What Is The True Meaning of Hanukkah?
The Spiritual Meaning of Hanukkah
Everyone loves Hanukkah – latkes, gifts and dreidles – what’s not to love? But kids’ stuff aside, what is Hanukkah supposed to mean to us? Do all of these nice things about Hanukkah have any deeper spiritual meaning? And since we’re on the topic, why do we even celebrate this holiday now? Sure, the miracle of finding pure oil was great, but it pales in comparison with things like the Exodus from Egypt, and the Revelation at Sinai. Why does a flask of oil still get its own holiday, all these years later?
In this video, Immanuel Shalev leads us on a journey to find answers to these questions. Based on Rabbi Fohrman’s teachings on Hanukkah and giving them a twist of his own, Imu presents us with the grown-up version of this holiday.
As you’ll see, Hanukkah may in fact be the most relevant holiday for us as we make our way through life in the 21st century. Come find out why.
Hanukkah. Time for candles and presents, holiday sweaters, latkas and sufganiot. It's a great holiday! But what is Hanukkah supposed to mean to us? Why do we actually celebrate it?
What Is the True Meaning of Hanukkah?
I know, I know, the candles in the Temple, they only had enough oil to last them one day, and BOOM, miracle of miracles, it lasted for eight.
It's a nice story, but for the adults among us, have you ever given this holiday a second thought? Like, what's the deeper meaning of Hanukkah? What are the deep values of Hanukkah that are supposed to transform my soul, the values I can teach my kids, the ones I can be really proud of?
Because, once we're taking an adult look at Hanukkah, Hanukkah has a lot of problems!
Problem #1: the miracle. I get it, there's not enough oil, then there was enough oil, but c'mon, 2,000 years later, we're still celebrating the oil thing? It almost seems like a cheap parlor trick, like those birthday candles that don't really blow out, but cooler because God did it.
I mean, just take a look at the REST of our holidays. Pesach, you've got the splitting of the sea! Ten plagues, those are HUGE miracles! Shavuot, we celebrate the moment where our entire nation heard the voice of God and received our founding document, the Torah! Even Purim without any open miracles was a really big deal. I mean, the stakes were really high! Haman was going to wipe out every last Jew in the known world. And then, we were saved! So I get why I, thousands of years later, am celebrating that! Cuz I woulda been dead!
What would've happened if the oil had gone out after the first night? ::shrug, look around:: Nothing! The miracle was inconsequential! I'd still be around!
And it's not like every miracle ever gets its own holiday. The Torah is filled with hundreds of miracles. Yehoshua bringing the walls down at Yericho. Or that time when giant boulders rained down on his enemies from the sky. We don't have "Giant Boulder Day," where we say Hallel, and bake boulder-shaped cakes. So why does Hanukkah merit its own holiday?
But maybe problem #1 isn't such a problem, because, hey, we're adults now, we can admit that the lights, the oil, that's not the real reason we celebrate Hanukkah. The Rabbis emphasize oil because of light, spirituality, all that fluffy stuff. But the real reason we celebrate Hanukkah is the victory at war, the Jewish Rebellion.
We were free and independent in our own land, but then the Greeks invaded; they threatened our values, prohibited circumcision, Torah study, tried to Hellenize us. This small band of Maccabees rose up against them and miraculously overthrew the most powerful army in the world. They restored Jewish political control of Jerusalem, and recaptured the Beit Hamikdash.
But if that's true, if that's why we celebrate Hanukkah, that brings us to problem #2: the victory against the Greeks was a miracle for sure, but what came from that victory? Independence? Religious revival? Not quite.
Here, I'll let Rabbi Fohrman tell you about it.
What Was the Historical Significance of Hanukkah?
What is the great historical event that we are celebrating here in Hanukkah? We all know the answer to that; we are celebrating the great victory of the Maccabees over the great, evil forces of Antiochus. That's the kind of narrative that we grow up with as kids.
It's all very shiny and wonderful; almost as shiny and wonderful as the presents that we unwrap and the lights that glow in our homes. But the actual history was not so shiny and wonderful.
First of all, while it was convenient to point to Antiochus as the villain, in reality, the villain wasn't only him but members of our own country men, who were Hellenists, who had assimilated Greek ideals, bought the Greek line on life, hook line and sinker; they were as much a part of the problem as Antiochus was. The victory was as much against them as against anyone else.
Moreover, even the victory against Antiochus, while it was a brief bright shining spot in Jewish history, became much more clouded and the ensuing generations of the descendants of the Maccabees.
First of all, after that victory, it's not like the Jews enjoyed complete and total independence from those around them. Even in the very next generation of the Hasmonean dynasty, the rulers from the Chashmonaic family, have to wheel and deal with Antiochus's sons, submit to taxation from them, have to make bargains with the Roman empire, bargains that eventually collapsed after time with Rome coming in and making Judah a client state.
Eventually, they installed Herod who made it his business to completely wipe out all remnants of the Chashmonaic dynasty, tries to destroy all male heirs to the throne.
So it's not so glorious what happens next, and the moral characters from these rulers – from the Chashmonaic dynasty, Mattathias, Yochanan, the leaders of the revolt against Antiochus – they were noble and wonderful men.
But later generations, even the very next generation, Shimon, one of the brothers of Judah the Maccabee, takes over. Shimon gets murdered by his son-in-law, his kids are assassinated too. Luckily, one of his son, Yochanan, he wasn't at the banquet where the murders took place, and he takes over leadership; he became both the high priest, the kohen gadol, and the political leader of the people.
But the perushim, the Pharisees, weren't so crazy about him having both of these offices. So when he died, he decided to split them between his wife, who would take over political leadership and his son, Aristobulus, who would take over the high priesthood.
