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Every year for the past little while, as I already summarised on this blog, my conception of Chanukah has been completely overturned. First it was [livejournal.com profile] livredor (see above link). Then along came Rachel Elior at Limmud '05, then other people (whose identity I have forgotten, but whose teachings are summarised at the above link), and then Stephen Rosenberg at Limmud '07.

By this point I'm thinking I must have plumbed the story of Chanukah to its depths, but then along comes Rabbi Shoshanna Boyd-Gelfand and revolutionises my understanding all over again:

Notes from Jeneration at Moishe House

Chanukah—Shining a New Light

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand

What's Chanukah all about?

Babylonian Talmud

Shabbat 21b ב כא שבת

Our Rabbis taught: The commandment of Chanukah [demands] one light for a man and his household; the zealous [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]. As for the extremely zealous, Beit Shammai maintain: one the first day eight lights are lit1 and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. `Ulla said: In the West [Palestine] two amoraim, R. Yose b. Abin and R. Yose b. Zebida, differ therein: one maintains, the reason of Beit Shammai is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone; but another maintains: Beit Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival,2 whilst Beit Hillel's reason is that we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There were two old men in Sidon: one did as Beit Shammai and the other as Beit Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to the bullocks of the Festival, while the latter stated his reason to be because we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.3

Our Rabbis taught: It is incumbent to place the Chanukah lamp by the door of one's house on the outside; if one dwells in an upper chamber, he places it at the window nearest the street.4 But in times of danger it is sufficient to place it on the table. Raba said: Another lamp is required for its light to be used; yet if there is a blazing fire it is unnecessary. But in the case of an important person, even if there is a blazing fire another lamp is required.

What is [the reason of] Chanukah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the days of Chanukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit therewith for eight days.5 The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with Hallel and thanksgiving.

תנו רבנן מצות חנוכה נר איש וביתו׃ דכליא ריגלא דתרמודאי והמהדרין נר לכל אחד ואחד׃ והמהדרין מן המהדרין בית שמאי אומרים יום ראשון מדליק שמנה מכאן ואילך פוחת והולך ובית הלל אומרים יום ראשון מדליק אחת מכאן ואילך מוסיף והולך׃ אמר עולא פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא חד אמר טעמא דבית שמאי כנגד ימים הנכנסין וטעמא דבית הלל כנגד ימים היוצאין׃ וחד אמר טעמא דבית שמאי כנגד פרי החג וטעמא דבית הלל דמעלין בקדש ואין מורידין׃

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן שני זקנים היו בצידן אחד עשה כבית שמאי ואחד עשה כדברי בית הלל זה נותן טעם לדבריו כנגד פרי החג וזה נותן טעם לדבריו דמעלין בקדש ואין מורידין׃

תנו רבנן נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ׃ אם היה דר בעלייה מניחה בחלון הסמוכה לרשות הרבים׃ ובשעת הסכנה מניחה על שלחנו ודיו׃ אמר רבא צריך נר אחרת להשתמש לאורה׃ ואי איכא מדורה לא צריך ואי אדם חשוב הוא אף על גב דאיכא מדורה צריך נר

מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ״ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון אחרת דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון׃ שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים׃ לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה׃

1. The amount of oil we use nowadays would have been prohibitive in days of old.

2. חַג without any other context always refers to סֻכּוֹת; Shammai's school is referring to the fact that on each day of סֻכּוֹת one fewer bullock was offered up in the Temple. The connection between Chanukah and סֻכּוֹת is why we say הַלֵל... but, apart from the fact the First Temple was dedicated at סֻכּוֹת, where does this connection come from? Read on to find out!

3. This may be the same reason; the significance is that it's come from a different source: important when everything is orally transmitted.

4. פִּרְסוּם הַנֵּס: publicising the miracle.

5. Yehuda ha-Maccabi is not even mentioned here; the emphasis here is instead on G-d. [The rabbis of the Talmud disapproved of the Hasmoneans for various reasons, so played them down in this story.]

(This passage has no counterpart in the Palestinian Talmud.)

This is first source to mention the miracle of the oil. [The Talmud was finalised around the seventh century, but the above story is a בָּרַייתָא, meaning derived from a Mishnaic-era (first to third century) source.]


