In 175 B.C., Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV invaded Judea, outlawing fundamental Jewish practices and violating the temple with a statue of Zeus and the sacrifice of impure animals on the altar. The Maccabees arose in response; this group of Jewish guerilla warriors undertook an uprising led by Mattityahu and his five sons. That revolt was successful, and by 165, the temple had been recaptured and cleaned–with a new altar dedicated, fit for sacrifices to the God of Israel. One problem remained: According to Exodus 27:21, lamps were to burn all night, every night, lit from pure, consecrated olive oil. And only one such jar of oil was found–enough for one day. But that small jar of oil lasted for eight days, the length of time it took to bring more pure oil to Jerusalem. And thus, the holiday of Hanukkah was born.

In short, Hanukkah is a celebration of two things: a military victory and a spiritual victory. A people’s triumph over the bad guys and a people’s quest for holiness. Jews light an additional candle each night until a full blaze of eight candles lights up the darkness.

But there is no necessary reason for this addition to the lighted candles. In fact, the two most important proto-rabbinic schools of thought disagreed about how to light Hanukkah lights. In contrast to what we might take for granted, the school known as the House of Shammai insisted that we begin the holiday with eight candles and light one fewer each night of Hanukkah. His argument was one based on a model that sought to fill in sacrifices missed during the war. The House of Hillel, on the other hand, championed the format that we are familiar with today: starting with a single light and increasing each night. Hillel’s argument was based on a completely different way of seeing–an orientation not backward to a historical event of military conquest, as was Shammai, but rather toward something not caught in history, toward something extra-historical, supra-historical: holiness.

Shammai is focused on the defeat of the enemy, and like all historical events, its impact–like the candles–diminished over time. Hillel is focused instead on the holiness that resulted from this military victory, and that just as holiness increased with the rededication of the altar, so should the lighting reflect an increase in holiness. According to this way of thinking, Hanukkah points us not to just a single “historical” miracle, but an ongoing “sup ahistorical” one.

Because while the Maccabees themselves make for an exciting story, and while that victory was tremendously important for the freedom of Jewish practice, its impact did indeed diminish over time. More than diminished. It ended up with the reign of some of the most corrupt and power-hungry rulers in the form of the Hasmonean dynasty, whose infighting and ambition invited Rome in to rule Judea from 63 B.C. as a protectorate. Power corrupts unless it is guided by holiness. Human power must be subservient to holiness–to the guidance of God.

There is no doubt (we live in a dark time) that, surrounded by lawlessness and cruelty, human power is running out of control. We are ready to do something-anything–to make it stop. Our souls, our hearts, are eager and desperate, but our hands are not able to do as much as our souls demand. But here’s the kicker. Where do we do that? Where do we start?

Jews are not obligated to light Hanukkah candles at city hall. We are not obligated to light Hanukah candles at the mall. We are not obligated to light Hanukkah candles at synagogue. We are obligated to light Hanukah candles at home. In growing the light, we are reminded to start where we are planted, in the place and among the people we take most for granted.

BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful explanation. The miracle of Hanukkah is the light that it represents to the rest of the Nations. That one day they all would Glorify the Most High, Melej Ha’Olam.

    Be Blessed

  2. I am looking forward to when I retire so that I can devote time to these studies. Time is what I lack.

    I do have a question about the Jewish thought/Mindset surrounding the use of imagination and our spiritual walk with Jeshua and Elohim.
    We are certainly warned against vain imaginations.
    We are forbidden to have graven images made in the likeness to God.
    But I believe that the Western Mindset has thus gone to the extreme and stays as far away as possible from pure/righteous use of imagination. Then extend that further to encountering Jeshua and Elohim within our sanctified imaginations.

    All things must be tested against the Holy Scriptures of course.

    Can you shed some light on the Jewish thought and Mindset?

    • Tom, thank you for commenting! The question about “imagination” is a very deep and interesting one. First we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the word. In both the Jewish and Western traditions, “imagination” has usually been discussed under the influence of Aristotelian philosophy. For example, Isaac ben Solomon Israeli (ca. 855-955), writing in Judeo-Arabic, saw imagination as intermediary between – and needed for – “perception” and “reason” (to use some other customary translations). Israeli also believed, as the Encyclopedia Judaica puts it, that imagination “opens access to metaphysical truth with the help of images, and manifests itself in translating metaphysical truths into symbols.” In other words, imagination can be of great help in coming to understand spiritual truth. The famous rabbi Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) also wrote quite a bit about imagination, as did other Jewish thinkers. Now, this particular concept of imagination stems from the Ancient Greek φαντάζω (phantazô) “to make visible, place before the mind” and related words…

    • …As usual, these words have somewhat different meanings in Jewish-Greek texts, like the Septuagint and the first-century writings about Yeshua/Jesus. You can check the following verses to get some idea of how the concept was used in Judeo-Greek: Wisdom 6:16; Sirach 31/34:5; Hebrews 12:21. As for “vain imaginations,” I’m not sure exactly which passage you are referring to. This might be a loose translation of Romans 1:21 (or Romans 1:28, 2 Corinthians 10:5, Ephesians 4:17, or Colossians 1:21). But all those verses (in the original) refer much more to what we call “reasoning” than to what we call “imagination.” Finally, if you want to know the Biblical Hebrew understanding, we’d need to know which specific concept to start from! The Hebrew concepts are different from the Greek. So please feel free to follow up if you do have a specific text in mind to discuss (or if something here isn’t clear).

  3. I read recently that the story of one jar of oil lasting 8 days was actually a story added later. To me, that is not a problem but I would like to know one way or the other. Did it actually happen or was it an illustrative story or metaphor? Thanks.

  4. When the Jewish priests entered the temple; was there already a Menorah there, was it a 7stand or a 9stand Menorah?

    When they lit it up, did the whole Menorah light up, or did they light one candle each day for eight days?

    So why reinvent, what was already there.

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