Chanukah’s Origins
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Delivered as Scholar-in-Residence
at Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue
Chanukah 5767/2006

Most of us are aware that Chanukah is not mentioned in our Tanakh, our Bible. The events of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greeks, although chronicled by a near contemporary writer in the Books of the Maccabees, were not included among the Kitvei Ha-kodesh, the books that were designated as Holy Writ or Bible. This omission is very strange, given that every other festival, including Purim, the events of which occurred only a few centuries earlier, are referred to in the context of a book of the Tanakh. At the end of my exposition this morning the reason for this strange omission in the case of Chanukah should become obvious.

What is also astonishing is that, of all the early books that describe the origins of the festival, such as the two books of the Maccabees and a work called Megillat Ta’anit, none of them refer to the miracle of the jar with sufficient pure oil to last for just one day, but which miraculously burned for eight! It is only in the much later record of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) that this is offered as an explanation of why we observe Chanukah for eight days. Indeed, one late Midrashic source, called Pesikta Rabbati, explains the origin of the eight lights quite differently, stating that when the Maccabeans entered the ruined and dark Temple, they found eight iron spears, which they hammered into the ground and used as supports for containers of oil, which they then lit. So it is important, when trying to trace the development of the festival as we know it, to bear in mind that none of the earlier, pre-Talmudic sources know anything about the miracle of the oil! This seems to have been a much later explanation or rationale for the festival. And this calls for an explanation.

Unlike previous festivals recorded in the Torah, or Purim as recorded in the book of Esther, Chanukah was not imposed at one time by any divine authority or higher synod. It had a long and difficult gestation period until it finally took the form we know and love, and until that explanation of it, with which every Jewish child is familiar, namely the miracle of the oil, actually won out over several other explanations that were in vogue.

Chanukah clearly began purely as a Temple celebration, commemorating its re-capture and re-dedication by the Maccabeas. The miracle of the one jar of oil lasting for eight days would hardly have been regarded as something upon which to build a festival. In fact, most of the religious authorities would have been fairly blasé about it. After all, on the evidence of the Mishnah Avot 5:8 (Singer’s, p.507), there were as many as ten “miracles” that were associated with the Temple, some of them witnessed on a daily basis. So the miracle of the oil was hardly the ‘origin’ of the festival or, indeed, one of its most important facets.

The name ‘Chanukah,’ ‘dedication,’ derives exclusively from the context of the Torah’s references to dedication of the Sanctuary, chanukat ha-mizbe’ach (Nu. 7:10) and the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem (ba-chanukat chomat Yerushalayim) in the period of Nehemiah (12:7). The word is not used outside of that sacred context. And hence the psalmist, in the psalm that later became attached to this festival, employs the term Chanukah in the heading to his psalm (30): Mizmor shir chanukat ha-bayit. Bearing in mind that the events of the Maccabean struggle and victory took place in the years167-165 BCE, it may seem strange that, as late as what we call the Amoraic period, that is at least four centuries later, the Mishnah and Talmud were still asking the question, My Chanukah? - “Why do we celebrate the festival of Chanukah? What is its significance? - and the great Talmudic schools of Hillel and Shammai had not yet agreed as to how the Chanukah lights should be lit, either in ascending or descending order. Clearly, then, during the first few centuries of the Common Era, the observance of Chanukah had neither become crystallized nor universally accepted, neither had one single authoritative reason emerged for its observance.

Why was that? Simply because Chanukah, as its name implies, began exclusively as a Temple-based dedication ceremony. And that is how it remained for at least the next two centuries. During that period it was not celebrated at all as a home festival, and certainly not with any ritual of lamp lighting. The Temple priests alone would have celebrated the Chanukah commemoration within the Temple, though their precise method of celebration is unknown. It could hardly have been through the lighting of any menorah since that would have infringed the biblical prohibition of bal tosif, adding to the prescribed mitzvot of the Torah: Only the specially-prescribed seven-branched Menorah could be lit as part of a sacred ritual, not an extra, eight-branched one.

So when and why did that original, Temple-based, commemoration start to evolve into a home and synagogue-based festival? It seems that that occurred shortly following the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE. For it was inevitable that, with the destruction, the Temple-based festival of Chanukah was also doomed to vanish. But, for nostalgic and nationalistic reasons, the survivors of that catastrophe were determined that this would not happen. After all, it was the only festival, or celebration, in honour of the re-dedicated Temple, that unparalleled symbol of Jewish spiritual and national independence. It was vital, therefore that Chanukah be preserved in order to strengthen the resolve of future generations to renew the Maccabean spirit and fight courageously to regain their homeland and their independence, and to achieve a re-dedication of the Temple that the Romans had just devastated and polluted.

The name Chanukah – Temple dedication – was retained, but now the whole focus had to change; for without a Temple, it could only be celebrated as a home and synagogue ritual. But one could hardly commemorate around the domestic hearth a dedication of the great Temple and its altar.. After all, neither the dedication of Moses’ Sanctuary nor Solomon’s great Temple, or its re-dedication in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, had been commemorated by a festival or a home ritual. There was simply no such precedence for that.

The only solution was to latch on to one, comparatively minor, aspect of the great Maccabean victory, that could easily be transmuted, namely the tradition of the flask of oil that lasted for eight days. They were able thereby to promote the lighting of miniature Temple menorot, which also served their nationalistic purpose; and, because it was an eight-day ritual, did not lay itself open to the otherwise potentially serious objection that they were aping a Temple ritual, and re-constructing a Temple ritual object, that was prohibited by Talmudic law.

Support for my view that this shift of focus occurred with the destruction of the Temple is forthcoming from the otherwise inexplicable fact that the historian Josephus, writing around that very time, describes the festival by a hitherto unknown name, namely, ‘[festival of] Lights.’ He was clearly aware that the old name of ‘Chanukah,’ ‘Temple re-dedication,’ had now been superseded. (There is, of course, the possibility that giving it a new name, a new ritual and a new rationale was the only way to convince the intrusive Roman administration that this was a harmless festival, and not, in any shape or form, a subtle and seditious call to Jews to attempt to re-gain and ‘re-dedicate’ their Temple.)

If this re-construction of the history of the festival is correct, and, bearing in mind that Jews in antiquity – no less than today – were resistant to any attempt, even by their own religious authorities, to introduce new festivals (witness how few Jews today actually celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim as religious occasions), then we have a clear explanation of why Hillel and Shammai, over 200 years after the historical events of Chanukah, were still unsure as to how the Chanukiah should be lit, and why it took a further couple of centuries for any consensus to emerge.

And now we can also appreciate why the Books of the Maccabees were not elevated to a place in the Hebrew Bible. The synod which determined which works were to be regarded as Holy Writ (metam’in et ha-yadayim) met under the leadership of the illustrious patriarch of Israel, Rabban Gamaliel, around the year 90 CE. Now, according to our reconstruction of the development of Chanukah, at that stage (but twenty years after the destruction of the Temple), the festival was still in a state of transition. The authorities were striving to get people to observe this festival more widely in their homes, but had not yet won over their hearts and minds. In such a climate, they did not dare to elevate the story of Chanukah in the Book of Maccabees to the status of a biblical book.

And hence the anomaly that Purim, a one-day Diaspora festival, yet has a biblical book attached to it, whereas Chanukah, an Israel and Temple-based festival, of eight days duration, does not!

In conclusion, may I take this opportunity of wishing you all, and your families, a Chanukah sameach.

(The thesis presented in the above address is fully expounded in Jeffrey M Cohen’s, 500 Questions & Answers on Chanukah (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), ISBN: 0-85303-676-4 (cloth). 0-85303-675-6 (paper). )