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Hebrew In Israel | Keeping Hanukkah – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi 4 comments

The following article is not intended to be a full explanation of a complicated subject, nor is it a final word on the matter.  It is rather to be taken as musing over a question which bothers many Torah keepers who do not heed to everything Judaism has to offer.  As an orthodox raised Jew I have always pondered about Hanukkah and why it is celebrated.  As a trained historian, the history of what happened is well known to me.  However, the history of the Halakhik development (Jewish law) of things is much more obscure.

When the Talmud addresses the question in the tractate of Shabbat “What is Hanukkah?”  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b) we get a very partial answer which ignores the whole history.  The answer focuses on only one aspect, the reestablishing of the temple.  The story of the little source of oil is considered fiction invented later on, which gives us even more insight to some of the dilemmas later Jewish sources had about this matter. 

History in the Making

To understand the full history of Hanukkah one only needs to read the book of Maccabees and get a full description of the internal and external politics of 2nd century Judea.  This was a struggle between Syrian soldiers who felt entitled in Jerusalem, thinking that it is no different than any other hellenised city, and Jews who lived in their homeland for centuries who objected to the attempt to change God’s people.  This was a war over identity which also ended up to be a war of independence.  Freedom became the centre of Hanukkah, and the is why it was seen as a national celebration which was not in any way part of Torah keeping.  It was a time to give thanks to God for the redemption from Syrian-Greek forces, and a return to a Torah based government.

After the war settled, around the year 140BCE, the people gathered together to crown Simon the Hasmonean to be king.  Simon did not want to rule without the consent of the people, and requested this great gathering to give him a mandate to rule (1Mac 14:27-45).  The mandate given to Simon was Torah based, and his family had received the agreement of the people to govern them.  However, this charter was limited till a prophet would come and and re-establish the kingdom.  What happened with the family in later generations was completely wrong and against the original agreement.  The Hasmoneans became priest-kings and the later kings not only forced themselves on the people, but also became a political power which sought to control using violence.  The internal wars between the different members of family, and the fact that Judah brought the Romans to Judea as part of an agreement during the rebellion (1Mac 8:23-32), puts the whole story and achievements of the Hanukkah into question.

At the end of it, even though Israel had (a short lived) freedom, the family itself brought misery and destruction, and opened the door for the destruction of Jerusalem and the deepening of internal war between brothers.  Factions deepened, and Torah keepers had to flee for their lives when the Hasmoneans didn’t agree with them (DSS 1QpHab).  This, in my opinion, is something very difficult to celebrate, and this is probably why the Talmud ignores to some degree the historical side of things and focuses on the positive.  It has been an argument for many years whether the Talmud ignores the Hasmoneans.  However, it seems clear that they preferred to reduce the attention due to the issues which were well known to them.  This is especially evident from the attitude the Talmud has to the later king Alexander Jannaeus who is described as a supporter of the Sadducees who were the enemies of the Pharisees (Babylonian Talmud Kidushin 66a).  Historically speaking, Jannaeus was an extremely violent king, and hard his own people who were tired of his wars and conquests.  At the end he murdered many Jews, and this people were becoming less and less supportive of the family (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13:380-381).  However, the return to Torah, and the existence of a celebration which was several hundred years old compelled Jewish tradition to keep the celebration even though the historical side was negative and non-existent after the Romans took over.  To me it seems that the point of keeping Hanukkah by Talmudic standard is more custom and mostly the celebration of Torah reestablishment.

Why Was Hanukkah Created?

The principle standing behind Hanukkah is the celebration of returning to the Temple. The legend of the oil jar is a late redaction of the history which is presented in Maccabees 1&2. In 2 Macc we receive a very clear description of the reasoning behind creating the feast:

“Now upon the same day that the temple had been polluted by the strangers, on the very same day it was cleansed again, to wit, on the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu. And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts. Therefore they now carried boughs, and green branches, and palms for Him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year.” (2Macc 10:5-8).

As can be seen, the principle standing behind the feast was an attempt to reestablish the temple with Sukkot being the core principle behind the days. It was an attempt to give the renewal of the temple the same atmosphere at the dedication of the temple in Ezra 3:4, and possibly a version of 1Kings 8 where the dedication of the temple was done during Sukkot. There was no oil or light, but Josephus does call it “The Feast of Lights” but does not give an explanation as to why it had lights lit during the days.

“Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon, but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices, and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was that this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us, and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.” (Antiquities 12:7:7).

Adding to The Torah

This subject is probably the most difficult one to deal with, and I myself even as a child never understood how we can add things since we are clearly forbidden to do so in Deuteronomy 4:2.  This question has bothered even Rabbinic sources, and different answers were given such as it is forbidden to take away details, but adding a whole idea is allowed.  This basic idea gave the elders full authority on everything and allowed them to interpret things even if the text does not support the idea.  This in turn meant that one is not allowed to turn to the left or the right from the elders’ teachings no matter what.

At this stage it is important to note that we do find customs in ancient Israel, and research done on life in ancient Israel show that there were many things which do not appear in the Torah which were kept.  One example can be found with virgins wearing striped clothing (as in the case of Tamar 2Sam 13:18), and the taking off of a shoe when an agreement is made (Ruth 4:7).

However, when we come to a system which creates very specific laws and regulations on how to light a candle, one has to stop and ask how on earth can this not be adding to the Torah in a gross way?  The attitude towards these rules is that they are equal to laws of actual Torah commandments, which is really why some people object to the ritual–especially the blessing of being commanded by God to light the candles.  This in truth is the main objection I hear from non-Rabbinic Torah keeping people, and it is very understandable.

To really understand the subject we have to dive into a very complicated history of Torah keeping and the subject of authority in 2nd temple Judaism (which is outside of the scope of this article).  This is a very well attested and researched subject both in ancient sources, and also in modern day ideas.  Unfortunately this would require a whole book, and there are several books on the matter.  To keep things short I will only give the general idea:

Everyone wanted to be in charge, and it seems to me that putting in blessings was not just a chance issue developed later on due to a custom becoming law.  To me it seems there is an ideology here of making sure that Hanukkah is kept with a very clear statement that the Rabbinic authority is absolute, and that no one can undermine it.  This is why, in my personal opinion, Rabbinic sources made such a big issue out of keeping Hanukkah.  In the midst of a war over authority, and the survival of Judaism after the destruction, Rabbis had to take a very bold stand to insure the survival of Torah.  Even if one disagrees with what was done, the action itself created order which allowed Jews to unite over more or less one system.  This is not perfect, and is far away from ideal, but under such circumstances what choice does one have?  This was life and death of Judaism, and even though political struggle existed even inside the system, the common cause was survival.

Understanding History

When objecting to Hanukkah and Jewish customs, it is fundamentally important to put one’s modern understanding of things aside, and try and step into the world of the people who were around when things happened.  As a trained historian this is History 101 where you are taught to think like an historian.  We are not trained just to know facts, but to also understand the process and different sides of events.

I agree that today in our times where we have more freedom, we can and should ask questions about how we should keep Torah without violating it.  But for them this was survival, and we cannot judge them till we are in their position.  Judaism had to create a system which governed everyone under one rule, and customs such as Hanukkah (yes it started as a custom) became part of identity, which was important.  When you live in freedom and have everything you need it is easy to dismiss things. However, when you are culturally in trouble, and there is a war against you and your culture, people tend to become protective of some of the most trivial things.  This is why Hanukkah was kept, and this is why the different rules were created because it was a preservation of identity and a focus on the positive of what happened.

The Bottom Line

To answer the question of should one keep Hanukkah, my response would be “what do you identify with?”.  This is, in essence, what one should take into consideration.  If one identifies with Judaism and identifies with Jewish customs, then one should keep at least lighting the candles without saying a blessing.  However, if one does not identify with Judaism as it developed, then there is no point in keeping any of it.  This is an identity and affiliation question, and is less about Torah law.

In many cases I use the following modern day analogy for Israelis:

Keeping Hanukkah is no different than asking the question of keeping independence day.  If one is a supporter of the state of Israel, then one can and should celebrate this day.  However, if one objects to the state of Israel, then there is no point in keeping such a day.

Hanukkah, in rabbinic eyes, is about celebrating the establishment of Torah keeping, and this was the focus rabbis in the Talmud were going for.  They knew the problems with the Hasmoneans, but in a time of darkness and destruction, clinging to the light of a reestablished Torah based rule was a way to keep the light of hope burning.



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Hebrew In Israel | History Of Hanukkah – Learn Torah

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Join Yoel as he explains the source materials and the historical framework behind Hanukkah, the reason for the rebellion, and the reason for the anti-religious decrees in Israel when it was not done elsewhere.


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