Skip to main content

You are here

Hannukah: Eight Days, Many Interpretations

Monday, December 3, 2018

A TanenbaumCHAT student light the first Hanukkah candle during assembly.

Although Hannukah is not a Biblical holiday, there are still a variety of ancient sources for this chag.  The two most familiar ones­ provide very different accounts of the miracle of the holiday.

In the Talmud, in the tractate of Shabbat, in a brief tangent from the discussion on Shabbat candles, the Talmud states “Mai Hannukah” ("What is Hannukah"). It proceeds to tell us that the 25th of Kislev is a special day. We are forbidden to offer eulogies or engage in fasting because of the miracle – with which we are all familiar – that when not enough oil was found in the Temple to light the Menorah, the small jug of oil lasted for eight days. As a result, a holiday was instituted to offer praise and thanks for this miracle.

The passage added to the Amidah provides a completely different account of the miracle.  Beginning “Bimei Matityahu” ("In the days of Matityahu"), the text describes how the evil Greeks rose up against the people of Israel to make them forget the Torah and to sin.  But then God delivered the strong into the hands of the weak to win this great battle.  At the end of the account, it briefly mentions that the Jews purified the Temple and designated eight days of Hannukah to praise and thank God. Clearly this passage emphasizes the miracle of the battle over the oil – as do many other ancient texts.

Why are the texts not consistent in their message?

Traditional answers distinguish between the hidden miracle of the battle and the revealed miracle of the oil. 

The rabbis of the Talmud emphasize the “obvious” miracle of a little bit of oil lasting for so long that made it clear to them that the victory in the battle was the work of God.  The miracle of the oil allowed them to establish the holiday.

The additional prayer in the Amidah emphasizes the battle because, ultimately, that had a greater impact on the lives of Jews. Without the victory, the Greek quest to destroy Jewish life may have succeeded.

Another possible answer considers that the rabbis of the Talmud, who themselves lived under occupying forces, did not want to emphasize a great military and liberating victory over the dominant force for fear of incurring the wrath of those leaders. Emphasizing the miracle of the oil was a safer way to acknowledge the holiday and the mitzvah associated with it – that of lighting the menorah.

What is clear is that the efforts to halt the study of Torah failed. We continue to emphasize the study of Torah, to increase Jewish knowledge for all, and to continue to impart tradition to our children.

At TanenbaumCHAT, we imbue our programming with many of the values associated with Hannukah. Our students study Jewish texts and enrich their understanding of Jewish tradition, they deepen their responsibility towards the Jewish people and to the State of Israel, and they can explore their relationship with God. We strive to provide a premier Jewish learning environment in which students can find themselves and discover their own unique gifts – be they obvious or hidden.

Best wishes for a Chag Hannukah Sameach.