Chanukah is a very popular Jewish holiday—and the reason for its popularity these days has obscured what it is we should be celebrating.
Even though Chanukah is a “minor” festival, it may even be more popular than the “major” festival Passover. Most Jews observe it for the entire eight days (as they should), complete with an endless series of presents (as there shouldn’t be), whereas only the Passover seder beats it out as an observance (which misses the point).
Timing is a likely factor. Chanukah falls out during our month of Kislev, sometime around the winter solstice (December 21 this year and next), meaning that it occurs when the nights are the longest and darkest. This year, it begins Sunday night, three nights after Thanksgiving. Next year, Kislev itself only begins on the day after Thanksgiving and its last candle is to be lit on December 25.
A “festival of lights” is a perfect counter to “days of darkness,” which is why winter solstice festivals were commonplace in the ancient world. Both ancient Persia and ancient Rome celebrated the birthday of Mithra, their god of the rising sun, who oversees the changing of seasons, on December 25,. For many Romans, that was the most sacred day of their year. At one point, there may have been as many as 700 temples to Mithra just in the city of Rome alone.
In 274 C.E., the emperor Constantine reformed December 25 into the birthday of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun god, and that may have led to that day becoming Christmas. According to a medieval manuscript by the 12th-century Syrian Orthodox Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, “It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same December 25 the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries, the Christians also took part.” For that reason, Bar-Salibi writes, early Christian leaders chose the date for their nativity festival.
Our celebration of Chanukah had nothing to do with the winter solstice, however. It grew out of a historical fact—the rededication of the Temple and its altar on Kislev 25, 3926, following the temporary defeat of the Seleucid army. Three years earlier on that same date, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered the Temple altar to be defiled. Thus, we are told that on that day, “they sacrificed upon an idolatrous altar, which had been placed upon the altar of burnt-offering.” (See 1 Maccabees 1:59.)
Three years later, “on the 25th day of [Kislev]…, they [the Hasmoneans] rose up in the morning and offered sacrifice according to the Law upon the new altar of burnt offering…, at that same time and date [three years earlier] that the heathen had profaned it….” (See 1 Maccabees 4:52-54.)
Although the solstice was not the reason for Chanukah, the eventual emphasis on “light” as symbol may be one reason Chanukah caught on. It may have become popular not because of anything to do with “lights,” per se, but because it marked the victory of a ragtag Jewish army over a well-armed and oppressive foreign occupier. In the darkest of days of the year, Judeans had cause to celebrate their emergence from yet another dark period in their history.
Unfortunately, that is a telescoped version of what actually happened. The series of battles between the Judeans and the forces of Antiochus IV and his two immediate successors actually continued for another quarter-century and saw Jerusalem fall back into enemy hands, and also saw the death in battle of Chanukah’s hero Judah the Maccabee and one of his brothers, Eleazar the Piercer (Hacharoni). Nevertheless, it still was considered a day of celebration because of the restoration of the Temple in 3926.
It is one thing, after all, to celebrate a deliverance brought about by a series of miraculous plagues and a splitting sea; it is quite another for an oppressed people to celebrate a time when they broke the yoke of oppression seemingly by their own hand (which also would explain the popularity of Purim). That the author of 1 Maccabees wrote in such a way that God’s hand was everywhere to be seen, without actually saying so, as did the author of the Book of Esther, would not dispel that “by their own hand” feeling. (Ironically, 1 Maccabees hints that Purim was not known back then, even though its events occurred 400 years earlier. The Hasmoneans decreed that the day we observe as the Fast of Esther, Adar 13, the day before Purim, was to be observed as an annual festival. See 1 Maccabees 7:42 ff.)
“Light” eventually did enter Chanukah’s observance, but in a figurative sense, as the historian Josephus noted in his Antiquities of the Jews (see at 12.7.6-7).
“Indeed,” Josephus wrote of the victorious Judeans, “they were so very glad at the revival of their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days [emphasis mine]. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival.”
Neither Josephus nor anyone before him mentions anything about a one-day cruse of oil that burned for eight days as the reason for the observance. So extraordinary an event as the “miracle of the oil” certainly would not have gone unremarked in a contemporaneous text written by a likely eyewitness, yet it is nowhere to be found in 1 Maccabees or anywhere else. Here is how 1 Maccabees 4:49-50 relates what happened:
“They also made new holy vessels, and they brought into the temple the menorah, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the menorah they lighted, that they might give light in the Temple.”
As for that “menorah,” we are told this in a ninth century rabbinic text: “Why do we light Chanukah lamps? When…they entered the Holy Temple, they found there eight iron stakes, fixed them in the ground and lit lamps upon them.” (See Pesikta Rabbati 2.)
In using the words “I imagine,” Josephus is saying the reason it was called “Lights” was forgotten by his day, another indication that neither actual lights nor any kind of lamp-lighting ritual were involved in its original form.
That the original Chanukah was celebrated for eight days has to do with the fact that Judah ordered that a version of Sukkot be observed then, because it was the most immediate festival that went unobserved by edict of Antiochus IV. As 2 Maccabees 10:6 puts it: “The Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the Festival of Sukkot…..”
Originally, Chanukah was a festival honoring the dedication of the new altar (chanukat ha-mizbe-ach) that replaced the one defiled three years earlier. That Josephus did not use the name “Chanukah” may suggest it was not the popular name for it in his day, if the name existed at all. It is, however, the term used in the rabbinic literature that came after Josephus, presumably to focus attention on the altar’s dedication and what it meant—the birth of the concept of religious freedom into the world.
We are not the oppressed Jews of old. Our story has evolved. Most Jews no longer live under the kind of oppression Judeans knew. More to the point, we take the existence of a standing Jewish army in a reborn Jewish state for granted, as well as its track record of vanquishing those who would harm Jews (although we, too, sadly fail to see God’s hand in that). As for the solstice, technology, too, has evolved. Electricity ameliorates the effects of the darkness.
Unfortunately, the proximity of Christmas to Chanukah has a lot to do with its popularity today. The Christian holiday is celebrated with bright lights and expensive gifts, giving it a façade of attractiveness unlike any of our holidays (even though our festivals are imbued with a greater attractiveness of a more meaningful kind). Chanukah affords Jews the opportunity to adapt that façade to a proximate Jewish observance and not feel left out in any way. Erecting huge chanukiot in public spaces, often side by side with Christmas displays, adds to this feeling of inclusiveness.
The rededication of the altar is as relevant today as ever because religious freedom continues to be a right not yet universally accepted—seen even here in the attempts to Christianize America.
Religious freedom is what Chanukah has always stood for, and that is what we should be celebrating.
May that flame of freedom burn ever more brightly on each successive Chanukah night, and may its message finally enlighten the world around us.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.