Except Aristobulus didn't like that idea. But he threw his mother in prison where she starved to death, then he imprisoned three of his rival brothers, and he takes over political leadership too. These are very dark times.
Yes, it's true, Judea wins its independence nominally with the victory of the Maccabees. Yes, it's true, the temple is purified. This is a temporary bright spot in the history of the Jewish people, but for a very short flicker of time.
The war only ended well in the short term. It was a miracle when it happened, but it also led to one of the ugliest political periods Jerusalem has ever seen. And in the end, our enemies were just too strong to overcome. Judea didn't win independence; it succumbed to Roman rule and ultimately the destruction of the Second Temple.
In the final analysis, all the Maccabees managed to do was to delay the exile by a couple of decades. The truth is, even if there were miracles, lights, improbable victories, they had no real significance, no lasting power – because corruption and exile were just around the corner.
I know, it's kind of a downer. And I know what you're thinking: why are you ruining Hanukkah for me?! It's eight days where I can cheat on my diet, and get lots of presents, there can't be something wrong with that!
Ya know what? There isn't. But I think there's a grown-up version of Hanukkah that's truly meaningful. There are deep values here that will impact you, personally, thousands of years later, a story worth celebrating, something inspiring, something to be proud of.
Uncovering the Real Meaning Behind Hanukkah
Hi, I'm Imu Shalev. In this video, together with Rabbi David Fohrman, we'll go on an adventure to really explore the essence and meaning of Hanukkah. Full disclosure, most of the material in this video is borrowed from Rabbi Fohrman's animated video series, but anything you don't hear him say directly is my own approach. So if you hate it, don't blame him. But if you come with me on this journey, your Hanukkah may never be the same.
Let's start with the question of the oil. Why are we celebrating such a seemingly insignificant miracle? So to start answering that question, I wanna play a little game with you. It's called: Where have we heard these ideas before?
Is there another small miracle you can think of that's kinda similar to our Hanukkah miracle? If you look carefully in Biblical text itself, you will find an event that eerily reminds you of Hanukkah.
It was another miraculous light that just kept on burning, and wouldn't go out. It almost seems like that Biblical event is a kind of prototype for what will happen centuries later, in the times of Hanukkah. If we can understand what that event was, and what its significance was, we might gain an unprecedented insight into the meaning of Hanukkah…
Rabbi Fohrman? Take it away.
So, where do we have something in the Torah itself that reminds us of Hanukkah's miracle with the oil? Let's think about that miracle with the oil.
What were its distinguishing characteristics? There's enough oil for only one day; but it burns for eight days. Somehow, there's this little bit of oil and it's burning and it's burning, and it's not being consumed. What does that remind you of?
I don't know about you, but it reminds me of the burning bush. There's a bush that's burning, burning for hours and it's not being consumed. Centuries later, there's oil burning, burning for hours, days, but it's not being consumed either.
You know, if you consider Hanukkah the last great miracle in our National history that we commemorate by means of a holiday, what would be our first great national miracle? It'll probably be the burning bush. That's the beginning of the redemption from Egypt that gives rise to our birth as a people.
So, it's almost like we have these bookends in our history. Burning bush, Hanukkah. Could the burning bush hold a key to understanding the meaning of the oil?
In Search of the Purpose of Hanukkah
Okay, let's read through the first few verses of the burning bush story together, and kind of see what's going on.
So, an angel appears to Moses, belabat-esh mitoch hasneh, in flames, from the midst of the bush. Vayar, and Moses sees, vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu uchal, he sees the bush burning with fire; but the bush isn't being consumed. Vayomer Moshe, and Moses says, asurah-na ve'ereh et-hamareh hagadol hazeh. Moses says, "Gee! Let me take a look at this, a remarkable thing. Madua lo-yivar hasneh, how come that bush isn't burning?"
Vayar Hashem ki sar lirot, then God sees, and Moses's turned to look at the bush. Vayikra elav Elokim mitoch hasneh vayomer Moshe Moshe – vayomer hineni, and God calls out to him amidst the bush and says, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses says, "Here I am."
So, here's the next strange thing in this narrative. Why do I need all of this? Isn't all of this, or most of this, kind of strenuous description?
I mean, what if we just took out this entire verse and a half section? What if we read it like this? So, there's this burning bush, vayar vehineh hasneh boer baesh vehasneh einenu uchal, Moses sees and he sees there's this bush, and it's burning with fire; and the bush isn't being consumed. And at that point, vayikra elav Elokim mitoch hasneh, God called out to him from the bush and said, "Moses! Moses! Vayomer hineni." Moses answered, "Here I am."
What is all this extraneous detail about Moses talking to himself about this remarkable thing? About God seeing that he is pausing to look. Why is all that important?
Vayar Hashem ki sar lirot, God saw that he has stopped to look. That's important. It implies that if God didn't see that Moses stopped to look, then maybe the story would have been different. Maybe Moses wouldn't have been chosen.
There's something about Moses stopping to look, something about Moses saying, "Gee! Isn't this remarkable?" Something about God perceiving that Moses stopping to look, which is crucial to the story. The story doesn't happen without that.
Is the Torah implying to us that this was the clincher? This was the last event, the last happening that made Moses right for this job? And if so, what was so special about noticing the bush? Everyone can notice the bush; it was a miracle, right?
Now, somehow, it wasn't such an obvious miracle. Just like the lights of the oil wasn't such an obvious miracle; which makes it all the stranger, right? I mean, if you were God, and you wanted to call out to Moses at this big, dramatic moment of history, wouldn't you make a big miracle? Something like – forgive me – remember that sinful Wizard of Oz? The wicked witch riding Dorothy's name smoked from a broom in the sky? I mean, that got her attention. What about lightning that sears a message into rock? "Moses, I need you. Love, God."
