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
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.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:
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.
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.
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."
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.