Why do we celebrate Hanukkah? We automatically give one of two answers: the miracle of the oil that burned for 8 days, or the great military victory that, while downplayed by the Rabbis, became a rallying cry for modern Zionism. I have always felt that neither story has a lot to teach us. But the original story of Hanukkah offers a much better and more meaningful explanation for the holiday. It is about neither the oil nor the military victory, but about the resumption of Jewish worship in the Temple that had been halted by the Greek occupation. And it was modeled on the festival of Sukkot, the quintessential Jewish expression of thanksgiving, of appreciation for the bounty of the Earth. This story offers a message that is particularly relevant in this year of Thanksgivukkah.
The 2nd book of Maccabees, composed 50-75 years after the Hasmonean victory, tells us two key things about the holiday. First, it was established as a celebration of the purification of the Temple that had been defiled by the Greeks and the resumption of sacrificial worship. “After purifying the Temple, they made another altar, … offered sacrifices and incense, and lit the lamps. … Then they celebrated joyfully for 8 days.” (2 Macc. 10:3,6) They were not celebrating an event that happened while they were rededicating the Temple – they were celebrating the rededication itself, the fact that they could once again draw close to God through the only form of worship they knew.
Second, they expressly declared their holiday to be a replay of the Sukkot that was missed while the Temple was in Greek hands. 2 Macc. 1 instructs Diaspora Jews to celebrate the feast of Sukkot on 25 Kislev. Chapter 10 tells us that “they came carrying the lulav and etrog, and sang hymns of praise to Him Who had given them the victory that had brought about the purification of His Temple.”
This connection explains two significant aspects of Hanukkah. First, it is a much better reason for it to be 8 days. The oil miracle could have been 5 days or 10 just as easily as 8. By the Maccabees paradigm, Hanukkah is 8 days because it is directly modeled on the other 8-day Jewish holiday, Sukkot (counting shmini atzeret as part of the extended holiday). It also explains the curious fact that Hanukkah is not only the only holiday outside of the 3 Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) on which we say Hallel, but also represents fully 8 of the 18 days on which the Full Hallel was recited (Tosefta Sukkah 3:2). This level of honor for a post-biblical holiday is mystifying until we recognize that it mirrors the other festival on which we recite Hallel for multiple days.
Sukkot is the Jews’ quintessential holiday of Thanksgiving (the American holiday may have been in some ways modeled on it). Coming at the end of the harvest, it uses plants and fruits to express gratitude not for a momentary miracle but for the ongoing bounty of the land. It is a moment to share a small part of that bounty with God. It asks us to celebrate the fact that we have enough that we are able to give back. Hanukkah in a way doubles down on this theme: the Maccabees celebrated the opportunity to give thanks for the harvest – the Festival of Thanks that had been lost while the Greeks occupied the Temple was now restored.
This version of the story should transform how we think of Hanukkah. It tells us that Hanukkah is not about a supernatural miracle performed by God. Nor is it about celebrating a (seemingly miraculous) military victory. It is about celebrating our ability to serve and pray to God. The oil story makes Hanukkah a celebration of receiving, of God granting us a miracle – a present, perhaps, wrapped in the High Priest’s seal. The Maccabees’ Hanukkah is focused on our giving to God, on our great relief at once again being able to give. It is not just about giving thanks. It is about giving thanks for the precious opportunity to give thanks.
The candles of the Hanukkah menora reflect this. The Talmud (Shabbat 22b) asks why the Menora stood outside of the Holy of Holies when God did not need the light. Rav Sheshet answers “it is a testimony to all humanity that the Divine Presence dwells within Israel.” The Menora, he says, was not meant to illuminate the inside but rather to shine outward, to be a constantly reassuring sign of God’s Presence to the outside world. This is precisely the essence of the Hanukkah candles. On the one hand, we may not use or benefit from their light – we may only observe them. On the other, they should ideally be placed outside the front door of a home or in a window that is clearly visible from the street. These candles, like the Temple’s Menora which it recalls, are not intended to shine light within our homes. They should shine outward, a way for the intimate sense of God’s loving Presence that we cultivate within our homes to pour outward as, literally, a beacon of light to others.
We light candles for the purpose of pirsumei nisa, to publicize the miracle. But which miracle? God causing a jug of oil to burn longer than expected would be of little concern to any passer-by who did not have similar candles burning in his own home. It is far more powerful and relevant to see them as a testament to the miracle of restoring our ability to pray after a time when it had been lost. A renewed appreciation of how precious is the opportunity to give thanks and to give is a message that truly is worth sharing with the world on this Thanksgivukkah.