Any of these would have been very, very impressive. It's hard to notice a bush that's burning and not being consumed. It's hard to notice oil that's burning and not being consumed. What secret lies in these two hard to notice miracles?
The Small Yet Significant Purpose of Hanukkah?
Well, the first of all there's the element of time. How long do you have to look at a burning bush before you notice that the bush isn't being consumed? Pretty long time. But even if you look at it for a long time, you still might not notice it. And there lies the key. Why wouldn't you notice it?
The answer is: because that's not the way bushes work. Bushes always get consumed eventually when they burn. And because it's not the way bushes work, even if your eyes see the bush remaining intact despite the fire, your mind might not necessarily accept what your eyes say. Let me explain what I mean by that.
A while ago, there was this social psychology experiment. It involved college students, who were asked to look at playing cards and identify which cards they were seeing. So, they were shown a whole bunch of playing cards – an eight of spades, a three of hearts, five of clubs; except, they were showing these kids a three of hearts and one of the hearts have been erased with whiteout. So, we want to see how the kids would identify this card.
So, they did this experiment with hundreds of kids, and every student got to look at the cards for 5/6/7 seconds. And the experiment was what would happen once they got to the anomalous cards? When they got to the three of hearts with only two hearts, how did the kids identify it?
Turns out, about half of them identified that there's a three of hearts. About half of them identified it as a two of hearts. But no one said, "There's no such card like that on the deck, there's something wrong with that card." They got to look at this card for 5/6/7 seconds and no one saw what it really was. Their eyes could see what was there, but their brains couldn't accept what their eyes were seeing.
Each one of those students came to that experiment with a certain preconceived notion in their minds. The deck contains only 52 cards, and what they saw was a 53rd card; a card that's not in the standard deck. But their brain didn't accept the possibility of a 53rd card.
So, what happens when your eyes see something that doesn't fit your preconceived notions. You take the round peg and we smash it into the square hole. By golly! It's either going to be a three of hearts or it's going to be a two of hearts, but I'm going to make this fit; and you don't even realize you saw something anomalous.
When you see things that burn, the thing that's burning always gets consumed. That's why this miracle was so hard to notice. Even if you had the luxury of time, even if you could look at it long enough, you wouldn't always see.
That was the final test. Moses had to be someone who could see not with his eyes, but accept with his mind what his eyes saw.
If Moses looks at the bush and sees that the fire is not consuming the bush, and he says, madua lo-yivar hasneh, why isn't the bush burning? The only answer to that is the bush is not the source of the fire. There's a transcendent source for the fire. A source beyond this world.
You see there's two kinds of fire – there's the fire we usually see and the fire we don't usually see.
The fire we usually see is a by-product of the physical world; stuff burns and when it burns, we see flame. Flame is ethereal; it's kind of the least physical aspect of the physical world. We can touch it, we can feel it, you can capture it, you can get too close to it. Usually, that ethereal thing we call fire is a byproduct of something that's burning.
But what God was showing Moshe was, that's not the only kind of fire there is. Fire can come from somewhere else; fire can come from outside this world too. Fire can rest upon a physical thing, even if that physical thing is not the source for it.
I want to read with you again these beginning verses of the burning bush story. I think we'll find something astonishing. We've heard it all before. Where else on the Torah do we hear a story that reminds us of this?
"And Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law, and he was leading the sheep through the desert until he came to the Mountain of God at Horeb." Why is it called the Mountain of God? It's not yet the Mountain of God. But when does it become the Mountain of God? At the Revelation of Sinai.
Okay, there's the clue. When else does Moses lead sheep through a desert on his way to the Mountain of God? Sheep belonging to his father? The answer of course, is at Revelation. Except the sheep aren't sheep; the flock this time is the Jewish people.
The Jewish people belonging to Moses's Father. Not his father-in-law, his Father in Heaven. And he leads them through the desert until they get to the Mountain of God, until they get to Horeb, and what do they find there? They find something on fire.
Fast forward 16 chapters. Chapter 19, verse 18: v'har Sinai ashan kulo, the mountain was engulfed in smoke, the mountain was ablaze; but not because the mountain was the fuel for the fire, no! Mifnei asher yarad alav Hashem baesh, because God had descended upon it, because there was a transcendent source for the fire. The burning bush gets replayed again, all of this is just practice for the real thing.
The real thing is the Revelation, which explains something. It explains why Moses had to be able to see the burning bush, he had to be able to see the 53rd card. Because if you can't open yourself to the possibility of a transcendent source of fire, even if it's right in front of you, you aren't really seeing.
There could be a huge Revelation with fireworks, whatever you want, but if you're not open to the possibility of the transcendent God coming into this world, you'll ignore all evidence of it. It's just the 53rd card – you just won't see it.
You'll explain it: "It's probably a volcano. No, no! Something going on at Sinai over there, I think I'll check it out one day. Let the month move on." The one who is going to bring Israel to that meeting place between God and man, that was Moses – this was his test. Can he see fire that doesn't burn?
What Does Celebrating Hanukkah Really Mean?
Let's come back to that first Hanukkah. Think of what it meant for the Maccabees to notice, to make a big deal out of something so...small. They'd have to realize, day after day, that as they went to light the candles, they still hadn't gone out.
Let me ask you: if the light wasn't going out, what is the source of that light? It's not the oil. The oil is burning, yes, but it isn't being consumed. The bush was burning but it wasn't being consumed. So what's the source of that light? It was transcendent God.
Possibly the first nature-defying miracle in our history, the burning bush, beautifully portends the last nature-defying miracle in our history, the lights of the Hanukkah candles.
The lesson is profound: Are we able to see the 53rd card? Whether large or small, are we spiritually sensitive enough to notice the miracles in our lives?
