miracle? It was completely unnecessary and completely besides the point of the story. So it makes sense that a miracle would not be the focus of their narrative. The book was written like the Purim story with a focus on the man-made events with God’s tacit approval. Perhaps the sources up to the Talmud were following this pattern.

Second, there is a lot of speculation about why the laws of Chanukah were omitted from the Mishnah by R’ Yehuda HaNasi. Whatever the reason, it was omitted. R’ Yehuda HaNasi needed a “heter” to write down the Mishnah. His justification was that if it wouldn’t be written down, it would be forgotten. To me that means that whatever was not written down is subject to forgetfulness. Yes, there are those who try to say that the reason it was not written down was because it was so widely known, but I don’t think that fits. So it’s okay to assume that because it was not written down it might have been forgotten and the rabbis of the Talmud were using the lapse in memory to reinterpret the holiday for their own reasons. There are other examples of things being forgotten and reestablished in the Talmud. Of course, there is plenty of speculation on the reason the rabbis of the Talmud may have wanted to refocus the holiday on a God-made miracle as opposed to a Hasmonean military victory, and I have written some of my thoughts on that issue here: Chanukah 2012. But most importantly, it seems that just about everyone who celebrates Chanukah, including non-Orthodox Jews, go with the Talmudic version of the story. That’s no small victory for the rabbis of the Talmud.

Third, the rabbis may have been tapping into something else in the rabbinic tradition. That is, the Talmud in Avodah Zara expanding on an idea found in Pirkei d’Rabbi Elazar states that Adam lit candles on the 25th of Kislev as it coincided with the Winter Solstice. Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden in the fall and watched as the nights grew longer and longer each coming day. He feared that that the pattern would continue until the sun would be completely hidden from earth. On the Winter Solstice he discovered that he was mistaken and the light would return so he lit candles. Lighting candles seems to be something so basic to this time of year that it makes sense that it would have become the focus of the Chanukah celebration. Even the biggest non-Jewish holiday of the year takes place this time of year and would seem to have nothing to do with lights. Yet, trees are lit up across the world. Lights are inescapable this time of year and it seems that the rabbis of the Talmud leveraged this for the benefit of Chanukah.

Regardless of the pre-Talmudic reasons given for the holiday, Orthodox Jews make the blessings on the candles because the rabbis of the Talmud had the authority to establish this holiday based on Megilas Taanis. Nothing that has been discussed here jeopardizes anything of significance. And so, we get to enjoy the academic study of the origins of Chanukah risk free.

When we light our candles this year we will be connecting ourselves to a chain of generations who lit candles, sometimes under extreme duress, to celebrate Chanukah. Let us hope that the fire of the Chanukah candles inspires us to light up the night of our exile and vanquish the negative forces in our personal temples of spirituality as they were vanquished from our public Temple 2200 years ago.


  • I like the idea found in the Chida, the Eishel Avraham’s intro to Megillas Taanis and the Gra as for why there is no mishnah addressing the laws of Chanukah. (Although it is assumed and comes up in a number of places, so we know Rebbe considered Chanukah a holiday with a specific Torah reading in which enough people lit something near their doorway that the person whose merchandise got burned by a Chanukah menorah is considered personally negligent and can’t sue for reimbersement.) They say that because it was already well documented in the appendix to Megillas Taanis, there was no need for a mishnah; and as you note — without need, there is no permissibility either. (Although why we assume this rule applies to rabbinic law rather than only interpretations of the original Oral Torah is beyond me. Also, the Gra’s son says his father speaks of “Mesechtes Chanukah” which I am only assuming is the appendix.)

    But given that this idea appeals to me, I have no room for your notion of forgetfulness.

    Rather, I would assume it was a conscious attempt to change the theme of the holiday. We have no holidays set up to commemorate private miracles. And how many people could have seen the miracle of the oil? The subset of kohanim who were tahor and working in the Heikhal that week so frequently that they can attest that no one refilled and re-lit the menorah while they were elsewhere. So I think it makes sense to take the apocryphal books and the author of Al haNisim at face value and say the holiday was at that time about the restoration of some level of political autonomy and of Temple worship for the next two centuries.

