Monday, December 15, 2008

A Skeptics Guide to Chanukah

I. The Miracle of the Oil

A nice idea:
Even the most secular Jew has grown up with the story about the miracle of the oil. When the victorious Maccabees entered the Temple, they could only find one jug of sealed olive oil which was only only enough to burn for one day. A great miracle occurred and the light lasted for eight days.

Reality check:
Any regular reader of Jewish skepti-blogs will be aware of the true story by now (as well as most of the other points in this post), as elaborated in Maccabees I and II. Before recapping, let's look at a time line.
  • Maccabean revolt: 167 BCE
  • Maccabean victory and re-dedication of the Temple: 164 BCE
  • Writing of I Maccabees: ca. 134-63 BCE
  • Writing of II Maccabees: ca. 124-63 BCE
  • Philo of Alexandria: 20 BCE - 50 CE
  • Josephus: ca. 37 – 100 CE
  • Gospel of John: ca 70 - 85 CE or later
  • Talmud: ca 500 CE
NONE of the early historical sources through Josephus mention the miracle of oil. Nor is the miracle mentioned in the Chanukah (or Hanukkah, as The Church of Google prefers) additions of Birkat HaMazon of the Amidah. The only source for the miracle comes from the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), and is described in a few sentences in the name of some anonymous rabbis. We can't date precisely when this tradition began, but keep in mind that the earliest that we can confidently account for the Talmudic story is approximately 650 years after the Maccabean revolt! Admittedly this may reflect a much older tradition, but such a belief is merely conjecture. Occasionally you'll hear someone make a claim that the "miracle" was not mentioned by the early sources because they wanted to emphasize the Hashmonean military victory - which, after all, could be claimed as merely the result of superior strategic maneuvering - instead of an overtly spiritual deliverance. This is quite absurd, as all of these early sources - written by religious Jews regardless of their factional affiliation - would not have hesitated to mention such a miracle were it to have actually occurred. It is much more likely that Chazal wanted to diminish the emphasis on the military victory because of strong anti-Hasmonean sentiments as a result of Alexander Jannaeus and Aristobulus siding with the Sadducees and the internecine fighting that ultimately culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. As such, they redefined the Chanukah so that the military victory took a back seat to the spiritual one.

The Early Historical Sources

I Maccabees. Chapter 4 of this important historical work describes the celebration of the Kislev thusly:
Then said Judas and his brothers, Behold, our enemies are crushed: let us go up to cleanse and dedicate the sanctuary. So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest, or as on one of the mountains. They also saw the chambers of priests in ruins. They rent their clothes, and made great lamentation, and cast ashes upon their heads,and fell down flat to the ground upon their faces. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried toward heaven. Then Judas appointed certain men to fight against those that were in the fortress, until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law. They cleansed the sanctuary, and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned and thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathens had defiled it. So they pulled it down and laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to show what should be done with them.

Then they took unhewn stones according to the law, and built a new altar like the former. They rebuilt the sanctuary, and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lit, that they might give light in the temple. They set the loaves on the table, and hung up the curtains, and finished all the works which they had undertaken. Early in the morning on the twentieth fifth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Kislev, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals. Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They also decked the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them. Thus was there great joy among the people, for that the disgrace of the Gentiles was put away.

Moreover Judas and his brothers with the whole congregation of Israel ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year for eight days, from the twentieth fifth day of the month Kislev, with joy and gladness.
II Maccabees. This books adds additional historical information, including the fact that the eight days of dedication also served as a celebration of the (delayed) holiday of Succot. It begins with a letter exhorting the Jews in Egypt to observe the relatively new festival. Chapter 1:18:
Since on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices. And later in Chapter 10: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.
Philo of Alexandria. The historian completely omits any mention of Chanukah. Had the holiday fallen into disuse during these very turbulent times (or, more likely, had it not taken hold in Egypt despite the exhortations of II Maccabees), or was the omission a result of political concerns or personal religious leanings?

Josephus Antiquities. Book 12 Chapter 7 (find the whole work at the Gutenberg Project) explains things in a manner that is strikingly similar to the First Book of Maccabees, possibly he used the book as his source. He adds some details, including a conjecture as to how Chanukah became known as the festival of lights:
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.
John 10:22. "And it was at Jerusalem the Feast of the Dedication, and it was winter." Here the anonymous author of the Gospel of John recounts that Chanukah represents a "feast of dedication".