The lesson is powerful and deeply meaningful. It could have a profound effect on how we look at the world around us.
But does it answer our questions about this holiday? Do we now understand why Hanukkah deserves a place up there with the big holidays, with the incredible big miracles of Pesach, or the long lasting significance of the revelation at Sinai? Not really…
It's a beautiful lesson, romantic even, but a lesson isn't a reason to celebrate. The Torah is full of thousands of lessons, we don't celebrate each one with its own holiday. There isn't even a burning bush holiday!
And, we still have our questions about the war. What about the fact that the Hasmonean victory quickly descended into corruption and chaos? That it had no real lasting significance? That the destruction of the newly rededicated Temple was around the corner?
We're still left with these glaring questions, but we're on our way to the answer: Somehow, the ability of the Maccabees to notice that the source of that flickering light that wouldn't go out was transcendent, was Godly...that will be our key.
How Did Hanukkah Become a Meaningful Holiday in Judaism?
So in order to tackle these questions, I want you to try a little thought experiment with me. We, 2,000 years later, don't think it's particularly odd that there is a holiday called Hanukkah. We have the benefit of 2,000 years of candles in the window, of latkes and dreidels, but let me ask you to put yourselves in the shoes of the people at the times of Hanukkah.
You're at the market, chatting with your friend, when the town crier gets up on a crate in the middle of the square and declares: "EVERYONE, EVERYONE, WE'RE GOING TO DO A NEW HOLIDAY FROM NOW ON. IT'S CALLED HANUKKAH. RABBI SCHWARZBERG HAS ALL THE DETAILS, AND YOU'LL GET LESSONS ON ALL THE LAWS, AND NEW RITUAL FOODS AT SHUL THIS WEEK. RECIPES WILL BE IN THE NEWSLETTER"
That's crazy! In Judaism, holidays aren't just declared, and added to the calendar to be observed for all eternity. Our holidays were given to us by God. The Torah outlines them for us: Pesach, Shavuos, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, that's it! Those are the holidays that have been celebrated by our people for centuries, you don't just add new ones.
And to give you a little more context on just how revolutionary it was for the Maccabees to add this holiday, here's another thing we don't notice because of how much time has passed between us and the advent of Hanukkah: When was the last time you met a prophet?
You haven't? You've gotta go back thousands of years before we get to the last prophet. Have you ever wondered why the Torah is so full of prophets, and yet, now, we don't have any prophets??
There was a Biblical age, an age of prophecy, and it ended with the destruction of the First Temple. But Hanukah happens in the Second Temple period. There was no more direct line to God, no urim and tumim, no prophets to turn to.
Hanukkah happens hundreds of years after that. And you know what? The Maccabees wrote a book too, and none of us know it, because it wasn't canonized, it wasn't accepted into Tanach.
So let me ask you: who did these Maccabees think they were? They're writing books, trying to get them into Tanach. They're declaring holidays, when only God declares holidays... and we, thousands of years later, are celebrating this strange holiday that they declared? I know, they looked at the candles, and they lasted, and it was like the burning bush, but still... who did they think they were?
I want to take this thought experiment further, by occupying the shoes of the Maccabees themselves. Because strangely, we do have their book – the Book of the Maccabees. It's not often read or studied, as I said, Judaism does not regard this book as prophetic. But we're going to look at it kind of like a diary of the events from those who lived through them.
Our goal here is to understand how they, the Maccabees themselves, understood the meaning of their own struggle. When we understand how they saw these events through their own eyes, we may understand how this holiday withstood the test of time, and just why it's worth celebrating thousands of years later.
Parallels to the Significance of Hanukkah in the Bible
The Book of the Maccabees will tell the story of a steadily growing campaign of oppression waged by Antiochus, a Syrian Greek king, He raids the Temple, he plunders its riches and then two years later he returns to wreak even more havoc.
Here's how the Book of the Maccabees puts it. And I'm reading now from First Maccabees, Chapter 1, line 29. Two years later, the king sent the Mycenaean commander to the cities of Judah, and he, that Mycenaean commander, he came to Jerusalem with a strong force.
He spoke to them peacefully but deceitfully, and they believed him. Then he attacked the city suddenly in a great onslaught and destroyed many of the people in Israel. He plundered the city and set fire to it, demolished its houses and its surrounding walls and they took captive the women and the children.
I want to go back and look at this with you, who was it who did all this damage to Jerusalem? You know the author of Maccabees tells us that Antiochus had sent the Mycenaean commander – whoever that is – to do it. Well, who is that?
So the Mycenaeans, they were mercenary soldiers, they came from Asia Minor, apparently Antiochus had hired a bunch of them to carry out this terrible and ruthless, brutal campaign against Jerusalem. Not very nice, but at least that reading of the Book of the Maccabees makes sense, you can understand what it's saying. But now I'm going to give you another reading that doesn't make sense.
You know, here's the problem, when you and I are reading the Book of the Maccabees we're actually reading it in translation, it was written in Hebrew but the problem is you can't get to the Hebrew because the original Hebrew of the Book of the Maccabees has been lost to us over time. The closest thing we have to the original now is a Greek translation of the work, and if you aren't fluent in Greek you're forced to rely on English translations of that Greek translation.
Those lines that I read to you, they come from a fairly modern English translation of First Maccabees, a translation that was done in just 2010 from the Greek, and it's used by a modern scholar, a guy by the name of Daniel Harrington. However, this is not the only translation of First Maccabees available; one of the earliest English translations of First Maccabees is the King James' version, and there, the line I read you is portrayed in a radically different way.