    And then we lost it all. No autonomy, the majority of the community of the land of Israel forced to join their brothers in exile, no Temple. Notice it’s the *Babylonian* Talmud that is asking this question! The Talmud isn’t asking “What is Chanukah?” in the abstract, it is asking pragmatically. The laws are on the books and they weren’t empowered to repeal a law enacted by a Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple. But the meaning was gone; rather than being a celebration, it became a reminder of everything lost. And so the amora’im set out to reassign meaning to the mitzvos of the holiday by emphasizing a miracle than until then was a tangential thing — but at least related to the central mitzvah of the holiday, lighting the menorah. And so it is very much a festival of light, reinvented as such in the darkness of exile.

  • Ari

    If we accept Vered Noam’s reading of Megillat Taanit, the earliest explicit source for a miracle of lights is the Babylonian Talmud. And therefore you argue from silence, that not enough people talked about a miracle of lights, so therefore it couldn’t have happened.

    The first problem I see with this is the inherent one with arguments from silence. Who knows what you’re missing, that happened not to be written explicitly in the extremely limited sources that survive to this day?

    The second problem is that earlier sources DO mention features that fit the oil-miracle explanation better than any other that you mention, such as the 8-day duration of the holiday, or the name “Lights” (well known to Josephus, but for which his non-miraculous explanation [which you quote above] is incredibly weak). (Other theories, like a relation to Sukkot or to the olive harvest, might be stronger but you didn’t bring them up.)

    The third problem is with your discomfort with the possibility of this miracle occurring at this time. According to both Tanach nd rabbinic tradition, miracles similar to this one happened all the time in the Temple, particularly at its inaugurations, despite being “completely unnecessary”! You say Chanukah is different because it’s after Purim and therefore must fit the Purim model of not having miracles. Is that true? One could argue instead that the Purim model is appropriate for exile (hester panim), but at
    Chanukah, when Jews gained sovereignty for the first time since Hezekiah, perhaps the kind of miracles that happened at key moments in the First Temple period are to be expected.

    • I’m not saying “therefore it couldn’t have happened”. I am saying that no one mentioned it until the Babylonian Talmud. Draw your own conclusions.

      The 8 day duration is a big problem but that wasn’t the issue I was discussing here. And yes, I did mention the Sukkos idea because I think it makes sense.

      You could argue that there was a renewal of public miracles but the Temple did not have any other public miracles during the Second Temple period.

      • Abe Mulder

        By any chance do you have a source for “the Temple did not have any other public miracles during the Second Temple period.”

        • It’s a known issue. I will try to find a specific source. Here Aish.com makes the same assertion: http://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48938582.html

          • daized79

            A rabbi recent;y told me that he thought the ner tamid was still a miracle. I did not remember that. Not Sure if you’d know either way,

  • Elli Fischer

    You misunderstood Noam’s work (it’s not simply a case of oversimplification or “frumming it up” for a yeshvish audience). I’m going to parse your paragraph on Noam’s work and point out where you mischaracterize it:

    “This may or may not have also been the version of the story according to the scholia (commentary) of Megilas Taanis.”

    It makes no sense to talk of “the” scholium of MT (scholia is plural; scholium is singular).
    Noam has proven that there were 2 independent Palestinian scholia, which she calls the O and P traditions (as distinct from the O and P manuscripts, which merely serve as the best-preserved examples of each tradition) in addition to the Bavli (she believes that the Bavli redactors had an early version of the P tradition before them, though the redactors of the Bavli introduced a lot of variation). She denies that there was any “proto-scholium” from which all 3 derive. She believes that the 3 extant traditions (P, O, and Bavli) each evolved slowly over the course of the entire rabbinic period. She is also unequivocal that the Bavli story is unique to the Bavli and does not originally appear in the other scholia traditions – there’s no “may or may not” – the O and P scholia did not have that tradition.

    “The original scholia was likely written between the writing of Megilas Taanis and the Talmud.”

    Once again, there is no “original scholia” or scholium. We have no idea when they were “written down,” as the earliest written versions are from the Cairo Geniza, much later. As noted, Noam also does not think that the O and P scholium traditions reached their final form until around the same time that the Bavli did. This sentence is simply nonsense.

    “A hybrid of two fairly early versions of the scholia seems to have the same story. It’s quoted by the Ohr Zarua (1260) in this manner.”

