Friday, December 04, 2015

My Channuka

The goal of this blog is to bring controversy and clarity to the Shabbat table.... Please print and share.

Warning - long post this week. Apologies to those with short attention spans. If you want to skip the scholarly part, scroll down to "My Channuka" or you could just read last year's or the 2011 Channuka miracle, or the George Washington story.

menorahThe Talmud's famous chapter, "Mai Channuka? - What is Channuka?" is most famous for what it leaves out.

Here is the passage in full:

What is Channuka? When the Greeks entered the Holy Sanctuary they defiled all the oil that was there. And when the dynasty of the Hasmoneans grew strong and defeated the Greeks, they searched and found only one flask of oil with the stamp of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) that had been set aside; and there was only enough oil to burn for one day. A miracle occurred and they lit [the Menorah] from this oil for eight days. The following year the Sages established these days for praise and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)

It only tells about the miracle of the oil. There is no mention of Hellenism, religious persecution, civil war.

This omission has led to many opinions out there about the history and meaning of Channuka.

Somebody wrote i
n the Wikipedia article, "According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night". As you can see above, the Talmud doesn't actually say that.

According to's "Judaism Expert", it had something to do with an otherwise unknown eight-day purification ritual involving oil.

According to, "This event was observed in an eight-day celebration, which was patterned on Sukkot, the autumn festival of huts."

I would like to address the latter view, because it is so widely believed and taken by many to be fact.

It comes from a question historians have. The non-Rabbinic sources we have that mention Channuka seem to tell a different story than the Talmud.

For instance, Josephus mentions the fact that we celebrate for eight days, and that we call it the Festival of Lights, but he claims not to know why it is called that.

The apocryphal books of Maccabbees make no mention of the miracle of the oil.

Due to these omissions, and due to some other evidence, some historians have speculated that Channuka started as a belated Sukkot and the rabbis later invented the story of the miracle. One problem with this theory is that Josephus doesn't mention it. So it is no stronger an argument than his omission of the story of the oil.

Let's look at the 3 other pre-Talmudic sources that mention Channuka:

1 Maccabbees is written by an eyewitness, the best record we have of what happened. He mentions “blameless priests, such as had delight in the Law”, implying that there were guilty priests around who did not relish the Law. Yet he does not mention the idol allegedly set up in the Temple. He says, “They celebrated the dedication of the altar eight days, and they offered sacrifices with joy, and sacrifices of salvation, and of praise.” Notice no mention of the menorah nor why eight days. Yet we do see the juxtaposition of “celebrated” “dedication and “eight days”.

2 Maccabbees is an abridged version of the above by Jason of Sirene, ca. 100 BCE (not an eyewitness), who wrote in Greek. He also mentions the altar, but not the menorah. “And they kept eight days with joy, like the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts.” This is the source for some historians to read this as causative – Eight days of Hannuka because of Sukkot – but the text doesn’t actually say this!

Mishna - written by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi and colleagues ca. 200 CE. The common scholarly view is that Channuka is absent from Mishna (as a separate holiday like Purim which has its own tractate) because Rabbi Yehudah was anti–Hasmonean. This may explain also why Talmud focuses on miracle and not on the war. Except that it's not entirely absent from the Mishna, so this isn't a very strong argument.

This disparate sources yield no easy answer, and we should see that it’s impossible to say anything for sure – much of what is written in scholarship is over-confident, not solidly supported by evidence.

My Channuka

Based on all of these sources, I have a slightly different approach.

One has to understand that the Maccabeean war is halachically problematic. It was largely a civil war, Jew against Jew. Who authorized the Maccabees to wage it?

The Maccabees were, in the eyes of their Jewish enemies and the Assyrian overlords, a band of terrorists. I'm not so sure that the rabbis of the time (Pharisees) would not have felt the same, even though they surely sympathized with the cause (the religious persecution was quite brutal - Judaism was outlawed and religious Jews were heavily persecuted).

So there would have been good reason for the Pharisees and later the Mishna and Talmud to minimize it. It may be compared to Israel’s war of independence in 1948 – this is a very uncomfortable halachic position for right-wing rabbis. Do you celebrate Israel Independence Day? If you celebrate do you say Hallel? If you say Hallel do you say it with a bracha?

Yet they had to deal with the fact that there was this miracle of the oil.

What does the oil prove? That the victory in war was Heaven-sent! But if you believe that the war was forbidden to wage in the first place, how do you process that?

Answer: You certainly don’t publicize it.

Then why did they institute a festival at all?

It seems to me that the Hasmoneans did it first. They made themselves kings and created Channuka to celebrate and give Divine approbation to their victory. Maybe the rabbis at the time were passive — they didn’t want to openly support it but neither could they deny the Jews our victory.

And the holiday stuck.

Centuries later, in writing the Talmud, the rabbis have a holiday that cannot be ignored (because they believe in the miracle), so they confine the discussion to the oil and ignore the halachically-problematic war.

This hypothesis explains Josephus, the Mishna and the Talmud, and can perhaps also explain why the author of 1 Maccabees does not mention the Menorah nor give a reason for the eight days. Perhaps he himself was a Pharisee and is ignoring the miracle for a similar reason that the Talmud ignores the political events and the Mishna ignores both. He lived at the time of the political events and could not ignore them, but he could ignore the religious implications. The authors of the Mishna and Talmud were the opposite - they lived centuries later and could ignore the uncomfortable political events and focus on only on the religious part.

So what's today's take-away from all of this?

I think that we should follow the Talmud and focus on the Menorah, but it is important understand the nature of that event.

It is not true that they needed to wait for eight days. That's fiction.

It is not true that they needed special oil. That's fiction.

What is true is that they wanted to use special oil. Why? Because they were rededicating the Temple for crying out loud, after it had been turned into a pagan shrine! They wanted the rededication to be as beautiful as possible.

That, in my mind, is the main theme of Channuka. We should not be satisified merely to do the right thing in life. We should strive to do the right thing in the most beautiful way possible.

There's a term for that - hiddur mitzvah - the beautification of a mitzvah.

Hellenism (i.e., Western Culture) puts a huge premium on external beauty.

Some religions completely deny the external and put 100% premium on the internal.

Channuka is about combining the two. The internal matters most, but use the external to beautify it.

For example, let's say you decide to give a beggar a dollar. That's good, but better to give him a crisp clean dollar than an old worn out bill. And better to give with a smile than a frown. Same amount of money!

Judaism is about both faith and action. But not any ol' action. It should be beautiful.

Question for your table — what are other ways to do hiddur mitzvah?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Channuka.

PS - Although Hannuka is almost here it's not too late to click here.

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