Jewish Antiquities 12.7.6–7:

Judah assembled the people, and told them that after the many victories that God had given them, they ought to go up to Jerusalem, and purify the temple and offer the customary sacrifices...1

When he had carefully purified it, he brought in new vessels, such as a lampstand, the table [of shew-bread], and the altar [of incense], which were made of gold, and hung curtains from the doors, and replaced the doors themselves. He also pulled down the altar, and built a new one of various stones which had been hewn with iron. And on the twenty-fifth day of the month Chasleu [Kislev], which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they kindled the lamps on the lampstand and burned incense on the altar, and set out the loaves on the table, and offered whole burnt-offerings upon the new altar. These things, as it chanced, took place on the same day on which, three years before, their holy service had been transformed into an impure and profane form of worship. For the Temple after being made desolate by Antiochus, had remained so for three years; it was in the hundred and forty-fifth year, that these things befell the Temple, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apellaios, in the hundred and fifty-third Olympiad. And the Temple was renovated on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apellaios, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, in the hundred and fifty-fourth Olympiad [165 BCE]. Now the desolation of the Temple came about in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel, which had been made four hundred and eight years before; for he had revealed that the Macedonians would destroy it.

And so Judah together with his fellow citizens celebrated the restoration of sacrifices in the Temple for eight days, omitting no form of pleasure; but feasting them on costly and splendid sacrifices, and while honoring God with songs of praise and the playing of harps,2 at the same time delighted them. So much pleasure did they find at the renewal of their customs, and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to have their own service after so long a time, that they made it a law that their descendants shoud celebrate the restoration of the Temple service for eight days. And from that time to the present we celebrate this festival, which we call the Festival of Lights, giving this name to it, I think,3 from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it. Then Judah erected walls round the city, and, having built high towers against the incursions of enemies, he placed guards in the; and he also fortified the city of Beth Sura in order that he might use it as a fortress in any emergency caused by the enemy.

1. Josephus doesn't emphasise the military conquest—not good for a Roman audience!

2. I.e. reciting הַלֵל.

3. Yeah, right. This is a really poor reason to call it the Festival of Lights. Josephus clearly knows more than he's telling—the story of the miracle of the oil might be too much for the Romans. But is it this story he's holding back on, given that it's not until the first account above that we encounter the story of the lights? But if not, why were Jews lighting lights? Bear in mind, though, that lots of religions had winter solstice light festivals. Josephus clearly knew something beyond what he was telling, but what that something was we can't know.

1 Maccabees (ch. 4)

Then said Judah and his brothers, "Behold, our enemies are crushed: let us go up to purify and rededicate the sanctuary." The whole army gathered together, and went up into mount Zion. And when they found the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the doors burned up, and weebs growing in the courts as in a forest or in one of the mountains, and the priests' chambers torn down; 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 blew an alarm with the trumpets, and cried toward heaven.

Then Judah appointed certain men to fight against those that were in the fortress, until he had purify the sanctuary. And he chose priests that were without blemish and adherents of the Law, and they purified the sanctuary, and carried out the defiled stones into an unclean place; and when as they consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned; they thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, and laid up the stones in the Temple Mount in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to delcare what should be done with them.

Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar like the former; And built the sanctuary, and the things that were within the Temple, and consecrated the courts. They made also new holy vessels, and they brought the candlestick into the Temple , and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And they burned incense on the altar, and they lit the lamps that were upon the candlestick, that they might give light in the temple. Furthermore they set the loaves upon the table, and hung up the curtains, and finished all the works which they had undertaken.

And they arose early on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu [Kislev], in the hundred forty and eighth year, and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the time and on the day the heathen had profaned it, even it was dedicated with songs, and lutes, and harps, and cymbals. And all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated also the forefront of the temple with gold crowns, and with shields; and rededicated the gates and the priests' quarters, and fitted doors upon them. Thus was there very great gladness among the people, for that the reproach of the heathen was put away. Moreover Judah and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel decreed, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed in their season from year to year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], with gladness and joy.

Much what you'd expect here, only of course without the miracle of the lights. But now let's look at the Second Book of Maccabees.