The bottom line: Contrary to the assertions of other skeptics, I do not believe that Chanukah was initially designated as an eight-day holiday so that it could function as a "delayed Succot". I Maccabees states simply that they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days and joyfully offered burnt offerings and thanksgiving offerings. This eight day dedication was simply a re-enactment of previous dedications such as the initial inauguration of the Tent of Meeting by Moses (Lev. 8:33-35, with the conclusion on the eighth day as stated in 9:1); the dedication of the First Temple by King Solomon (II Chron. 7:8-9); and Hezekiah's re-dedication of the Temple (II Chronicles 29:17). Thus it seems much more likely from the historical accounts that the eight-day festival was modelled after previous dedications. Once it was so determined, the first Chanukah celebration also functioned as a means by which the people could fulfill the missed holiday of Succot.

II. Dreidels

Some nice ideas: Of course everyone knows the story about how the Jews used to play games with dreidels as a cover. When they were ostensibly spinning the top and playing a simple gambling game in front of the Greeks, they were really learning Torah and discussing very deep halachic and mystical concepts. Indeed, Bnai Yissachar teaches use that the letters on the dreidel allude to the four exiles of the Jewish people: Nun=nefesh, soul, for the Babylonians who desired that the Jews resort to idolatry and thereby contaminate their soul. Gimel=guf, body, for the Persians (typified by Haman) who tried to destroy us physically. Shin=sechel, the intellect, for the Greeks who valued the rational human mind over spiritual endeavors. Hey=HaKol, everything, for Rome who incorporated the basest qualities of each of the previous three nations, representing total destruction of the Jew and the moral imperative that the Jew represents. Also, the gematria of nun + gimel + hey + shin = 358, which is the gematria of nachash - snake - which is our primordial enemy as well as mashiach who represents the culmination of history!

Reality check: the dreidel game is based on a German game: "N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In German, the spinning top was called a "torrel" or "trundl," and in Yiddish it was called a "dreidel," a "fargl," a "varfl" [= something thrown], "shtel ein" [= put in], and "gor, gorin" [= all]." (Reference: see here and here.)

III. Maoz Tzur

A nice idea: The most common melody for this song is of Jewish origin.

Reality check: Per the article here, "Scholars suggest it dates from an old German folksong that spread among the Jews in the 15th century; this melodic line appears in a well-documented church melody of that period, used by Martin Luther (1483-1546) for his German chorals. The earliest preserved Jewish source of the melody is a manuscript from Hanover, dated 1744."

IV. Sufganiot

A nice idea: R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach explains why we eat jelly donuts on Chanukah. According to the Talmud Avodah Zarah (52b), when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple they could not use the altar-stones, for the Greeks had contaminated them through idolatry. They therefore stored them away. After eating donuts, we make the after-blessing of "Al HaMichya" in which we ask God to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. We also ask for mercy for God's altar ("al mizabachecha") unlike the Birkat Hamazon in which this is not mentioned. As for the jelly, the Talmud in Sotah (48a) states: "Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says: R. Joshua testified that from the day the Temple was destroyed... the flavor has departed from the fruits." Thus, adding fruit jelly to donuts helps us to remember what we lost when the Temple was destroyed.

Reality check: I have no idea when the custom to eat jelly donuts began, but does anyone honestly believe that some talmidei chachamim got together one day and learned out from these gemaras that eating jelly donuts would be an appropriate way to celebrate Chanukah? Gimmeabreak. Donuts are fried in oil, just like potato latkes; eating them on Chanukah help us to recall the so-called miracle of the oil.

By the way, did John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech really mean "I am a sufganiot"?? Unfortunately, this is nothing more than an urban legend.


J. said...

It's interesting that our version of megillat taanit (with the Scholium) talk about both the miracle of the oil, (although this is clearly a post-Talmudic addition), and another reason for celebrating chanuka for 8 days, which is that when they entered the heichal they found 8 iron poles which they used in place of a menora. This is what it says:
לפי שנכנסו יונים בהיכל וטמאו כל הכלים, ולא היה במה להדליק. וכשגברה יד בית חשמונאי הביאו שבעה שפודי ברזל, וחיפום בבעץ, והתחילו להדליק.

J. said...

N.b. I think the 'shiva' as opposed to 'shmone' in the Hebrew text is a mistake.
It's also interesting that this version made it into the Pesikta Rabbati (which was composed around 845 CE according to the Jewish Encyclopedia). This is a translation I found:
Why do we kindle lights on Hanukah? Because when the sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priest, defeated the Hellenists, they entered the Temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on them and lit them." (Pesikta Rabbati ch. 2)

Frum Heretic said...

