Is the miracle of Chanukah made up?


Q: I recently learned that the "miracle" of the oil in the Chanukah story was made up. If this is so why do we light the candles and say a brocha that implies the G-d had something to do with this made up event? In addition the brocha implies that G-d gave us the mitzvah to light the lights of Chanukah. I can appreciate the miracle of the spiritual and military victory of the holiday with out the farce of lighting the candles. Please help me understand. I want to believe again!

A: The lighting of the Menorah is not a farce, it has profound spiritual and religious significance. While I can appreciate your sense of let-down at learning of the more likely historical events underlying, I urge you to reconsider the historical elements which led to the Talmudic Rabbis shifting the focus of the Hanukkah story from that of a military victory to that of a miracle of a cruse of oil.

a) After peace had been re-established with the Seleucids after the Maccabean War, the Hasmoneans refused to retire. They kept the elements of their guerilla army intact and CONTINUED the war as a civil war against the Seleucids and Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. It took eight years and only the last Hasmonean son, Shimon was left alive, but he eventually seized control of Jerusalem, declared himself Ethnarch--head of the Jews, Strategos--head of the Jewish army (king) and Kohen Gadol--high priest.

b) The Maccabees then comissioned an official history of their victory, called I Maccabees. It was unabashedly pro-Maccabean because they paid for it and therefore it is pure propaganda but as the closest literary source to the actual events, it is probably very accurate in its depiction of events.

c) The Hasidim (Jewish loyalists who had been against he Hellenizing Jews) were scandalized by Maccabees for declaring themselves both worldly and temporal powers! They formed a new political opposition party called the Perushim (Pharisees)--the separatists, and bitterly hated the Maccabees. These Perushim eventually evolved into the Rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and Talmud--and they kept their hate for the Maccabees alive. Afterall, the Maccabees, in their eyes, had committed blasphemy by combining the powers of the kingship with that of the priesthood.

d) Over the next 100 years, the Maccabees used their military might to expand the Jewish kingdom, forcibly converting the Idumeans to Judaism, and waging unremitting war against their neighbors. They epitomized the worst in military dictatorship.

e) The more successful the Maccabees became, the wealthier and more Hellenistic they became! Although they had begun by opposing Hellenism, they ended up becoming the single most successful Hellenizing force in Jewish society!

f) Eventually, the Maccabean Kingdom was conquered by the Romans, and by the time the Rabbis, heirs of the Perushim and Hasidim, edited the Talmud, the land of Israel had known tremendous loss of life and destruction due to vainglorious military resistance and rebellion against Roman might. The martial memories of the Maccabees were no longer seen as reminders of a glorious past but dangerous, seditious influences which must be supressed at all costs to ensure the peace. The rabbis feared glorifying a martial past while still occupied and oppressed.

g) The myth of the cruse of oil masked the truth about Hanukkah for centuries. The rabbis may have deliberately lied about the military origins and Hellenistic causes of Hanukkah in order to maintain the holiday but shifted its focus to God and more religious themes out of a greater need for survival! They co-opted the holiday by eviscerating its true origins and replacing them with more acceptable, passive, religious themes. This was the only way that they could ensure Jewish survival! And indeed, if that meant obscuring the martial origins of the holiday, they felt that Jewish survival was worth it.

Perhaps this is what you might keep in mind this next Hanukkah when you are tempted to think of Hanukkah as a "farce." It might be imaginative history, but it has true spiritual significance and importance.


Copyright (c) 1999 by Rabbi Daniel Kohn. All Rights Reserved.