In the King James' version it says that Antiochus did not send Mycenaeans to Jerusalem, it says, he sent tax collectors to Jerusalem. Listen to how it sounds now. First those tax collectors they spoke peacefully and reassuringly, but all of that was actually deceitful, because shortly thereafter these tax collectors they attacked the city, plundered it, set fire to it, took women and children captive, to be sold as slaves.
And now you're reading this King James' version here with the tax collectors instead of Mycenaeans, and you're saying to yourself, who did all of this? Some tax collectors? Really?
It's like, imagine, one day you get a knock at the door and there's an IRS agent there. Then he takes out a machine gun and he just mows down everybody in the house, he and his friends, the other tax collectors, they start throwing grenades up and down the block, they kill half the people in the town, sell women and children as slaves.
It's like, what kind of tax collectors are these? Tax collectors are like midlevel bureaucrats, like Forrest Gump types, they're not like some sort of mercenary army out to rape, pillage and kill.
So you can see now why later translators like this 2010 translation and others would be tempted to sort of get rid of the tax collectors; and because Mycenaeans, these guys are mercenary soldiers, the text actually makes sense. But the problem, is what did the original Greek say?
If the original Greek said tax collectors, then Harrington doesn't get to change it to Mycenaeans, just because he's an academic and gets poetic license or something.
So here actually is how Harrington explains himself about all of this. Harrington admits that the Greek version of the text really had tax collectors, but he thinks the Greek translator got it wrong.
He suspects that the original Hebrew was Sarei Mem-Samech-Yud-Mem. Now he says the Greek translator read that as Sarei Missim, which would mean tax collectors, but Harrington says that the context proves that wrong. Why would nice, mild men who are tax collectors go on a killing rampage?
So Harrington says the original Hebrew should be read not as Sarei Missim, but as Sarei Mussim, which would mean Mycenaean officers. Mycenaean mercenaries would certainly be the kind of folks to go on a rampage. So this whole idea of using tax collectors in the translation, that's all just an unfortunate but understandable mistake.
But here's what I'd like to suggest. What if the Greek translator got it right? What if Harrington is the one who got it wrong?
If that was the original Hebrew text, Sarei Mem-Samech-Yud-Mem, you know that recalls something for us. In the Jewish experience, Sarei Missim are the very original bad guys in our national history; going all the way back to our very First oppression in the land of Egypt.
The text tells us in Exodus: Vayasimu alav sarei missim lema'an anoto b'sivlotam – the Egyptians, they placed upon us tax collectors to oppress us with their burdens. It all began with those darn tax collectors.
Ramban explains that the original descent into slavery back in Egypt, it took place deceptively. You can't just take a peaceful, law-abiding immigrant population and enslave them out of the blue.
Instead, Pharaoh started by levying taxes against the Hebrews, but all that was just a ruse. Gradually those taxes grew more onerous, and then Pharaoh unleashed other deceptive measures upon the Hebrews. Before they knew it the Hebrews were slaves.
It seems like the author of the Book of the Maccabees wants to take us on a covert, literary journey all the way back to Egypt. In Egypt first there were tax collectors, but they were deceptive and before you knew it everyone was slaves. And here in the Book of the Maccabees, first there were tax collectors, then the Book of the Maccabees says they were deceptive, and then before you knew it women and children were being sold as slaves.
It's like it was all happening again. The echoes of Egypt in the Book of the Maccabees seem like they're real.
Now if you doubt me, if you think this is all just a figment of my imagination, the echoes of Egypt actually continue. Like go back to Egypt for a minute, what happened after the tax collectors gave way to slavery? The very next thing we hear about in the text back in Exodus is: Vayiven orei miskenot l'Paraoh – the people were forced to build these great storehouses for Pharaoh.
Now go to the Book of the Maccabees, after the tax collectors give way to pillaging the populace, with women and children sold as slaves, the next thing the Book of the Maccabees tells us, Chapter 1, line 33, is that Syrian forces co-opted Hebrews and forced them to build a fortress, a citadel that would be used as a huge storehouse for the Syrian Greeks.
So all in all, these parallels; tax collectors, deception, slavery, building the storehouses, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence.
The next thing that Pharaoh did came the terrible decree of killing little children, baby boys, by throwing them in the Nile. A partial kind of genocide waged against the people of Israel, involving the most vulnerable; little baby boys separated from their anguished mothers and killed.
As it turns out, if we keep on reading the Book of the Maccabees we hear something eerily similar. Antiochus creates a decree prohibiting circumcision of little baby boys. And what would happen if you violated that decree? Chapter 1, line 60 in First Maccabees. Women who had their children circumcised, the baby first was put to death and the lifeless body was hung over the neck of the mother. After that, the mother and then the family would be put to death too.
Here too, the events that take place eerily echo those in Egypt, and yet, even as Antiochus seems to follow in the footsteps of Pharaoh, in a way, what he's doing is the mirror image of Pharaoh as well.
Centuries before, in Egypt, the Egyptians had killed the young, but they did so in a way that covered up the crime, they threw the children in the Nile, allowing the placid waters of the river to cover the dead and disguise the crime.
In Antiochus' time, there's no attempt to disguise; instead, he decrees that the bodies of the murdered infants be put on display. It's just a twist on the same gruesome trick.
Okay, so let's see if the parallels continue, what happens next in our Egypt story? The savior arrives on the scene, and that of course would be Moses. Lo and behold the next thing that happens in the book of First Maccabees, the savior arrives on the scene in the personhood of Matityahu, the leader of what would become the Maccabees.
And just to heighten the sense of resonance, where did Moses get his name from? Ki min ha'mayim meshitihu – that's what the daughter of Pharaoh said – because I pulled you out of the water. But that word Meshitihu, you know how you spell it? Almost exactly the same as Matityahu, the Hebrew name for the leader of the Maccabees.
