In my previous post, I looked at three of the most important battles fought by the Maccabees prior to their cleansing and dedication of the Jerusalem Temple in December of 164 BCE. In this post I want to examine the holiday of Hanukkah that commemorates this event. Since today is the eighth and final day of Hanukkah, I am particularly interested in the question of why Hanukkah lasts eight days.
According to the First Book Maccabees the re-dedication of the Temple began “on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev” (1 Macc 4:52) and “the celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days” (4:56). Why eight days? The most common answer that people give today is the story of the miraculous cruse of oil which lasted for eight days. This story is not contained in any of the historical Books of Maccabees. Rather, it is found in two rather late sources: the Scroll of Antiochus and the Babylonian Talmud, which were both edited into their final form in the fifth century CE. The text in the Babylonian Talmud reads as follows:
What is the reason we celebrate Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev the days of Hanukkah begin, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein. When the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only. Yet a miracle was wrought and with this oil they were able to light the lamp for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving. (Bavli, Shabbat 21b)
מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
This often quoted passage appears as an aside in the Talmud’s discussion of the kinds of oil permitted for Sabbath — and by extension Hanukkah — lights. It is very interesting that the Talmud sees it fit to pause and ask the question “what is Hanukkah?”. Did Jews living in fifth century Babylonia no longer know the story of this festival? Had Hanukkah become such a minor holiday that the Talmud needs to remind its contemporary audience of its original reason? These are big questions which I do not have room go into here. The main point I wish to make is that the famous story related in this passage has been beloved by generations of Jews, but it is most likely not historical. The rabbis who recorded this story were living hundreds of years after the Maccabees, and their knowledge of these historical events was at best imprecise. It is also important to realize that the rabbis did not see themselves as historians in the modern sense of the word. They are not authors of Jewish history, as Josephus was. They are not recording facts to set the record straight. Rather, they employ the telling of historical events as a chance to express their own worldview. This worldview favored Torah study over military force. The rabbis of the Talmud were living in the wake of two failed Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire: The Great Revolt (67-73 CE) and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). The first resulted in the destruction of the Temple; the second resulted in the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. The rabbis saw these two revolts as disastrous examples of what happens when Judaism veers in the dangerous direction of warfare. One of the major ideological targets of the rabbis was the caustic combination of messianic fervor and militaristic zeal. The story of the miraculous cruse of oil was designed to “rebrand” the festival of Hanukkah from a military victory to a spiritual wonder. So, the beloved story of the miraculous cruse of oil is probably not the best historical explanation for the eight days of Hanukkah.
More likely, the original reason for the eight days of Hanukkah is twofold:
The Maccabees, looking to link themselves to the glorious Israelite past, patterned their holiday after the festivities described in the Bible as part of Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple. The 1st Book of Kings describes the festival as follows:
So Solomon held the festival at that time, and all Israel with him—a great assembly, people from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt—before the Lord our God, seven days. On the eighth day he sent the people away; and they blessed the king, and went to their tents, joyful and in good spirits because of all the goodness that the Lord had shown to his servant David and to his people Israel. (1 Kings 8:65-66)
וַיַּעַשׂ שְׁלֹמֹה בָעֵת-הַהִיא אֶת-הֶחָג וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל עִמּוֹ קָהָל גָּדוֹל מִלְּבוֹא חֲמָת עַד-נַחַל מִצְרַיִם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, וְשִׁבְעַת יָמִים–אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר, יוֹם. בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי שִׁלַּח אֶת-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכוּ אֶת-הַמֶּלֶךְ; וַיֵּלְכוּ לְאָהֳלֵיהֶם, שְׂמֵחִים וְטוֹבֵי לֵב, עַל כָּל-הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה לְדָוִד עַבְדּוֹ, וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ.
The version quoted here is the New Revised Standard Version, which I prefer in most cases. The Masoretic Hebrew text is a bit different. One difference between the two is the fact that the Hebrew text of verse 65 reads “seven days and seven days, totaling fourteen days” (שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, וְשִׁבְעַת יָמִים–אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם). This does not make much sense in light of the “eighth day” in verse 66. The Greek Septuagint text which is the basis for most modern English translations reads “seven days” (ἑπτὰ ἡμέρας), which makes more sense. Why does the Hebrew say fourteen? The solution to this complication is found in the parallel description of the same event, which is described in 2 Chronicles:
At that time Solomon held the festival for seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great congregation, from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. On the eighth day they held a solemn assembly; for they had observed the dedication of the altar seven days and the festival seven days. On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their homes, joyful and in good spirits because of the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to his people Israel. (2 Chron. 7:8-10)
This version makes clear what the passage from 1st Kings did not: two seven day festivals took place on after the other. First seven days to celebrate the completion of the Temple, followed by seven days of “the festival”, i.e., Sukkot or the Feast of Booths. This leads us to our second explanation for the eight days of Hanukkah. The original Hanukkah of 164 BCE was intended to make up for the missed Feast of Sukkot which the Jews were not able to celebrate due to the impurity of the Temple. The following passage from the 2nd Book of Maccabees indicates the following:
It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Festival of Booths, remembering how not long before, during the Festival of Booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year. (2 Macc 10:5-8)
In the Second Temple period, Sukkot (Tabernacles) was the most important of the three pilgrimage festivals, referred to simply as “the Feast” (he-chag). It makes sense that the Maccabees would want to commemorate their reconquest of Jerusalem by celebrating the most popular festival of the year, which had been missed due to the war. So, whence the eight days of Hanukkah? Sukkot was a seven day festival followed by an additional day of solemn assembly known as the Eighth Day of Assembly (Shemini Azeret), as described in Leviticus 23:33-43. This is certainly not the only instance of popular Sukkot symbolism being used out of season. In Jesus’ famous Palm Sunday procession, the crowds wave palm fronds (lulavim) and proclaim “Hosanna”, two rituals borrowed from Sukkot despite the fact that it is the week before the springtime festival of Passover. Evidently, Sukkot was such a beloved festival that Jews in the Second Temple period felt justified in spreading its customs throughout the liturgical year.