What Does Hanukkah Celebrate?
What Does Hanukkah Really Celebrate?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this first video of the series, Rabbi Fohrman introduces the idea of a hidden text within the Tanach that may shed some light on the significance of Chanukah. Additionally, he raises the question of what exactly we are celebrating and commemorating through our Chanukah celebrations and why we do so.
Hi, it's Rabbi David Fohrman here. Hanukkah is upon us. It is a wonderful and joyous holiday, there are a lot of presents and there are candles and dreidels and latkes, and all those things; but frankly it's a difficult holiday for me to talk to you about, because if you have been around the block here with us at Aleph Beta, you know that I really like to discuss the ideas that emerge organically from Jewish texts. And, of course, the problem with Hanukkah is, it's the only real holiday in our calendar that doesn't come with a nice ready-made text to go along with it.
What Event Does Hanukkah Really Celebrate?
All the biblical holidays, they are all enumerated in various Biblical texts. If you think about even the Rabbinic holidays, the other major Rabbinic holiday and Purim, that has its own text – Esther. But when it comes to Hanukkah, you're just sort of plain out of text. And I suppose yes, there is the Book of the Maccabees, but it's not seen as having religious significance. We look to it for some historical details, so it's never canonized as one of the books of the Bible, and so Hanukkah is one of those holidays that are book-less, text-less, in a way. So how do we approach it?
I want to suggest to you that there may actually be a text that sheds a surprising kind of light upon Hanukkah. It's sort of a hidden text, it's not one that we usually associate with Hanukkah, and it's there, right in front of our eyes, and I want to get to that with you. But first, a couple other questions to set the stage here.
In one of the Hanukkah videos that we released last year, I talked about the miracle of the lights and the miracle of the war, and suggested that there was a kind of commonality between them, and the commonality had to do with being able to see a transcendent God in our own mundane world. The challenge is this, if it is really true, that of the two miracles of Hanukkah, they sort of boil down to the same thing, then how come the way in which we commemorate Hanukkah is solely through the miracle of the lights? We kind of ignore the war.
If I was on the ritual committee that is coming up with ways that we should celebrate Hanukkah, I would say look, they both have more or less the same theological meaning. Which miracle was more significant? Well, the war was hugely significant; it changed the face of Jewish history.
Why Do We Celebrate Hanukkah by Lighting Candles?
Lights weren't that significant. They didn't have enough pure oil. They only had enough for one night, and it was going to take them eight days to produce more. So they lit the menorah, and miraculously the light continued to burn until they were able to produce more pure oil. Okay, and if the light hadn’t continued to burn? Okay. So they would have been out of oil, and they would have lit it again eight days later. They did the best they could, they got rid of the swine on the altar, they purified the Temple; what more do you want from them? It would have just been a footnote in Jewish history if the menorah had gone dark for a few more days.
So, if we are going to celebrate one miracle, wasn't the war the more significant miracle? If you were on the ritual committee to make up the observance of Hanukkah, way back when, wouldn't you say, "Well, let's create these papier-mâché Greek elephants. As we beat the piñata, we should have these little scraps of papers that come flying out of the broken elephant that say “God” on them or “God is here!” It was God that made it all happen, and we should understand that there was this great transcendent miracle, that the war was won because of God, that was the miracle that really matters; let's celebrate that miracle! Why the oil? Why the light? Why do we celebrate the unnecessary miracle?
Should Hanukkah Celebrate the Menorah Story Over the War
And finally, here is one last question to consider. 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 terrible, 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 is not so wonderful and shiny.
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 countrymen, 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 in the ensuing generations for 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, with Rome, after time, 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 Hasmonean 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 Hasmonean 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 sons, Yochanan Hyrcanus, 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. So he threw his mother into prison where she starved to death, then he imprisons 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 momentary bright spot in the history of the Jewish people, but for a very short flicker of time. And I think this may come back to the question of celebrating the war and celebrating the oil. You know, the legacy of the war as history would determine it, is very mixed of how much independence do we really get? What were the long term effects? But the miracle of the oil, something happened there that the Sages who instituted Hanukkah wanted us to focus on. That little unnecessary miracle, maybe its seeming triviality is what the Sages wanted us to commemorate so joyously.
I want to take another closer look at this with you, and to do that, I want to take a look at that hidden text that I started talking to you about.