Wishing to offer more than an Alan King “They wanted to kill us. We Survived. Let’s Eat.,” explanation of the Chanukkah to those who had only before a lit a Christmas tree, I packed my menorah, in addition to my grandmother’s sweet potatoes, to my neighbor’s yearly Thanksgiving dinner last week. Anticipating, or perhaps at least hoping for a question or two, in the process of getting reacquainted with the facts, I discovered the simple question of “What is Chanukah” is actually a liturgical conundrum akin to “what came first, the chicken or the egg.” What I did not find was anything with concrete answers nor very much resembling what we learned in Sunday School. What I did find, however, is that I am just the latest in a long, much more learned line, who have wondered the very same thing for a very long time.
Rabbis pose the question in the Talmud, the collective body of Jewish Law, “Mai Chanukah?” which means when translated literally from the original Aramaic, “What is this Chanukah business about anyway?” The complete story of Chanukah is not found in one place, was not told at one time, and the still evolving exploration is not about the details, or even the tale of the two miracles, but what precisely to do with them and how they should be celebrated.
The events of Chanukah occurred around one thousand years after the writing of the Torah was completed and are therefore not included in the sacred scrolls nor their weekly reading and discussion. The earliest accounts of Chanukah, the First and Second Book of Maccabees, are also not part of the Jewish Bible, having failed to impress the Talmudic sages it was worthy of their canon and only survives written in Greek as part of the Apocrypha literature persevered by the Church.
The Maccabees books, I, II, III, and IV Maccabees, detail of the military triumph of a small group’s victory over a much larger, oppressing force in detail, “the miracle of the few against the many,” but makes no mention of one day’s oil lasting for eight at all. For that, we need to look beyond the Mishnah, the oral history of rabbinic law which makes up one part of the Talmud, to the Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah, where we find the Tractate Shabbat 21b, that contains three lines devoted to the events of Chanukah but three pages and how, and where, the lights should be kindled, relegating the Maccabean victory as more exposition than something to be celebrated.
Scholarly speculation has resulted in many theories to explain this ambiguity unique to this holiday alone. One of the most simplistic is that the story of Chanukah was so well known that even in ancient times, it did not need to be documented at all. On the more complex side, others point to the pragmatism of the Amoraim, the sages of the Talmud, who furthered the story of the oil to downplay the aspect of a successful revolt by a group of vastly outnumbered Jews to appease the ruling Romans and to prevent another Jewish uprising that could have resulted in a final, total annihilation. Between them, there are hundreds of variations both slight and extreme.
There does seem, however to be a quiet agreement about one thing, both miracles were employed in a passive-aggressive cover-up used to “sanitize” a dark period in our history: a near implosion within the Jewish population between the religiously pious and those incorporating Hellenism (Greek culture) into their daily lives. This battle of ideologies ultimately played out on the battlefield with Hellenized Jews faring no better that then Syrian invaders at the hand of the Maccabees who within a century, succumbed to the same Hellenistic forces. This ultimately led to the Roman destruction of the very Temple whose fight to reclaim & resanctify from unholy forces is what the holiday is named after: chanukah in Hebrew means “dedication.”
No matter where the story comes from, or which parts of the story you know, as we thank and acknowledge G-d in the blessing for Chanukah with these words “Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time,” the covenant between G-d and his people continues to shine against the ultimate darkness in every candle we light in these days, at this time, two thousand plus years later.
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