As a matter of fact, just about the only difference between the two names is a Shin that turns into a Taf. Those of you who know Aramaic know that Shin and Taf interchange all the time. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that this leader's name just happens to be Matityahu.
It seems to have been something that was on the mind of the author of Maccabees, but the question now is why? What did he want us to see from this? How does this shed light on how he and the Maccabees may have viewed as the meaning of their experiences? How are we to interpret these clues that have been given us?
I'd like to suggest that the Book of the Maccabees itself provides the answer, because just as these Egypt parallels come to a close, the author of Maccabees brings us to one other Biblical narrative, a narrative that happened centuries later, that seemingly has nothing to do with Egypt, but perhaps has everything to do with it? It is in this final clue that I think we'll see the meaning of this all.
The Book of the Maccabees in Chapter 2 picks up on the narrative after the death of Matityahu, it chronicles the first battle really between Yehuda the new leader and the Greek Syrian troops.
So there's this Greek general by the name of Saron, he's advancing, and Yehuda comes out to meet him in battle with a comparatively small force of men. Those soldiers look up, they see the staggering array of forces that are gathering against them. And they say to Yehuda ha'Maccabee, Chapter 2, line 17: How can we, few as we are, fight such a strong host as this? Besides, we are weak since we haven't eaten today. But Yehuda said, many are easily hemmed in by a few, in the sight of heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few.
Now if you're just reading this as an account of what happened and you're ignoring any resonances to earlier events, it just seems a little strange what's happening here. I mean, fine, the people are outnumbered but why mention that we're really hungry, can't we have some breakfast? But the truth is, I think the reason why it's there, the reason why we're hearing about it, is because each of these things that we're told now is intended to remind us of one Biblical story.
It's like the author of the Book of the Maccabees is hitting you over the head saying, you remember what story we're talking about? Remember when everyone was outnumbered? Remember when the leaders said yeah, don't worry about being outnumbered because G-d can help you whether you're few or many? Remember when the people didn't have anything to eat and it didn't matter? Remember all of that?
That's what seems to be happening. What story are we hearing, the echoes of that the author of Maccabees wants us to remember? It's the story of Jonathan and King Saul.
The story of Jonathan and Saul in their very first war against the Philistines is recounted in the biblical Book of Samuel, and it is eerily similar to the events that will occur centuries later in the time of the Maccabees.
Israel is occupied by an enemy force, but this time it's not the Syrian Greeks, it's the Philistines. There's a new and untested leader, but this time it's not Matityahu or his son Yehuda, it's Saul, and his son Jonathan. In both cases, a war ensues, a war in which Israelite forces are vastly outnumbered, but against all odds they achieve victory anyway.
Then, there's the language that all of this is couched in. Just before attacking the superior enemy force, Jonathan, son of King Saul, speaks to his armor bearer and when he does so he says the exact words attributed to Yehuda ha'Maccabee by the Book of the Maccabees. Ein laHashem matzor l'hoshi'a b'rav o bime'at – there's nothing that holds back G-d from saving, whether with many or with few.
The Book of the Maccabees seems to quote Jonathan's words, placing them in the mouth of Yehuda ha'Maccabee centuries later.
And, lest you think that maybe all of this is some strange mere coincidence, you have to reckon with the second coincidence too. Remember that piece in the Book of the Maccabees about everybody in the outnumbered army being starving, hungry, haven't eaten all day? So it is in the Jonathan and Saul story too.
Saul's men are hungry, they haven't eaten all day. For some reason, for better or for worse, Saul instructs them to avoid eating until they've completely vanquished the enemy.
It's as if the author of the Book of the Maccabees had two great, covert goals in writing the first few chapters of his book; he wanted the reader to remember about Egypt, and he wanted the reader to remember about Saul and Jonathan.
One of the most difficult parts of the Jonathan and Saul story that jumps out at you as you read it, is the role played by the prophet Samuel. You see, Samuel was the prophet who had anointed Saul as the very first king of Israel, and when he did so, he had told Saul something mysterious. He said, wait for seven days for me and then you and me together we will offer peace offerings.
Now when he had said that, all the way back at Saul's coronation, it seemed unclear exactly what he meant. When was this going to happen this seven-day wait? He seemed to be saying that at some point in the future there will come a time when you're going to need to wait for seven days to see me, and then together, we'll offer peace offerings. But when exactly would that happen?
But then, if you keep on reading the Book of Samuel, just a couple of chapters later, you find out when that moment was. It actually occurs two years later in the context of the war that we have been talking about, the war that Jonathan and Saul will wage against the Philistines.
In that war Saul finds himself to be completely outnumbered. The Philistines are arraying a vast army to fight him; and to give you a sense of exactly just how outnumbered Saul is, the Israelites start the campaign with 3,000 men, the Philistines have 30,000 chariots.
Now chariots, those are like the ancient equivalent of tanks, so 10 enemy tanks for every Israelite soldier. But in addition to that, the Philistine also have 6,000 trained archers, and, what the text describes as, an innumerable amount of infantry troops. So this is not really a fair fight.
Anyway, Saul has gathered his army and then he starts to do exactly what the prophet had told him he would do, wait for him for seven days. This seems to be the appointed moment that Samuel was talking about. Somehow, Saul just knows this is what he meant, I need to wait seven days for him.
So he waits and as he does so his men begin to tremble, looking at the vast enemy army gathering against them over on the other hill. They begin to hide in caves and crevices and holes in the ground, but still Saul faithfully waits for Samuel. Day after day he waits and finally the appointed seventh day arrives. Saul's men have now started to abandon him; out of the 3,000 men he started with, only 600 remain.
Saul looks around and still Samuel has not arrived. So he commands his men to begin to prepare the offerings. He offers the first one and then, just then, who should he see coming around the bend, but the prophet Samuel.
