Tonight, November 28th at sundown Jews across the world will light the first candle to begin celebrating the eight nights of Chanukah. Why does Hanukkah and all Jewish holidays start at night? The creation story in the book of Genesis begins by explaining that baseball is God’s favorite sport at least my interpretation. The first sentence begins, “In the big inning.”  Later on, in that first chapter, and using a more universal interpretation one has to look at the end of each day of creation to understand. Each of the six days of creation ends with, “and it was evening and it was morning the xxx day.” That was the indication that every day starts with the evening. guide to the Hanukkah holiday

What many people (even Jews) know about Chanukah is either totally wrong, half the story, or peppered with charming but untrue legends–at least here in the United States, The real Hanukah story is the opposite of what many people think it is.  Hannukkah not only celebrates the renewal of the holy temple in Jerusalem after we booted out the forces of Seleucid King Antiochus IV, but it also celebrates the results of a Jewish civil war and the victory of Jews who maintained their faith over assimilated Jews.

Despite what you may have been told, the meaning of Chanukah is not “let’s come up with a holiday around Christmas time, so Jewish kids can also get presents at the end of the secular year. It is also false that the real Hanukkah meaning is, “Let’s come up with a holiday with many different English spellings so we can drive the Gentiles crazy (it drives Jews crazy also). The holiday with many spellings (in English because it’s a translation of the Hebrew which is always spelled חנוכה.

In 2021 Hanukkah starts the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend Nov. 28. This leads people to wonder. Why is Hanukkah early this year? The truth is that It’s the same day every year, the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. Because it is based on a lunar calendar, the solar/secular calendar day changes every year.

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As far as Jewish holidays go, Hanukkah is not that important. Like Purim, it was created by rabbis. The command to observe the big holidays such as Passover, Sukkot, or Shavuot come from God via the Torah. Since God outranks rabbis (although some rabbis don’t believe they are outranked), the holidays in the Torah are considered much more important.

The most common view of the holiday generally includes the miracle of the one day’s worth of Kosher oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple and lasting for eight days, the Maccabees defeat of the superior forces of King Antiochus IV, the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, etc.

It’s a nice story but probably, the oil thing never happened. There is no mention of it in the book of Maccabees or any other historical source from the time of the Maccabees or shortly after. The first mention of the miracle of the oil was 700 years later. The real reason for the candles is to celebrate that the Maccabee fighters brought the light of God and the observance of the Torah back into Judea,.

The war that Matthias ben Johanan (Maccabee) led, and after he passed away, his son Judah and his brothers led, was a civil war against the Jews who turned away from their faith—a battle against assimilation. King Antiochus and his army intervened in the civil war but picked the wrong side to support.

The Seleucid King Antiochus IV invaded the Jewish State of Judea at the request of assimilated Hellenized Jews. Some of those Hellenized Jews were expelled from Judea to Syria around 170 BCE. The exiled assimilated Jews lobbied King Antiochus to capture Judea’s capital, Jerusalem.

The civil war began in the town of Modin. A government representative of Antiochus IV demanded that the local Jewish priest Mattathias offer sacrifices to the Greek gods.  Mattathias not only refused to do so but killed the Jew who had stepped forward to offer to make the sacrifice. Mattathias then killed the government official who made the demand. An order to arrest Mattathias was made, so went into the wilderness to hide.  There Mattathias was joined by his sons and others who heeded his call, “Let everyone who has a zeal for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!” There they began the civil war and picked up the nickname Maccabee.

And by the way, their last name was not Maccabee. Y’hudhah HamMakabi or Judah the Maccabee began as a nickname for Mattathias’ son Judah and spread to the other fighters.  It is an anagram for a Hebrew phrase that translates into “Who is like You among the heavenly powers oh God?”

Hanukkah

Two hundred years after the end of the war, the failed Judean General-turned traitor and eventually Roman historian Josephus wrote:

“The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with them, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city [Jersalem]  by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy [Egyptian King], and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.”

The books of the Maccabees weren’t picked to be included in the Jewish canon (Tanach). In my humble opinion, it was all because of politics (sort of).

The Maccabees’ big political mistake was made after the Temple was rededicated. They kept the role of Temple priests but added the position of King (it’s known as the Hasmonean dynasty). From Moses’s (state) and Aaron’s (priest) time, head of state and high priests was separate. Once the Kingship was established with Saul, the separation became permanent. The priestly families were from the tribe of Levi (where Aaron, the first priest, came from). Even today, the descendants of Aaron (called Kohan’s) are recognized as Jewish priests.   The first king of Israel, Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin.  He was succeeded by David, from the tribe of Judah who ruled the kingdom of Israel, and his line is still recognized as the kingly line. Even after the empire was divided into Judah and Israel, the house of David sat on the royal throne.

Tomb of Mattathias ben Yoḥanan HakKohen (Mattathias Son of Jonathan The Priest)
Father of the Maccabees And The Man Who Started The Revolt

Before you start claiming biblical proof of separation of church and state, the reason for the biblical separation wasn’t a fear of religious influence on govt.,, it was the fear of a corrupt government’s impact on religion –which is precisely what happened with the Maccabee dynasty.  God knew that governments could become corrupt, and since there were no bloggers in biblical times to watch over the government. The plan was for an incorruptible Priesthood who were supposed to keep the politicians in line.  But as for the American liberal version of a total separation of church and state, the Torah disagrees. Deuteronomy 17:18–19 says;

“And it will be when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them.”

