The Second Book of Maccabees recounts the persecution of the Jews under King Antiochus and the Maccabean Revolt against him. The military victory of Judah Maccabee and the defeat of the Seleucid Empire is the story of origin for the celebration of Hanukkah. The book was written for Jews who lived outside the land of Israel around 120 BCE. The text explains that the mitzvah – the obligation – of celebrating eight days of Hanukkah was invented as a substitute for celebrating the eight days of Sukkot, which wasn’t possible during the Greek reign because of the desecration of the Temple.
Incredibly, Hanukkah was observed for some 600 years before the fabled story of finding a small jar of oil that appeared only enough for one day but lasted for eight days made its way into Jewish literature. The Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, but the oil story appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b), in about 500 CE.
Why was that special tale of the miraculous needed? Perhaps the military miracle of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks was not enough to elicit gratitude when what needed to be strengthened was the community. So, what is the true miracle that Hanukkah celebrates, and what is the emotional and/or spiritual rationale beyond the story of the jar of oil?
I thought about this question while on a solidarity mission to Israel last week with the San Diego Jewish Federation. We were able to visit Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim in our sister region of Sha’ar Hanegev that was brutally terrorized on October 7. As we walked through the devastation, I passed by a Sukkah still standing – frozen in time – as 10.7 was the end of the Sukkot holiday, and when all the surviving members evacuated immediately, the sukkah remained.
Here we are nearly 60 days later, and residents will not return for some time. There is no rededication yet either, no ability to have a full eight-day holiday whether a “do-over” of Sukkot or a miraculous story of divine light against the darkness. The rabbis of the Talmud ask, “What is Hanukkah?” They don’t ask why we celebrate, but on the authority of what miracle can we say the service of Hallel – the psalms reserved for a biblically ordained holiday. Although the war has resumed and more than 100 hostages are still held in Gaza, I was thinking about on “what authority” we might offer Hallel on this Hanukkah?
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of October 7, Israelis across all sectors sprang into action creating civilian operations (war) rooms with thousands of volunteers for all needs. Soldiers needing rides to their units when public transportation was closed; WhatsApp groups enabling people to show up for funerals and shiva; thousands of people donating and sorting clothing, food, diapers, and offering housing to help the 200,000 evacuees from the South and the North; therapists, artists and musicians creating a healing space for survivors of the NOVA Festival. Miracles, every single one. There was no essential difference between the natural and the miraculous. No fog of war clouded the vision of Israeli society to channel grief and shock and horror into daily opportunities for gratitude. In the ancient story, one day of ignited oil was the miracle, eight days warranted the celebration. In this moment, what warrants the celebration of Hanukkah is the dedication and rededication of Israelis to one another and the fervent hopes to rebuild their communities and the State as the shamashim – the helper candles – that they are, and that we must be
In the Talmudic conflict between the sages Hillel and Shammai over the lighting of the candles, Shammai said, begin with all eight and decrease for each subsequent night. Hillel countered to begin with the first night and increase the light over the 8 days (the prevailing custom).
Is the most meaningful mitzvah one of inward joy increasing day to day, or, imagining accordance the average person’s emotions are at their height on the first night and drop off as the days continue? There is no doubt that increasing and sustaining the light of joy and gratitude is a challenge during wartime. But the miracle of Hanukkah is meant to remind us of the human capacity to find light and share it each and every day – until the darkness is no longer visible.
May this Hanukkah see the hostages released, the war concluded, and Hamas no longer a threat to anyone.