Now you can imagine at this point what must have been going through Saul's mind. It's like how come this took so long, but boy am I glad to see you. So Saul goes out to greet him and to bless him: Vayeitzei Shaul likrato le'barcho. But Samuel's response is absolutely mindboggling.
Vayomer Shmuel meh asita – Samuel says, what have you done? Why did you offer this offering without me? You were supposed to wait. Saul says the people, they were starting to abandon me, I didn't want to face the enemy in war without offering these offerings to G-d.
Vayomer Shmuel el Shaul, so Samuel says to Saul, niskalta, you have acted foolishly. Loh shamarta et mitzvat Hashem Elokecha – you have not faithfully kept the command of G-d. Had you only done so, ki atah heichin Hashem et mamlachta el Yisrael ad olam, G-d would have prepared your kingship as a dynasty to last forever. But now it will not be so.
V'atah mamlachtecha loh takum – now your dynasty shall not last. Bikeish Hashem lo ish kilvavo vayetzaveihu Hashem l'nagid al amo – G-d will find someone else to be the leader over His people. Your kingdom will not last.
Now you read this story and your heart just goes out to Saul. I mean, what could Samuel mean by all this? It just sounds so mean and capricious for him to say this. And anyway, why did Samuel have to wait until the very last minute to arrive? You think that was fun for Saul?
Saul's men really were starting to abandon him, the text says so, what did Samuel expect to happen? And even if Saul somehow did transgress here, how bad really was that sin, if we can even call it a sin? Saul's failure seems completely understandable really, why does he deserve to lose his entire dynasty because of this apparently trivial misdeed? Nothing about this seems to make any sense.
Let's play odds-maker you and me. Imagine it's two and a half thousand years ago, you're in the ancient equivalent of Las Vegas and you're waging a bet on Saul's ability to vanquish the Philistines in this upcoming battle. Saul has 3,000 men and the Philistines, 30,000 chariots, 6,000 sharpshooters, and an almost innumerable amount of infantry. So now, what are the odds of a victory here? You'd have to say, vanishingly close to zero.
Now one more question for you, let's say Saul doesn't have 3,000 men anymore, a bunch start to desert him, and now he only has 600 left, now what are the odds? Honestly, have they really changed?
Think about it rationally. You have to answer no. There was basically a zero chance of success to begin with and there's the same zero chance of success now.
If Saul looks at the situation with a clear head he actually loses nothing by waiting for Samuel. But look what he gains. The symbolic act of waiting, it would have been very powerful indeed, and that's what Samuel had been telling Saul. Way back, all the way at his coronation, when he said there would come a time when you're going to have to wait for seven days for me, now was the time, the war of the Philistines.
It was a desperate moment that war, and in desperate moments like that Samuel was saying, don't make the fatal error of thinking that you control the path to victory. Your actions are close to irrelevant. In times like these your focus needs to be on one immutable fact, an Israelite king is just a vessel, he is king, but G-d is King of Kings.
As the Philistines mass their overwhelming army, Saul's job was to wait, to watch his men fade away, and to understand that their desertions were all irrelevant. His job at that moment was a spiritual job, he needed to express faith in the King of Kings. And just wait with peace and equanimity for Samuel, and when he arrived the two of them would offer offerings. It's all going to be okay.
In Samuel's eyes, Saul's inability to wait, his desperation at the desertion of his useless troops, was a failure, but intriguingly though, there is someone involved in the battle that day, who did carry out Samuel's vision to the fullest; it wasn't Saul, it was his son Jonathan.
As the Philistine forces are massing, Jonathan slips away from his father's camp with his armor bearer and situates himself just below the hill upon which the enemy is encamped. This is where Jonathan speaks the words that are later quoted by the author of First Maccabees.
He tells his armor bearer, let's go over, just you and me together to the camp of these Philistines, maybe G-d will act on our behalf, for there is nothing holding back G-d's ability to save, whether with many or with few.
Jonathan is taking the idea that we were talking about above to its logical endpoint. Vanishingly small odds are vanishingly small odds, period. This is a war that will be won or lost purely on the basis of G-d's involvement, and once that's true, well for G-d there really is no difference between many or few.
So Jonathan and his armor bearer attack, it seems insane and the Philistines taunt Jonathan and his armor bearer, but as the two of them get close to the camp, confusion breaks out among the Philistines. The Philistines, trying to attack Jonathan, unintentionally direct their fire at one another, those on the receiving end counterattack, once more bringing destruction on their own troops. Before you know it the Philistine camp is at war with itself.
And at that very point the text of the Book of Samuel gives us a telling phrase, it says: Vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu et Yisrael – and G-d saved Israel that day. Now those words in Hebrew they might be familiar to you, because that phrase, vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu, it appears only one other time in all of Tanach.
The only other time it appears is at Israel's triumphant crossing of the Red Sea after G-d brought down walls of water on Pharaoh and his troops. By re-using that expression now, the Book of Samuel seems to be saying sure, Jonathan and his armor bearer attacked, but where did the victory really come from? It came from G-d. It was just like the salvation from Egypt at the Red Sea.
The destruction of Pharaoh's army at the sea was the greatest, most overt example of G-d's involvement in human affairs. The war against the Philistines, by contrast, contained no overt miracle at all, it was just a case of friendly fire that got out of control. But in using these words to describe the victory – vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu et Yisrael – the text of the Book of Samuel is making very clear the way it wants you to see the victory.
Jonathan's victory was no less a product of the Divine hand than the victory at the Red Sea. Jonathan was right, this truly was G-d's war.
In the end the author of the Book of the Maccabees leads us, his reader, to associate the triumph of Matityahu and his sons with two prior events; the redemption of Israel from Egypt, and the victory of Jonathan over the Philistines.