    Here again, you misunderstand. At some point, manuscripts began combining the O and P scholia (not the Bavli!) into one version. Noam calls this the Hybrid Version, but this was the basis of every printed edition of MT until Noam’s. It is a hybrid of O and P and generally has nothing to do with the Bavli. However, in the particular case of Chanukah, since the Bavli story is so well known, an attempt was made to harmonize the Hybrid Version with the Bavli’s version of the sotry. The Or Zaru’a attempts to harmonize the stories. Later however, and as a result of the Or Zaru’a’s harmonization and the ubiquity of the Bavli story, the miracle of the oil was itself incorporated into later manuscripts of the Hybrid Version. Thus, the printed versions of MT include the Bavli story, even though it could not have entered the Hybrid Version until after the Or Zaru’a’s time, i.e., the 13th century. In other words, the Or Zaru’a is the latest source we have that cites the Hybrid Version WITHOUT viewing the Bavli as part of that version (he cites the Bavli SEPARATELY).

    This is how Noam proves that neither the O nor the P traditions (the component parts of the Hybrid Version) originally had the story that appears in the Bavli and in later manuscripts and printed
    editions of Megillat Taanit.

    If you’d like, I can email your paragraph to Prof. Noam herself. We can see if she thinks you understood what she’s saying.

    • I understood her article to say that the O and P were the “originals”, later a hybrid was created, and even later, that hybrid was edited to incorporate the rabbis’ version of the Chanukah story. The Ohr Zarua had that FOURTH version.

      I did some independent research of when the scholia were composed and it seems that there were originally composed in the Tannaic era. That’s not to say that O or P were from that time, rather Megilas Taanis has a very old commentary and there is dispute about what that commentary stated. It might have been O or P or both independently, but it certainly was not the version of the Ohr Zarua, as Noam proves.

      Not everything I said about this subject was her view. Only the part that states that neither O nor P had the miracles of the lights.

      • Elli Fischer

        The Or Zarua had the third version. The printed version is the fourth version.

        You are now positing the existence of a “proto-scholium” from the Tannaitic era. Noam’s research demonstrates that the O and P traditions have no common core, I.e., that there is no proto-scholium. It makes no sense to accept her chiddush that O and P represent independent traditions but then to say that they have a common core. It shows that you don’t understand what she’s saying.

        Basically, all you’ve gotten from Noam’s article is that the oil story is from the time of the Bavli, whereas other traditions are from the era of the Tannaim – that is, 700 years after the events supposedly happened instead of 400 years after the events supposedly happened.

        • It is irrelevant to this discussion whether there was a proto-scholium. Further, I never said they had a common core. I said that the first commentaries on MT were written at the time of the Mishnah.

        • daized79

          The era of the tanaim is not “200.” It’s at least between first and second centuries. So that’s going to be more like 300 years, if not less. The Josephus thing is just strange–why he doesn’t he think it’s called khag haorot because we light a m’nora simulacrum? I never understood that line…

          Also, I still need to read Prof. Noam, but it doesn’t seem to me that the bavli tradition was ever written as a separate scholium on m’gilat taanit but an oral tanai tradition (we usually call those b’raitot). But maybe I’ll change my mind after reading her article.

  • Yossie Bloch

    It’s not only Bava Kamma; there are, appropriately, 8 references to Hanukka in the Mishna (more precisely, 7 about the holiday and 1 about the Hasmoneans) and 6 in the Tosefta. It does not seem to have been forgotten. As for the idea of the solstice holiday, the problem is that it’s not the solstice. The middle of Tevet is. Of course, we have a much older tradition for fasting in the middle of Tevet, as well as the middle of Tammuz, the summer solstice.

  • IH

    As an aside, those presently reading Daf Yomi will find the (oldest) 1 Maccabees narrative to be particularly interesting. This is from The New Jerusalem Bible translation…

  • Holy Hyrax

    Let me present a different question. Given that Chanukah is the most recent of all Jewish holidays, does it say anything about our ability to properly transmit actual historical events if we can’t get Chanukah right?

    • Holy Hyrax

      That was a great question HH. Maybe someone will respond 😛

      • snowbird

        HH, we KNOW all the “actual historical events” that we need to in order to observe Chanuka fully. If knowing the history and circumstances of the Chanukah period with elaborate detail were important to our observance of Chanukah, you could be sure that all of that history would have been “officially” transmitted in our corpus of volumes.
        What was so great about your question, anyway?