2 Maccabees

2 Maccabees was written later than 1 Maccabees [and in Greek, rather than Hebrew]. It was probably written in Alexandria: unlike 1 Maccabees, it's a Diaspora voice.

Chapter 1

Blessed be our God in all things, who has delivered up the ungodly. As we are now about to celebrate the purification of the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], we thought it necessary to inform you thereof, that you also might keep it, as the Feast of the Tabernacles, and of the kindling of the fire, which was given us when Nehemiah offered sacrifice, after that he had built the temple and the altar.

For when our forefathers were led into Persia, the pious priests took the fire of the altar, and hid it secretly in the hollow of an empty cistern, where they kept it sure, so that the place was unknown to anyone.

Many years later, when it pleased God, Nehemiah was commissioned by the king of Persia, and sent the descendants of those priests who had hidden the fire to get it: but when they reported to us that they found no fire, but only muddy water; he ordered them to draw it up, and to bring it to him; and when the sacrifices were laid on, Nehemiah commanded the priests to sprinkle the water on the wood and the things laid on it.

When this was done, and some time had passed, and the sun shone which had been clouded over, a great fire kindled, so that every man marvelled. And the priests made a prayer whilst the sacrifice was being consumed, I say, both the priests, and all the rest, Jonathan beginning, and the rest answering to it, as Nehemiah did. And the prayer was after this manner: "Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, Who are awesome and strong, and righteous, and merciful, and the only and gracious King, The only giver of all things, the only just, almighty, and everlasting, You Who deliver Israel from all trouble, and chose the fathers, and sanctify them: Receive the sacrifice for Your whole people Israel, and preserve your own portion, and sanctify it. Gather those together that are scattered from us, deliver them that serve among the heathen, look on them that are despised and abhorred, and let the heathen know that You are our God. Punish them that oppress us, and with pride do us wrong. Plant your people again in your holy place, as Moses has spoken." And the priests sung psalms of thanksgiving.

Now when the sacrifice was consumed, Nehemiah ordered the water that was left to be poured on the great stones. When this was done, a flame was kindled: but it was consumed by the light that shone from the altar. And when this matter was known, and the king of Persia was told that in the place, where the priests that were deported had hid the fire, water had appeared, and with it Nehemiah's people burned up the things they had sacrificed, the king, after investigating the matter, made the place a sacred enclosure. And the king exchanged many gifts with his favourites. And Nehemiah called this thing "Nephthar," which is translated "purification": but most people call it "Nephtai."

This account does involve a miracle of light... but it's a completely different miracle, in a different place and time! Note, though, the reference to סֻכּוֹת in the second verse. This is tying back to the opinion of בֵּית שַׁמַאי in the first source. But where does this connection come from? Read on to find out!

Chapter 10

Now Maccabeus and his company, the Lord guiding them, recovered the temple and the city: But the altars which the heathen had built in the open street, and also the chapels, they pulled down. And having cleansed the temple they made another altar, and striking stones they took fire out of them, and offered a sacrifice after two years, and set forth incense, and lights, and showbread. When that was done, they fell flat down, and beseeched the Lord that they might come no more into such troubles; but if they sinned any more against Him, that He Himself would chasten them with mercy, and that they might not be delivered unto the blasphemous and barbarous nations.

Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which is Casleu [Kislev]. And they celebrated the eight days with gladness, as in the Feast of the Tabernacles, remembering that not long before, during the Feast of the Tabernacles, they had been wandering in the mountains and dens like wild animals.

So carrying wands wreathed with leaves and beautiful branches and palm leaves too, they offered hymns of praise to Him Who had brought to pass the purifying of His own place. They ordained also by a common statute and decree that every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews. Such was the end of Antiochus, called Epiphanes.

Finally, an end to the mystery of the connection between סֻכּוֹת and Chanukah: סֻכּוֹת is the most joyous of the three Pilgrimage Festivals; it's referred to in the liturgy as זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵינוּ, "the time of our joy", and the Talmud says anyone who has not seen the joy of the ceremony of the drawing of water (which took place every day during סֻכּוֹת) has never seen joy in their life. But the Temple had been laid waste for three years; and the Hasmonean freedom fighters had been up in the mountains, and missed their favourite festival for three years.