Eventually, the Maccabees’ breach of tradition led to the corruption of both offices, the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, and the exile of the Judean (Jewish) people. When the canonical books were selected about 250 years after the Maccabee victory and 70 years after the destruction of the Temple, feelings were still very raw. Thus the Maccabees were booted.

Emotions have calmed down since then.  But since there are no ancient Hebrew copies (only Greek translations), the books cannot be added back into canon.

The Chanukah holiday started out as a celebration of Sukkot. When the Maccabees finally retook the Temple in the month of Kislev, they decided to celebrate Sukkot three months late.  The war had stopped them from observing the major holiday of Sukkot. The Maccabees rededicated the Temple and immediately set out to observe the skipped festival, which was an excuse.  During Biblical times, on  Sukkot and all the God-directed holidays,  Judeans from all of the land would come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple.  The festival’s late celebration allowed the Jews who couldn’t go to the holy Temple for three and a half years to rededicate themselves to the Jewish faith.

While I believe that God can easily create the miracle of the oil, IMHO, the story of the oil lasting eight days is nothing more than a nice story. Along with many others, my belief is that it never happened. It was never recorded in the books of Maccabees or any of the contemporary accounts of that first Chanukah celebration. Some readers strongly disagree. They correctly point out that in the Talmud (Shabbat 22a), there is an account of the one day of oil lasting for eight days.

And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days.

This, however, is not a contemporary account. The Talmud was compiled 6-700 years after the Maccabee revolt. Either way, there is nothing wrong with telling the story, which in the end, celebrates the power of our maker.

The initial celebration of the Temple’s re-dedication, now called Hannukah, was initially named the festival of lights (which can only be spelled one way in English)  but for a different reason than one may think.

Josephus says:

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, because 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.

By the way, there is no record of the Judeans ordering Kosher Chinese takeout, making potato latkes, or going to Dunkin Donuts for jelly-filled donuts. That didn’t become Jewish practice until much later. The reason for eating the greasy oily food is in recognition of the miracle of eight days of oil. Personally, I would prefer if they got ice cream to last eight days.

I believe it is called the festival of lights because Jews believe that God’s teachings bring his light into the world. The Chanukah festival was a re-dedication of the Temple and a re-dedication of the Jews to the Torah and the light of God. Neither Josephus nor the Book of Maccabees discusses any oil that lasts eight days (or donuts).

Sorry if I destroyed any of your childhood myths by telling the truth about the candles. But (to me and others), the primary miracle of Hanukkah was the victory of the Jews over superior forces because they received help from God. God doesn’t need to do fancy parlor tricks such as parting the Reed Sea to help the Jews. Faith is all about believing that God is always involved, even when you don’t see him.  God did similar miracles with Purim, the creation of Israel in 1948, the Six-Day-War, and most recently, the miracle year of New York Sports 1968-69; when the Mets, the Jets, and the hobbled Willis Reed-led Knicks won championships.

The Rabbis tell us that we cannot use the Chanukah candles for reading or seeing, the same way we would with a regular candle or a light bulb, or even a Shabbos candle. Each night candles on Chanukkiyah. It’s not called a menorah, menorahs were in the Temple in Jerusalem and, when fully lit, had seven instead of nine candles). The Chanukkiyah is supposed to be placed near a window. That way, the light of God and his many miracles will shine outward into the world.

Historically, Menorahs, not the Mogen David (Jewish Star), were the symbol of the Jewish people.

There is a story in the Talmud about lighting Hannukkah candles. The students of two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, had a fierce argument about lighting the candles. The Shammai camp said you light nine candles (the helper candle and one for each of the eight nights) the first night and take away one each succeeding night. The house of Hillel said you light two the first night (the helper candle plus one) and add one each subsequent night.  While both camps were brilliant and wise, the Hillel camp won (as they usually did). Because it is crucial to increase holiness every day, adding a candle increases holiness.

Even though Chanukah is a minor holiday, it is one of my favorites, not because of the eight days of gifts (that’s an American custom based on trying to one-up Christmas) and not because of the greasy clogged artery-inducing donuts and potato pancakes. Chanukah is a holiday about Jews fighting against assimilation. That’s a lesson needing to be reinforced over and over here in the Galut (Diaspora).

Jews who see a business or government location, place a Jewish star on top of a Christmas tree, or a Chanukkiah next to a Nativity scene should ask for the holiday symbols to be separated. Not separated to disparage the faiths of others, but because of the anti-assimilation Hanukkah theme. Additionally, don;t wish people “happy holidays.” Wish people a “happy Chanukkah” and, when appropriate, a “merry Christmas,” instead of combining the two into a religious gumbo.

The Hannukah holiday and candles are also a reminder that in Judaism, the light of God doesn’t stem from one worldwide source. Each person and each family is essential.  God’s light begins in the home lit by a single-family unit. The light from one family radiates from their home to their community. Then it spreads from their communities to their entire countries and from their countries throughout the whole world. Therefore it is incumbent on each person to start it all by spreading the light of God.

May you all have a Chag Chanukah Samayach, a happy Hanukkah holiday, and may the light of God soon radiate throughout the world and bring us peace. As the words said over and over during each and every Jewish prayer service wishes;

Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol yisrael, ve’imru amen.

He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. Amen.

 

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