's Chanukah information page

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'Mah Chanukah' (What is Chanukah) asks the Talmud. Chanukah celebrates the success of the Maccabeian rebellion against the Helenistic Syrian rulers of Israel in the year 167 B.C.E. The Syrians and a native Jewish Helenized population passed several decrees outlawing Jewish practices, took control of the Temple in Jerusalem and descrated it by putting idols in it and sacraficing swine. The Maccabees lead a revolt starting with the father Matathius and later his son Judas. Against a much larger and better organized army, the Maccabees waged a successful guerilla war that eventually defeated the Syrians. Chanukah celebrates the retaking of the Temple and its rededication (Chanukah in Hebrew means dedication).

Chanukah is actually a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. It celebrates an non-biblical event. There are many much more important holidays in the Jewish calendar (including Sukkot - more about that later). No special day of convocation is called, no layoff of normal activites is done, just extra celebration of the miracle.

Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a great miracle happened there), and what was the miracle.

Most of you have heard the story by now of the crucible of oil and how a day supply of oil lasted for eight at the rededication, and this is the miracle. Well - this story is a myth. Chanukah is an extensively well chronicaled revolt. The book of Maccabees does not mention it, nor do later historians like Josephus . The great miracle was the victory over a vastly superior foe. So this leaves open the question why the eight days, the menorah, and where did this story come from.

  1. Why eight days? One of the three most important holidays in the Jewish calendar is Sukkot . This is a Fall harvest festival (There is some thought the Pilgrims were trying to imitate Sukkot with Thanksgiving). Another theme of Sukkot was rededication, (it occurs just after Yom Kippur), and it was the time of the year the Temple was annually rededicated. Since the Temple was in Syrian hands at Sukkot , it was not rededicated. To rededicate it the Maccabees used Sukkot as an example. As Sukkot lasts eight days - so does Chanukah.

  2. Why the menorah if there was no miracle? Menorot were the way Jews kept count liturgically. The symbol of Judaism before the Mogan David (Star of David) became popular in the 1700's was the seven branch menorah used to keep track of the days between Shabbaths (and the symbol still is used, like on the seal of the State of Israel). The eight branch Chanukah menorah is used for keeping track of the eight days in the same way.

  3. So where did the story of the oil come from? The story first appears in Gamara Shabbat (a Rabbinic section of the Talmud). The story is recounted aggadically (meaning it is not necessarily literal and could be allegorical). This section of the Talmud dates to about 60 C.E. when the Romans occupied Israel. The Rabbis probably thought that celebrating a Jewish victory over an occupying army was probably not in the best interests of the Jewish people (look at what happened 10 years later with the great revolt of 70, when the Jewish population was decimated and exiled). The Rabbi's probably were trying to deemphasize the military victory by recounting a popular story about the rededication, and giving a new meaning to the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (A great miracle happened there). Needless to say the story stuck (its a good - if not accurate - story), and has become part of the Chanukah mythos. We do all sort of things emphasizing oils, including eating oily foods like potatoes latkes (pancakes) and donuts.

Have a good holiday, enjoy, and help celebrate this important victory in Jewish history. A victory that celebrates the freedom of Jews to practice without the influence (and oppression) of outside forces.

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Last updated on Aug 1, 1999 at 10:01 PM

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copyright 1999 - Steven Ross Weintraub