The Mysterious Holiday

It lasts eight days, longer than just about any other Jewish holiday. There are arguments over its sole commandment. So little is known about Hanukkah that the Talmud is forced to ask: “What is Hanukkah?”

Hanukkah marks a decades-long struggle of a few devout Jews against the Hellenic dynasty and its Jewish collaborators. Hanukkah was not about physical oppression, rather the fight to save Judaism from those who ordered it destroyed — all in the name of modernity.

The Jewish collaborators were in the forefront of the fight against Judaism. They pressured King Antiochus IV to stamp out the Jewish religion, ban circumcision, force the downtrodden masses to violate the Sabbath and women to submit to sex with the rulers. The collaborators, known as Hellenists, turned the Temple Mount into a sports arena, erected an alter to Zeus and sacrificed pigs. Ordinary Jews were forced to bow down to idols on pain of death. Under the Seleucid regime, the persecution was unprecedented and meant to destroy the faith of Israel.

The prayer for Hanukkah tells little of its history. But the prologue is telling. It reminds us that G-d is performing the same miracles today. We face the same threats as our ancestors did some 2,200 years ago — a Jewish elite backed by the gentile powers that targets our faith and observance.

The late Rabbi Meir Kahane said that if the State of Israel had understood the meaning of Hanukkah, it would have outlawed the holiday. After all, the state was founded on the principles of secularism, assimilation with the gentile world, particularly German culture, desecration of the Sabbath and harassment of rabbis. The state collected money from around the Diaspora but refused to allocate any of it to independent Jewish schools — until a U.S. senator began to ask questions. Diplomacy supplanted Jewish interests regardless of the threats against Jews in such countries as Egypt, West Germany or the Soviet Union.

Hanukkah was one of 35 minor holidays cited in the Scroll of the Fasts. The book commemorated miracles, many of them during the Roman persecution. Roman governors delighted in blaming everything on the Jews and then threatened genocide. After the Jews were saved, the sages decreed that one cannot fast or give eulogies on these dates.

But virtually all of these holidays were shelved soon after the destruction of the Second Temple. The reason was that none of these miracles were seen to have lasted. The threats and bloodshed resumed. Sure, the Jews were saved in Lod from the hands of an evil Roman commander. But that was because two righteous Jews volunteered for execution for a crime they did not commit. A miracle it was; one worthy of permanent commemoration — that was a different story.

Hanukkah should have suffered the same fate. The Hasmonean victory over Greece was astounding given its military and the level of collaboration by the Jewish elite. But the miracle never lasted. The Hasmoneans refused to return power to the House of David, which ruled during the First and early Second Temple periods. They were soon plagued by internecine strife that included assassination. Rival factions turned to Rome for support and muscle. Rome was invited to the Land of Israel and eventually destroyed it.

The difference between Hanukkah and the discarded minor festivals can be found in the Talmud’s question in the Tractate Sabbath: “What is Hanukkah?” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi, explains: “On what miracle was it [Hanukkah] based?”

The Talmud answers that question: “When the Greeks entered the Temple Hall, they contaminated all of the oil there. And when the kingdom of the Hasmonean family was victorious, they examined and found only one vial of oil that contained the seal of the high priest, enough to last one day. A miracle was made in which it stayed lit for eight days. In another year, it was established to make these days a holiday with praise and thanks.”

Unlike the Sabbath, one can light the Hanukkah menorah with any substance. On the other hand, any Jew, regardless of how poor, must find a way to obtain the candelabrum and oil — even if he has to sell the shirt off his back. That light is sacred and cannot be used for any other purpose, even for learning Torah.

There are no restrictions during the eight days of Hanukkah, and one can continue his routine. The women are the exception. They are forbidden from working when the Hanukkah candles are burning. Because, says the Mishnah Berurah, the miracle was performed for them.

Matityahu and the other priests might have found the vial of oil that lasted eight days. But it was the women who showed the incredible courage and faith that resulted in the miracle of Hanukkah.

Yehudit was the daughter of Yohanan the High Priest, and she was engaged to be married. Under the Greek occupation, every female ready for matrimony had to first submit to the local governor. Nobody, even the rabbis linked to the regime, protested. Yehudit, the brother of Matityahu, arrived at the governor’s mansion with cheese for the pre-rape meal. The cheese made the governor so sleepy that in the privacy of his bedroom she took out a knife and beheaded him. That night, she and her brothers fled to begin the revolt. It lasted 20 years.

The Jerusalem Talmud says that one day the oppression and occupation of the Jewish people will end. Like Hanukkah, freedom will begin with the smallest of lights, expected to flicker briefly. Instead, that light will grow stronger until everybody recognizes that the final redemption has arrived. Until that day, G-d will protect the Jewish people and ensure that their faith and observance will not cease.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says Hanukkah is actually based on two miracles. The first was that of the rescue of Yehudit and the revolt that saved the Jewish people and defeated the Hellenists and their Greek sponsor. That called for the recital of Hallel, or praise, for only the first day of the festival. The Hallel for the next seven days stemmed from the miracle of the menorah.

“Because the miracle of the candles of the menorah caused the rescue, and the commandment of the menorah protected them.”

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.