WHERE IS THE MIRACLE?
Today we continue our Hanukkah reflections. Last time, we followed the narrative of the First book of Maccabees, which recounts the events that Hanukkah commemorates. We saw that, after a series of battles, the Maccabees miraculously recaptured the Temple. They began to cleanse and restore it and were finally able to rededicate it on the twenty-fifth of Kislev:
4:54 The altar was dedicated… on the same day on which the Gentiles had originally profaned it.
4:55 The whole people fell prostrate in adoration and then praised Heaven who had granted them success.
4:56 For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar, joyfully offering burnt offerings, communion and thanksgiving sacrifices.
As we know, in memory of this dedication, Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration, was established (the Hebrew word חֲנוּכָּה, Hanukkah, can be translated as “inauguration, dedication, consecration”). However, there are also some very interesting details of this description that we should not miss – and this will be our focus for today.
First of all, where is the miracle of oil and menorah? Every Jewish child today knows the story of Hanukkah: the Maccabees wanted to light the Temple’s Menorah; they found only a one-day supply of oil that was not defiled; by faith, they lit the menorah and miraculously, this one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days. This is the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate today – but it is not in the text. First Maccabees is the oldest and the only eye-witness account of the story of Hanukkah – and to our great surprise, we don’t find the miracle of oil there. The text only tells us about the military victory and the rededication of the Temple; the dedication does indeed go on for eight days, but there is no explanation why, no single word about the miracle.
The essence of the Hanukkah celebration was changed during the Rabbinic period, and we find this explanation in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 21b:
“For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search 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 therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving”.
So, from the description in the First Maccabees, it is clear that the original celebration was about the military victory and the rededication of the Temple. Even if the miracle of the oil did occur, First (and also Second) Maccabees doesn’t mention it at all. However, the focus of celebration has been switched over the centuries: instead of celebrating the military success of the Maccabees, the Festival of Hanukkah has become a celebration of the Divine Miracle and of the Divine Light. This is Hanukkah as we know it today—the Festival of Lights—Chag Urim.
THE LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS
There is an additional question that we can ask ourselves regarding the account of First Maccabees. One would expect that the recapture and rededication of the Temple would constitute the culmination, the climax of the story – its “happy ending” so to speak. However, the book has sixteen chapters – and the rededication of the Temple occurs at the end of chapter 4— so what happens in the following twelve chapters?
I will tell you what – these chapters are full of military actions—of battles, of victories and defeats., and this is very important. It is not commonly known that the Maccabees did not win their independence with the recapture of the Temple. Antiochus was still their ruler, and Syrian troops still occupied Eretz Yisrael and even most of Jerusalem. The light of the first Hanukkah truly shone in the midst of darkness! And here we see the prophetic meaning of this Festival: it is all about light overcoming darkness! Often enough, Hanukkah celebrations begin in full darkness, then the light of a candle – the first Hanukkah candle – pierces the darkness, and then – more candles and more lights! It’s very beautiful and very impressive! One of the central songs sung during Hanukkah is called BANU CHOSHECH LEGARESH – “WE CAME TO DRIVE AWAY THE DARKNESS” – and this is indeed the overwhelming feeling one gets during these celebrations: the Divine Light overcomes even the darkest of darkness.
EVEN MORE PROPHETIC
By now you would probably agree that Hanukkah is a very prophetic festival indeed—but wait till you hear what the reading from the prophets (Haftarah) is for Hanukkah! The Haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah comes from the prophet Zechariah, where we read about Zechariah encouraging the people of Judah to rebuild the Temple that had been destroyed in 586 BCE. We can see that the Temple theme of this reading certainly links Hanukkah to this Scripture. However, it is the final section of this Haftarah that adds additional prophetic depth to Hanukkah. Zechariah is seeing a vision: “I am looking, and there is a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl on top of it, and on the stand seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps.3 Two olive trees are by it, one at the right of the bowl and the other at its left.” When Zechariah asks for an explanation, the Lord answers:
‘Not by might nor by power,
but by My Spirit,’
Says the Lord of hosts.
As we light our Hanukkiah, we identify ourselves with the solemn message of this Festival: the Light overcomes the Darkness; God’s Spirit overcomes human might and power. I do hope you will join us in lighting the candles this year. This year Hanukkah begins Tuesday night, December 12, and continues through Wednesday, December 20. On the first night, we light just one candle; on the second night, we light two, and so on. By the eighth night of Hanukkah, all eight candles of the Hanukkiah are lit. Yes, Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration (which makes it, once again, even more prophetic, because of this amazingly profound eighth day – the day “beyond”), and therefore you still have time to join in – and become part of the Light that drives away the darkness.
CHAG URIM SAMEACH!