Religion & Beliefs

A Secret History of Hanukkah

Since I’m 17, it’s not hard for me to remember a time when Hanukkah was my favorite holiday because of the presents. It’s even less of a stretch to think back to that traumatic moment which parallels the day a … Read More

By / December 19, 2006

Since I’m 17, it’s not hard for me to remember a time when Hanukkah was my favorite holiday because of the presents. It’s even less of a stretch to think back to that traumatic moment which parallels the day a Christian child finds out that there is no Santa Claus: The day that someone told me that not only is the practice of Hanukkah gift-giving uniquely American, but that it is a patronizing practice designed to keep Jewish kinderlach from feeling left out around Christmas. It is now fairly common knowledge among American Jewry that Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday. Still, the history is important. I am here to provide you with a bit of Hanukkah 101. In Judaism, we constantly strive to look to our texts for justification. Looking through the Tanach, the Hanukkah story is mysteriously absent. If we look to the books known as Macabees I and II—Jewish texts, though not part of the Tanach—we find the true story. The Jews are being oppressed by foreign rulers. They desecrate the Temple. A group of rebels known as the Macabees arise and toss them out. Here is where the story you were raised on disappears. When the Jews recapture the Temple, there is no mention of the Ner Tamid or oil or any miracle or anything of the sort. Instead, they celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, which they were unable to celebrate that year because they were not allowed them into the Temple. The celebration of Sukkot lasts 8 days and nights (sound familiar?). The Macabees, who then install themselves as the Hasmonean dynasty, declare that from hence forth there shall be an eight day celebration at this time of the year. This is where the story gets really juicy. What happened to the original story? How come it was replaced by the tale of miracles we have now? To give you a picture of how unimportant this holiday was in Talmudic times, every Jewish holiday has a volume of the Talmud devoted to it—except Hanukkah. Hanukkah is only mentioned once, in Tractate Shabbat. The Rabbis are engrossed in a discussion on various materials which one can use for Shabbat candles. They stumble across the question of whether the same things apply to the Hanukkah candles. The decision on the issue is irrelevant, but their explanation of the story is interesting. "When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the… Hasmoneans prevailed… oil was sought… and only one vial was found… The vial contained sufficient oil for one day… a miracle occurred, and it fed the… lamp eight days." Why the change? The Hasmonean dynasty was anti-Rabbinic so the Rabbis had trouble celebrating a holiday about the dynasty’s military victory. They also felt that since they were living under foreign rule at the time, such a nationalist holiday would be seen as dangerous. So they turned it into the religious holiday we celebrate today.