Dear TEE community,

What do we celebrate when we celebrate Hanukkah?

Originally, Hanukkah commemorated the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following a war against the Greek rulers of Judea:

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year [164 BCE], they rose and made offerings, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built….So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered an offering of wellbeing and a thanksgiving offering. They decorated the front of the Temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. There was very great joy among the people and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.

Then Judah and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev (1 Maccabees 5).*

While that may seem cause for celebration, a problem arises when we take a closer look at the Maccabees and their motives and methods. Like the Pilgrims who came to New England in the 18th century, the Maccabees were not seeking religious freedom for everyone, only for those who agreed with them. Mattathias and his sons were, in modern parlance, fanatics, who murdered their Jewish opponents and imposed their interpretation of Jewish law on others:

They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and renegades in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. They hunted down the arrogant, and the work prospered in their hand (1 Maccabees 2).

Not surprisingly, the rabbis, who lived under the violent rule of the Roman Empire, were uncomfortable with celebrating Hanukkah as the commemoration of a bloody military victory. Instead, the talmudic discussion of Hanukkah observance emphasizes the practice and symbolism of lighting the hanukkiyah, the Hanukkah menorah:

What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah?… The Sages taught… On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight… What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the menorah for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the menorah from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of…special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b).

The miracle of a small amount oil lasting for eight days can be understood as the rabbis’ way of expressing their appreciation of the miracle of Jewish resistance and survival, despite the forces arrayed against them. Light is also a symbol of hope and resilience, while the tradition of lighting an additional candle each night may reflect an older practice of welcoming the growing light of the winter solstice. The fact that the rabbis wanted to emphasize these spiritual aspects of Hanukkah are underlined by their assigning this passage from the prophet Zechariah to be read on the shabbat of Hanukkah each year:

[A divine messenger] said to me, What do you see?” And I said, I seen, and look, a menorah, all of gold, and a bowl on its top and its lamps were on it, seven pipes for the lamps on its top. And there were two olive trees by it, one to the right of the bowl and one to its left.” And I spoke out and said to the messenger speaking to me, saying, “What are these, my lord?” The messenger speaking to me answered and said,” Why, you know what these are.” And I said, “No, my lord.” And he answered and said to me, saying, “This is the word of the Holy One…, “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, said the Creator of Armies (Zechariah 4:2-6).”

With the advent of liberal Judaism, the message of Hanukkah was extended to a vision of freedom for everyone. This is reflected in the 19th century translation of Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages), sung each night after lighting the Hanukkah candles:

Children of the Maccabees, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where you may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing
Which will see, all people free, tyrants disappearing.

More recently, Zechariah’s pronouncement that the victory we seek is not won by might or power, was taken up by filmmaker Pierre Sauvage for the title of “Weapons of the Spirit,” a documentary about how the villagers of the French region of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. I love the idea of Hanukkah being a time when we celebrate the lives and courage of those who stand up and resist oppression nonviolently.

So what do we celebrate when we celebrate Hanukkah? While it may have begun with a military victory, the teaching of Hanukkah has grown to be much more. A time to honor resilience and hope, to rededicate ourselves to freedom for all, and recognize those who, in words of poet Adrienne Rich, “with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

To begin our Hanukkah observances, this Shabbat we will be discussing selections from the Book of Maccabees. On Sunday, we will have our community Hanukkah party, and each subsequent night of the holiday we will gather on Zoom to light candles and share songs and stories of the season.

I look forward to celebrating with you.

Rabbi Drorah Setel

*The three Books of Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Bible. They were preserved in some Christian Bibles as part of what is called the Apocrypha (from the Greek apokryptein, “to hide away”), a selection of writings not included in either the Jewish or Christian canon.