I didn't want to post-Talmudic sources, but thank you for mentioning that reference. It is fascinating that even some later sources did not see fit to mention the miracle of the oil!

shoshi said...

where are your sources for the "German dreidel Game". I always thought it was a German-Jewish game, based on the letters that were on the dreidel.

Because as a gambling game, it is not very logical, since you can win much more than you loose, so it is not well-balanced.

Frum Heretic said...

Two references for it originally being a German game are in the post. Do a search on dreidel origin and you will be hard-pressed to find anyone suggesting that this did not originate in German (or England/Ireland) during the Middle Ages.

You may also find some references to a "teetotum", a game played with hexagonal top, that some attribute to the ancient Greeks.

Product said...

I find your post very informative and intellectual.
Some comments:
The Mishna also mentions Hanukkah candle in Bava Kama, if my memory still serves me well.
Who claimed Mo’oz Tzur melody is of Jewish origin? I’m sure we picked up lots of goyish tunes during this long exile.
Although Dreidel is of foreign origin, an explanation is still needed why it’s being played on Hanukkah in Jewish tradition. Maybe the Judeans played some other game as a cover for their real activities during the Hellenistic oppression, and Dreidel is a perfect commemoration?
Don’t make a fuss out of the Bnei Yisochor and Rabbi Auerbach; it’s all just remozim. It’s common practice among Torah scholars to interpret mundane things with a celestial twist.

Frum Heretic said...

Thanks for your comments. The Ma'oz Tzur reference is mainly a slam against those who feel that all niggunim have some holy, authentically Jewish origin. These are the same folks who try to ban certain types of (Jewish) music and concerts because of a supposed goyisha influence, ignoring the long use of Gentile tunes by chazzanim.

Dreidel. Yes, I know that this begs the true question but it is unclear how the custom became attached to Chanukkah. As I mentioned in the previous comment, Hellenistic Jews may have been acquainted with a similar game of teetotum.

Re the fuss over Bnei Yissochor & RSZA, actually I quite like these type of remozim (even gematrias, believe it or not!) They are lots of fun, and can be inspiring to those who are so amenable. As long as they are taken in that spirit and not as representing historical fact.

Jewish Sceptic said...

Interesting post. I've just posted an old post of Mis-Nagid's on my blog, which also looks at Maccabees.

Frum Heretic said...

I've seen some of misnagid's comments on blogs but never saw his original blog. Sounds like he posted some interesting stuff. His old post that you put up makes the claim that Chanukah is 8 days because it was originally a delayed Succot. As mentioned in my post, while it may have functioned as such in the first year, it seems that this was incidental as to why the holiday lasted eight days.

Anonymous said...

check out the maharatz chayos in shabbos who uses the pesikts & megilas taanis as a teirutz on the bais yosef's kashya.

Shtreimel said...

"This eight day dedication was simply a re-enactment of previous dedications"

I find this most interesting. Do you know of any 'mekoires' (presumably secular) that have also concluded so?

Frum Heretic said...

I appreciate you asking because as a result I just did a quick Google book search - limited & full preview - for

previous dedications solomon moses chanukah

(you could try this with spelling variations and such) and came up with this very interesting source:

This one assumes a much stronger connection between Chanukah & Succot:

Finally, here is a quote from Megillat Taanit that disagrees with these assertions because it claims that previous dedications were only seven days:

Anonymous said...

Your conclusion seems to be correct.
I just want to point out few things.
Seems to be there is a contradiction between Mac1 and Mac2. 1 says it was 8 days due to dedication of temple, and 2 says it was delayed sukos. maybe both reasons r valid. Misnagid takes approach of Mac2 only for some reason.
another point - josefus,our amidah insert, psekta drabotai - all mention lights (event itself involved lights or consequent celebrations). there seem to be something about lights in this holiday. it does not prove miracle of the jar. our amidah insert does not mention the jar, only the lighting candles in temple courtyard ( i assume it refers to menorah). Insert could have talked about burning of incense instead.


Anonymous said...

Here we go again.... see if this post gets any more response than same idea posted over the years in different places

I strongly suspect that given the need to explain a practice involving the HaSH-M-N-ayim and a festival that lasted SH-M-N-ah yamim, the Talmudic rabbis hypothesised and suggested a 'miracle story' that revolved around SH-M-N. [V. short version].

Any takers???

Frum Heretic said...

Here we go again...

Yeah, I know, this topic has been done to death. But I had some source notes typed up from a while back and figured what the hey... (Though I should have included Megillat Taanit.)