Hanukah: Politics and oil

The Hanukah story is about two kinds of battle; the physical struggle against others (politics); and the spiritual struggle within ourselves to trust in God (oil).

When the Maccabees recaptured and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. the political struggle for religious freedom and independence did not end. It went on for another 25 years.

But the spiritual struggle within ourselves (oil) miraculously took only eight days.

Look at the oldest written sources. Four or five decades after the first Hanukah, two books were written about the Maccabean Wars and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The First Book of Maccabees, compiled sometime before 130 B.C.E., was originally written in Hebrew. Today all we have is an early Greek translation. Its intended audience was the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Chapter 4 describes the recapture of the Jerusalem Temple, its purification and rededication.

“They also made new sacred vessels, and brought the lamp stand … into the Temple. They burned incense on the altar and lit the lights on the lamp stand, and the Temple was filled with light. For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar. Then Judah, his brothers and the entire community of Israel decreed that the days of dedication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at this same time every year beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days. (First Maccabees 4:49-59)

This first ancient source does not mention the “little jar of oil miracle.” At that time, the miracle was the victory itself, that God had enabled the Jews in Israel to physically defeat the far mightier Syrian Greek Empire.

The Second Book of Maccabees, was compiled a decade or two after First Maccabees, and covers most of the same period, but was written in Greek for the Jewish community outside the land of Israel. That Jewish community, whose primary language was Greek, was concentrated largely in the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

The purpose of Second Maccabees, clearly stated in the two letters that open the book, is to urge the Jews of Alexandria to adopt this new festival. The author states that his source for the history of the war was a (now lost) larger five-volume history by one Jason of Cyrene.

Second Maccabees (10:1-8) describes the purification of the Temple, adding information not found in First Maccabees: “Judah the Maccabee and his men, under the Lord’s leadership, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem.- After purifying the Temple, they built a new altar; made a new fire, offered sacrifices and incense and lit the lamps.- On the anniversary of the same day on which the Temple was defiled, the 25th of Kislev, they purified the Temple.

“They celebrated joyfully for eight days, just as on Sukkot, knowing that (only two months before) on Sukkot they had spent the festival (hiding) like wild animals in the mountains and caves.- By a vote of the community they decreed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these festival days every year. (Second Maccabees 10:1-8)

The story of the small jar of oil that lasted much longer than anyone expected, is not mentioned in the early sources because they focus on the military and political battles to liberate the Jerusalem temple from Greek rule and restore Jewish independence.

However, two and a half centuries later, after a military revolt against the Romans, the Holy Temple and Jerusalem itself were in ruins. In the generations following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans the Jewish people could have despaired, and become discouraged and depressed.

They might even have lost faith in God when the Romans built a new pagan city on Jerusalem’s ruins; with a Roman Temple filled with statues of Roman Gods in its center.

So the rabbis started emphasizing the spiritual internal battle needed for Jewish survival. Everyone, even small children, need to believe in a better future. All of us need to avoid negativeness. Everyone needs to have some faith and trust in God.

When the Maccabees realized that it would take a week or more to produce the ritually pure olive oil needed for the lamp that must burn continually before the Holy Ark, most of them wanted to delay the Hanukah celebration.

Only a minority led by a young girl, favored using the little jar of oil that they had, and trusting that somehow it would be enough.

As the rabbis expressed it in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) “Why Hanukah? Our rabbis taught: ‘On the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukah on which mourning and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil; and when the Maccabees prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one jar of oil with the official seal of the High Priest, but it was only enough for one day’s lighting.

“Yet a miracle occurred; they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were decreed a festival with the recital of Psalms and thanksgiving prayers.”

Notice that the miracle is two fold. That the oil lasted is a physical miracle. That they lit it, knowing it couldn’t last, is a spiritual miracle. To this day we still use only one candle to ignite all the other Hanukah candles.

And Jewish hope and faith in our future (oil) has enabled us to survive long after the ancient Greeks and Romans disappeared.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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