        • Holy Hyrax

          >HH, we KNOW all the “actual historical events” that we need to in order to observe Chanuka fully

          Oh? But that is directly related to my point. We know now. But we celebrate it for other reasons today than it’s historical context. My question stands.

          • snowbird

            Have you ever “celebrated” Chanuka? Did YOU celebrate for only reasons other than its historical context?
            What you are saying makes no sense. People celebrate Chanuka for “all of the reasons”. There is no more knowledge of Chanuka’s history today than there was 200 years ago. when we are observing Chanuka today, we are observing it perfectly, with as much knowledge of the historical events as is necessary.

    • Our transmission of historical events is not relevant. What is relevant is the Torah and its mitzvos.

      • Holy Hyrax

        That sounds very much like what Farber would say. The Torah is predicated on it’s historical events. If I were to tell you there was no Patriarchs, no Moses, no exodus, the Israelites were really Canaanites, you would still reply that the only thing relevant is Torah and mitzvoth????? Come now Rabbi Fink, you are in Law. I suspect you can smell BS when you hear it.

    • Shlomo

      It says something about the Midrash’s ability to transmit historical events, but we already knew that.

      • Small but important language quibble: “the Midrash’s ability”? I would have said “concern with”. Medrash isn’t out to transmit history, so our Sages wouldn’t have even thought about checking whether the story their using to impress an idea is historical or not.

      • IH

        History — the way we think of it — is a modern invention. And Jewish History — the way we think of it — is largely an invention of Wissenschaft des Judentums. The snippet above from 1 Maccabees is history, in the pre-modern sense.

  • Jame Dean

    Eli, PLEASE download a copy of Megilas Taanis from the WEB and correct your post. It very clearly states there that the 8 days are due to the miracle of the oil. You also completely ignore Megilas Atiochus. You also ignore research that explains Macabees 1 was likely written at the time and Macabees 2 written later by people who were not there given the internal inconsistencies within the manuscript. Can you please fix this? Those of us that have done extensive research into the matter of “what if there was no oil” would greatly appreciate if those that come long after us don’t discredit the theory by bad and inaccurate research.

    • You are wrong sir. Megilas Taanis is written in Aramaic. The commentary is in Hebrew and it does say in one version the same thing the Talmud says. But that’s not the only version.
      I’m happy to read more on the subject. But you’re going to need to send it to me in an article or section of a book.

    • daized79

      m’gilat antiokhus was written down in the Middle Ages and clearly is a reworking of the Maccabees books. You are right about Maccabees 1 and 2, but why is that relevant here? And what research? I am very interested in traditional responses to this issue since I do not agree with any of R’ Fink’s preamble.

  • daized79

    “We are required to keep the holiday because of their power of Beis Din HaGadol, not because what they said is objectively factually true. If it turns out that they had one understanding of the story that is not corroborated by the historical evidence it wouldn’t make an ounce of a difference to us. We would still have to keep the holiday as commanded by the rabbis of the Talmud. If you disagree, stop reading.”

    Whoa. Really? “Stop reading?” I thought you of all people, R’ Fink, would not have an attitude like that. As it happens, I defied you and kept reading. So preliminarily, it would have been nice had you cited Yoel ben Nun or Marc Angel or wherever you heard these ideas

    As to what I just quoted. Another commenter mentioned smelling BS. I’ll elaborate on that. How can you possibly follow the law transmitted and/or enacted by people that you think invented a miracle that did not occur because they did not study Wisssenschaft des Judentums at the University of Berlin or whatever the excuse is for them not understanding the difference between fact and fiction? And I know you didn’t say the latter, but I’m guessing you have some kind of response to my question involving them not understanding history like we do (despite people like Herodotus, Philo, and Josephus, not to mention the scholium on m’gilat taanit, which apparently cares very much about dates and happenings). Of course the g’mara has apocryphal stories. And of course it sometimes gets things wrong because it’s what people thought. But neither of those is what you’re saying here. Either you’re saying the amoraim invented a baraita or that the tanaim invented a miracle story a mere 300 years after the event. So no, I have no idea how you can commit ourself to halakha after sincerely believing that. So much more to say on this, but I’d love your response. And I forgive you for the stop reading–I know that isn’t you.