Shedding light on Chanukah
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Shedding light on Chanukah

About that miraculous cruse of oil

Have you ever suspected the whole “oil burned for eight days” story about Chanukah? If you have, welcome, super sleuth. You are eligible for membership in the Indiana Jones/Stargate, true-life Chanukah club. Here is one possible way this holiday probably came about.

We all know the Hasmoneans and the Greek-influenced Assyrians (Greeks for short). That stuff is in all likelihood true. The Greeks had sacked the Temple and removed the menorah. It had been gone for three years by the time the Hasmoneans won (“Maccabee” is the nickname for Judah, but no one else in his family – the Hasmonean family).

Imagine you are a Marine or an Army Ranger. You are getting your first look inside a building that has been wrecked. There are no windows. It is winter, so the days are short. You have no idea whether the building has been booby-trapped. It almost certainly was not left in good working order. You do not have night-vision goggles. You need a light source, a flare of some kind. You are resourceful, so you make one out of the equipment you have on hand, as the midrash tells us:

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Ancient menorah has places for eight wicks.

“Why are lamps kindled during Chanukah? At the time that the sons of the Hasmonean, the High Priest, triumphed over the kingdom of Greece – the time referred to in the verse, ‘When…I raised up your sons, o Zion, against your sons, o Greece’ (Zechariah 9:13)-upon entering the Temple they found there rods of iron which they grooved out and then kindled wicks in the oil which they poured into the grooves.” (Pesikta Rabbati 2:1)

What we have here is a combination of Indiana Jones and Stargate. The victors enter the Temple holding their spears. These spears were long iron shafts covered in tin. At one end, they were hollowed out so that spear tips could be inserted into that end.

Soldiers would pour oil into the spearheads and use them as flares. (Such spearheads are also mentioned in the War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls.) They stood these spears up as a light source in order to survey the inside of the Temple.

But what about that miraculous oil?

Well, you might not like this part. You see, Chanukah, like most other Jewish holidays, probably had very ancient pagan roots. In this case, the holiday was rooted in light festivals celebrated in the dark of winter. Think of it from an ancient perspective: The days keep getting shorter and shorter. You do not understand the science as to why that happens. You might be afraid that they are going to keep on getting shorter, and everything will dissolve into darkness. By four days after the Winter Solstice, however, a practiced eye would be able to discern that the days are becoming longer. This would lead to festivity. It could also have been that lighting the lights at the Solstice served as sympathetic magic: The “light deity” would take a spark of the human light and light the sun with it.

Still, what about that oil? Sadly, we almost surely got that story from the Greeks. They had a myth that they put a few drops of oil into the lamp near the goddess Athena on the Acropolis and it burned for an entire year.

If that is too uncomfortable, perhaps the oil story is rooted in Elijah’s and Elisha’s miraculous oil (I Kings 17:16, II Kings 4:1-6). Or we could say that someone morphed the Greek story into the light of Torah burning for a year. (Athena was, after all, the deity of wisdom.)

Eight days of light – what is that about?

Our most important instance of sympathetic magic in Judaism is the Water Libation Ceremony of Sukkot. As the priests poured out water below, they “triggered” the pouring out of water from above, i.e., rain. The libations took place during the day. The evening before the ceremony, water was drawn at the Siloam Pool and carried through the streets of Jerusalem to the Temple. There followed a night-long celebration with dancing and singing and general merriment (it was the only time men and women were separated at the Temple). There were huge lights flaring all night long, a spectacular vision in a world with only moonlight and starlight. This celebration was known as the Simchat Beit Hashoevah (“The Celebration at the Water-Drawing Place”). Sukkot begins with a big holiday and ends with a big holiday, has half-holidays in between, and lasts eight days in Israel. (This is very much like what Americans experience during the December holiday break: big holidays at the start and finish of an eight-day period, with half-holidays in between. It could also be birth and circumcision parties for Jesus, but that is a discussion for a different audience.)

When the Hasmoneans got the Temple back up and running, the first thing they did was celebrate Sukkot, including the all-night party lights. (Think: Olympic flame-sized.) Hence, we have the eight days of the first Chanukah. How do we know this? Not just from texts, e.g., Megillat Taanit, but from archaeology. Pictured with this article is a Chanukah menorah (we call it a chanukiah, to distinguish it from the Temple menorah) that tells the tale:

There are places for eight wicks, at the top. It is decorated with the rising sun in the middle and with bound branches of the lulav on either side. (Alternatively, according to Hannah Abrams, the middle figure could be a bisected etrog.) In fact, it does not take much imagining to see wreaths with lights on them as adaptations of this custom.

So am I the Grinch that stole Chanukah?

No, I hope you enjoy Chanukah as much as ever. I want you to appreciate what it really was. Was there gambling? Even more than there is today: It was a gamble to go into that building in the dark. Was there light? Yes, makeshift, flickering lighting, more sparklers and flares than serene candles.

Make Chanukah a commemoration of bravery and commitment, daring and ingenuity. Conquer the darkness where you find it. And light your way as best you can.

Happy Chanukah!

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