The victory of the Maccabees was only half of the battle. In war and peace, the legacy of Hanuka depends on how we answer the question: “can the finite contain The Infinite?”
“What’s Hanuka?” the Talmud inquires. It’s a good question because many Jews are usually wrong about the Hanuka story. How incorrect is the simplistic popular understanding of the holiday storyline and how is it significant?
‘Hanuka’ means something akin to inauguration, induction, and edification as it applies to rededicating the Second Jewish Temple, though in modern Hebrew, it simply means “house warming” in daily usage. This rededication of the Temple happened after its capture and vile mistreatment by unfaithful and disloyal Hellenist Jews who usurped control of Judea with the sinister support of the Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes.
Most Jews conjecture the narrative of the Maccabean revolt as coming to its end on the 24th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, when some ragtag insurgents finally stormed the Holy Temple, cementing their victory over the Seleucid forces propping up the Hellenist regime. It was seemingly late in the afternoon that day when the Temple Mount was secured, and the exuberant warriors and priests were focused on performing the very next ritual in the regular daily schedule of Jewish sacrificial events – the lighting of the 7-branched menorah candelabra of the Sanctum so that its oil lamps burn overnight until the dawn of 25 Kislev.
In the fracas, most assume, the battle-weary fighters frantically searched for adequate reserves of absolutely certified ritually-pure olive oil with which to fuel the 7 cups of the menorah’s branches. Indeed, they only found one sealed jar with the approximately 1.3 liters of oil needed for a single night. They apparently used it right away, as the sun set on their day of reconquest. Miraculously, that one-night’s volume of oil burned for the eight days needed to procure a fresh supply of ritually pure olive oil. Most presume that we ‘do Hanuka’ in appreciation of the military victory and the “wonder oil” event which were nearly concurrent when Providence led to a Jewish victory on a chance afternoon in early winter of 164 BCE.
Is this what really happened and can anyone claim that it was a substantial ‘rededication’ of the entire Temple? To know what probably transpired, there is some backstory which every Jew should understand. We are grateful for a 1771 commentary on Hanuka customs by Rabbi Jacob Emden, which remediates our ignorance:
In Megilat Taanit, the Rabbis record that the Maccabean forces actually won the battle for Jerusalem nearly a month and a half before 25 Kislev of that year. In fact, those faithful Jews were immediately busy with ‘rededicating’ the Temple Mount. It seems that they finished removing all traces of idolatry by the close of the first week of Kislev. If they had found only one jar of pure oil, they should have used it by then.
Secondly, there was no need for ritually pure oil. The Torah itself permits ritually impure oil in the crass ‘impurity situation’ in which the Maccabees found themselves after hostilities ceased. Furthermore, following the first chapter of Talmud Pesachim, liquids like olive oil cannot become impure to such a degree that anyone should ever consider postponing or delaying the lighting the Menora to find certified oil.
Lastly, the Jews were required to rebuild the large sacrificial altar during Kislev. In the interim, when there was no altar, there was technically no active ‘mitzvah’ to light the menorah. If they wanted to simply light it anyway, they could use any olive oil. Anyway, late fall was and remains the olive harvest in the middle east. This writer just saw oil production in the Lower Galilee last month and it seems highly improbable that it took as long as eight days to get more oil at this time of year.
The key to understanding the proper storyline is to know that, per Jewish records in the Pesikta Rabbati, 25 Kislev was when the very first Jewish altar and menorah were physically completed over a millennium earlier, in the days of Moses in the Exodus narrative.
That exact date would later be the beginning of the construction of the furnishings of the Second Temple, still some 360 years before the Hanuka story. The second chapter of the Book of Haggai records a prophesy transmitted on 24 Kislev in about 520 BCE in which it was ordained On High that 25 Kislev would formally mark the reestablishment of a Jewish Commonwealth and be the commencement of the physical rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian Exile.
25 Kislev was intentionally chosen by the Maccabean victors to be the date of their rededication of this same Second Temple on the very day that both Moses and later Haggai had prophetically prepared Jewish “sacrificial hardware” for use. Long before the Maccabees, 25 Kislev was a commemoration of the Heavenly sanction of Jewish political independence. Most importantly, this date spoke to the potential for a Jewish Temple to function as a conduit of Supernal Lifeforce to fill the universe with Godly Consciousness.
We may adduce that the Torah-loyal Jewish victors saved that scant pure oil which they found a month earlier in order to burn it on this auspicious date. Technicalities of Torah law aside, an exceedingly proper and ritually pure menorah lighting on 25 Kislev would harken to Moses and Haggai and serve as a potent symbol of the present Jewish victory.
The Maccabees did not want to create an entirely new Jewish holiday, but to re-inaugurate this known anniversary in ‘light’ of their restoration of the Temple. The light of the menorah would be a reminder of the transcendent potential of a Jewish Temple for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Then a miracle occurred and the Ancient Holy One endorsed this Maccabean “25 Kislev ceremony” by extending the life of the menorah’s scant oil fuel so that it burned for 8 days straight – to manifest and signify so much which is outside the scope of this article. On the following year, although the revolt was yet to be totally victorious, the people recalled this holy sign so fondly that the Rabbis added this ‘Hanuka’ to the roster of Jewish holidays.
This broader perspective provides an approach for Jews looking to answer the question, “What’s Hanuka?” This question was asked differently and more saliently by King Solomon at the ‘hanuka’ inauguration of the First Temple in 1 Kings ch. 8:
“Can God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain You. How much less this Temple I have built!”
In his long speech, he explains that the Temple will be where Heaven kisses Earth and physics and metaphysics merge in the soul and substance of a luminous edifice dedicated for the pilgrimage and prayer of all humanity. This is not to say that non-Jews should celebrate Hanuka. However, the holiday remains a celebration of an ancient legacy which looks to inspire an impression of the Unity of God via the unity of the Jewish People in the hopes of providing a common ground for all people in a liberated Jerusalem.
Hanuka is older than the Maccabees and suggests that the One With Whom Light Abides may enhance the luster of the small victories of the Jewish People in our dark era so that they radiate warmth for Jewish hearts which long for the glow of the Temple dedication to come.
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