Why do this? Because these three victories – Israel over Egypt, Saul and Jonathan over the Philistines, and the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks – they form a kind of historical chain.
In other words, to explain: on the one hand the author of First Maccabees seems to be saying the victory of the Maccabees has to be viewed as akin to the victory of the Israelites over Egypt. Overt miracles and covert miracles are both made out of the same stuff; they're both manifestations of the Divine in this world.
When a tiny band of stragglers wins over the greatest military machine of its time, there is only one address at which to lay that victory, and that address is G-d. One ignores that truth at their own peril.
But immediately after taking us back with language parallels to the events of Egypt, the author of First Maccabees brings us forward a few centuries to the story of Jonathan. It's a story that illustrates vividly the choice before the Maccabees and their descendants the Hasmonean Kings.
The Maccabees have won against astounding odds, but the real question, is how will they and their descendants view their victory? That's the question. And it's a question that had faced Saul and had faced Jonathan, the very same question. That indeed is why the author of the Book of Samuel had embedded all those references when talking about the war of the Philistines to take us all the way back to Egypt – the references to the sea.
The author of the Book of Samuel was saying the right way to see that victory was Jonathan's way, it was G-d's war, it was not man's war. There was another Egypt happening but without all the fireworks.
Identifying the True Meaning of Hanukkah Celebration
All this expresses itself, I think, in how we choose to celebrate Hanukkah. What do you do when another Egypt happens? After the splitting of the sea, the Israelites broke into a song of thanksgiving to G-d. And how do we celebrate Hanukkah? We celebrate it with nothing but song – Hallel, thankfulness to the author of the war – for all eight days.
We celebrate it by kindling something as fragile as a light and thereby remembering a light that burned and burned and refused to go out. We remember that all fires are not created equal, some fires are fuelled by oil and wicks, and some are not.
When there's only one day's worth of oil and the fire continues to burn and burn and burn, it means the oil wasn't the fuel for the fire, the fire was coming from somewhere else. The source for the light of Hanukkah isn't terrestrial oil, it's transcendent G-d.
This is the lesson of the burning bush all over again! The Maccabees achieve an impossible victory, and they ask, "Madua lo yivar hasneh?" How did this happen? This victory wasn't just improbable, it was impossible. And yet, it was achieved.
Well, by whom? If the bush is burning and it isn't consumed, the source of the fire isn't the bush, it's God. If the Maccabees achieved an impossible victory against the Greeks, then the source of the victory isn't the Maccabees, it's God…
Judah Maccabee understood Jonathan's secret: "in the sight of heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few." And when they won, it was obvious to them that they defeated the Greeks only because God was fighting with them, for them; and they were fighting for God.
Sure, it may not have looked like Exodus, with the big miracles, signs and wonders, but it was no different than Exodus, where God fought our enemies for us.
But how could they know this? Where did they draw this faith and confidence from? There were no more prophets! To proclaim that this victory, this event that they witnessed was on par with the great miracles of biblical times, where did they get the audacity to say this?
Put yourself back in the shoes of the people at the time of Hanukkah. We've been living without prophecy and miracles for thousands of years, but for them? God's abandonment of His people was still relatively fresh. It was only a few centuries ago that the last prophets walked the earth. Judaism was plunged into an age of darkness and confusion.
Without prophets, who would be the religious leaders? There were no rabbis until prophecy ceased. How would Israel survive without miracles? We were never the most powerful empire on earth, how would we preserve our independence?
And then, the Greeks invaded. The fears over who we are and how we would survive became that much worse. Greek philosophy filled the void that prophecy and miracles had left. Rationalism, Hellenism, the idea that the only thing that's real are the things observable to the human eye – no such thing as spirituality, miracles, burning bushes with Divine source.
Thousands of Jews joined the Greeks, leaving their "backward" religion behind, and the nation was plunged into a civil war. A very bleak time indeed, where all was threatened to be lost.
At that time, a band of people came together, the Maccabees, to oppose all of this; and strangely they began to win. They beat armies many times their size, but in the wake of it all, no one could be sure, "Was this God? Or maybe it was just us?"
God had been silent for centuries, there are no more miracles or prophets in this age of history. Until... God broke His own rules.
Not since the First Temple's destruction were there miracles like the splitting of the sea, or wars won through boulders from the heavens... And yet, there was a miracle where there wasn't supposed to be. Not a hidden miracle, like the victory at war, an open miracle.
The Spiritual Meaning of Hanukkah Today
The miracle's significance wasn't in its power or its size; the significance of this miracle, it was in its message.
We lit the menorah with just a bit of oil, but God made sure the light didn't go out; it burned and it burned and it burned. It was subtle, you could miss it if you weren't looking, but it was God's way of winking at us, as if to say, "You thought you were all alone in the dark? Come on. I was right here with you the whole time." Judah was right, just like Yonatan was right.
And so, we too light the lights every year to commemorate this, to wink back, "We know You were here. We know that You, God, are with us, even in the dark. We're not alone."
Those other holidays, those all happened in the age of prophecy and miracles, when God was so obviously with us; we commemorate and celebrate what they mean to us.
But Hanukkah is our holiday. We're still in the age of darkness, no prophecy, no miracles. And yet, we remember the time God chose to reach across the darkness, when He broke the rules to give us a miracle to remind us that we're not alone.
Hanukkah teaches us that the encounter with God didn't end in biblical times. There is still revelation in our world, it's not merely a thing of the past, but it's a different kind of revelation.
Can we sense God's presence in our world? Can we acknowledge that our Creator stands behind the events of our lives? It depends on our ability to adjust our sight, to seek God's involvement in our lives and our world, and develop a type of vision that can behold the transcendent in our lives.