It's too late to celebrate סֻכּוֹת by the time they finally conquer the Temple back... they they do it anyway, and hold a quasi-סֻכּוֹת in Kislev! (This is similar to the way anyone who can't celebrate Pesach can celebrate Pesach Sheni a month later.

This is the origin of the connection between סֻכּוֹת and Chanukah, and the reason, not only why Beit Shammai wished to decrease the number of lights each day, but also why Chanukah has eight days in the first place.

But, if that's the original reason, how does the oil get into the story in the Talmud?

A possible origin of the story of the oil

2 Kings 4:1-4:7 מלכים ב ד א-ד ז

A certain woman from the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; but the creditor is coming to take my two sons to him for slaves." Elisha said to her, "What shall I do for you? Tell me, what have you got in the house?" She replied, "Your handmaid has nothing in the house, just a pot of oil." Then he said, "Go out and borrow vessels, empty vessels, from all your neighbours; don't stint yourself. Then, when've come back in and have shut the door on yourself and your sons, pour out into all those vessels, and set aside the full ones."

So she went from him, then, having shut the door on herself and her sons, they brought the vessels to her; and she poured out. When the vessels were full, she told her son, "Bring me another vessel", and he replied to her, "There aren't any more vessels". And the oil stood at its level.

Then she came and told the man of God, who said, "Go, sell the oil, and pay your debt; and then you and your children can live on the rest."
וְאִשָּׁה אַחַת מִנְּשֵׁי בְנֵי־הַנְּבִיאִים צָעֲקָה אֶל־אֱלִישָׁע לֵאמֹר עַבְדְּךָ אִישִׁי מֵת וְאַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ כִּי עַבְדְּךָ הָיָה יָרֵא אֶת־ה׳ וְהַנֹּשֶׁה בָּא לָקַחַת אֶת־שְׁנֵי יְלָדַי לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ אֱלִישָׁע מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה־לָּךְ הַגִּידִי לִי מַה־יֶּשׁ־לָךְ בַּבָּיִת וַתֹּאמֶר אֵין לְשִׁפְחָתְךָ כֹל בַּבַּיִת כִּי אִם־אָסוּךְ שָׁמֶן׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לְכִי שַׁאֲלִי־לָךְ כֵּלִים מִן־הַחוּץ מֵאֵת כָּל־שְׁכֵנָיִךְ כֵּלִים רֵקִים אַל־תַּמְעִיטִי׃ וּבָאת וְסָגַרְתְּ הַדֶּלֶת בַּעֲדֵךְ וּבְעַד־בָּנַיִךְ וְיָצַקְתְּ עַל כָּל־הַכֵּלִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהַמָּלֵא תַּסִּיעִי׃ וַתֵּלֶךְ מֵאִתּוֹ וַתִּסְגֹּר הַדֶּלֶת בַּעֲדָהּ וּבְעַד בָּנֶיהָ הֵם מַגִּישִׁים אֵלֶיהָ וְהִיא מוֹצָקֶת׃ וַיְהִי כִּמְלֹאת הַכֵּלִים וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל־בְּנָהּ הַגִּישָׁה אֵלַי עוֹד כֶּלִי וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ אֵין עוֹד כֶּלִי וַיַּעֲמֹד הַשָּׁמֶן׃ וַתָּבֹא וַתַּגֵּד לְאִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לְכִי מִכְרִי אֶת־הַשֶּׁמֶן וְשַׁלְּמִי אֶת־נִשְׁיֵךְ וְאַתְּ וּבָנַיִךְ תִּחְיִי בַּנּוֹתָר׃

Elisha was a prophet of the north—not [of the kingdom of] the Davidic dynasty—a scholar argues this was used to justify the Maccabees taking on the kingship.

The message of this story: there was not enough... but despite this, there was. This is a powerful spiritual message, which can be used in general; and this is the rabbis' message to you: When it comes to the crunch, you do what you can... and you manage anyway. Maybe this is why the story of the miracle of the oil at Chanukah came into the Talmud.

Jewish learning notes index


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