Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Shabbat Hanukkah (Miketz) 5760/1999

Hanukkah Through the Ages

Dr. Gabriel H. Cohen

Department of Bible

We have a tendency to ascribe events of the same type to certain dates, grouping together fundamental experiences of Jewish existence around these occasions. For example, we say, "We were redeemed in the month of Nisan and are destined to be redeemed in the future in the month of Nisan" (R.H. 11a and parallel texts), and thus Nisan is the focal point for the basic Jewish idea of redemption throughout all generations.[1] At the other extreme, pain and suffering are clustered around the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av, with the Mishnah citing many tragic events in the course of history that took place precisely on these days (Ta'anit 4.6).

The period of Hanukkah as a time of intensified light and the renewal of Temple worship is also impressively reflected in Jewish literature in two different directions. Some ancient sources attest to analogous events that took place during the days of Hanukkah in other periods, while later literary sources instill new meanings relevant to contemporary times into the events of Hanukkah. Below we shall examine both directions, whose common element is that every generation is blessed with the light of renewal as symbolized by the Hanukkiah (menorah).

According to a tradition in Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a, even primordial Man experienced increasing light during the time of Hanukkah:

The Rabbis taught: When Adam saw the day [his first] waning, he said, "Woe is me. Is it for my misdeeds that the world is growing dark on me and returning to chaos; is this is the death that has been decreed on me by Heaven!?" He set aside eight days and devoted them entirely to fasting and prayer. When the season of Tevet [approx. January] came and he observed that the days were growing longer, he said, "This must be the way of the world." He went and celebrated for eight days. In subsequent years they became days of celebration for him and them. He made them a holiday to G-d, and they, to the worship of idolatry.[2]

The lengthening of the daylight hours during the winter days of Hanukkah, coming after the fear instilled by the diminishing hours of daylight and the increased darkness, provides the basis for the feeling of thanksgiving experienced by the person who sees the light grow stronger again in the cycle of his years.

Hanukkah first and foremost reminds us of the restoration of Temple worship in the time of the Hasmoneans, but several sources ascribe a similar event in a different era to the same time of the year. First, the Midrash associates completion of the Tabernacle in the desert with the 25th of Kislev, as we read:

R. Hanina said: On the 25th of Kislev, work on the Tabernacle was completed, and it was folded away until the 1st of Nisan, as it is written: "On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting" (Ex. 40:2). Israel grumbled to Moses saying, why was it not set up immediately? Was there anything wrong with it? But the Holy One, blessed be He, thought to combine the celebration of the Tabernacle with the month in which Isaac was born, for it is written, "Knead and make [matzah] cakes!" (Gen. 18:6), and they said to him, "I will return to you at the same date," and thus Kislev, when the work was completed, lost out [to Nisan]. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I must repay it. What did He do? [He made] Hanukkah of the Hasmoneans; and Mar-Heshvan, as well, the Holy One, blessed be He, will eventually repay [for this month has no holidays]. (Yalkut Shimoni, I Kings, paragraph 184).

The Midrash not only mentions that the Tabernacle was completed on the 25th of Kislev, but also creates an intrinsic connection between this event and Hanukkah. Second, the prophet Haggai relates the dedication of the Second Temple on the same date:

Take note, from this day forward -- from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day when the foundation was laid for the Lord's Temple -- take note, ... And the word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: Speak to Zerubbabel the governor of Judah: ... I will overturn the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the might of the kingdoms of the nations... On that day -- declares the Lord of Hosts -- I will take you, O My servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel -- declares the Lord -- and make you as a signet; for I have chosen you -- declares the Lord of Hosts. (Haggai 2:18-23)

In sum, different strands of the Jewish tradition converge from various directions on the days of Hanukkah, to emphasize them as a time of renewal in the worship of the Lord.[3]

Now we turn to a question of interpretation that has been asked since the time of the Hasmoneans: what is the essence of Hanukkah and its significance throughout the generations? Differing views regarding the "miracle of Hanukkah" appear even in ancient classical texts. Especially well-known are two ancient traditions that discuss the miracle in relationship to the events which occurred in those days. One tradition comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b:

What is Hanukkah? The Rabbis taught: on the 25th of Kislev, for the eight days of Hanukkah, one may not eulogize the dead or fast. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they contaminated all the oil there. When the Hasmoneans were victorious over them, they searched and found but one jug of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact, and it contained only enough oil to light the lamp for one day. A miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days. The next year these days were decreed a time of celebration, praise and thanksgiving.

The other tradition, embodied in the prayer of al ha-nissim, is here quoted from the prayerbook of Rav Amram Gaon:[4]

In the days of the Hasmonean, Mattathias son of Johanan, the High Priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous power of Greece rose up against Your people Israel to make them forgetful of Your Torah, and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your will, then did You in Your abundant mercy rise up for them in the time of their trouble; You pleaded their cause, You judged their suit, You avenged their wrong; You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of them that occupied themselves with Your Torah: for Yourself You made a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your people Israel You did work a great deliverance and redemption as at this day. And thereupon Your children came into the inner sanctuary of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the holy place, kindled lights in Your sacred courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your great Name.

If we look closely at these two sources we see that each emphasizes a different aspect of the miracle of Hanukkah. According to one of the sources, the military victory underlies the celebration of Hanukkah, whereas according to the other, it is the miracle of the oil. This contradiction can be explained by the fact that al ha-nissim addresses the reason for observing the holiday of Hanukkah, whereas the Gemara investigates the reason for celebrating these days precisely by lighting candles.[5] Be that as it may, there is clearly an interpretive tension between these sources regarding the holiday.

Explanations have been added through the years which enrich the significance of Hanukkah and considerably enlarge on the two reasons given in early sources: the military victory and the miracle of the oil. Every generation, it seems, has seen Hanukkah in a way fitting its own situation. For example, Hassidism emphasizes the importance of Hanukkah as a time of renewal of faith, stressing the connection between the holiday and the word hinnukh, to educate, while in the young state of Israel statesmanship and military victory ("Mi yemallel gevurot Yisrael") were stressed.

An interesting and original approach to the subject can be found in the writings of Herzl, whose article, "Die Menorah," relates to the nature of Hanukkah as it reflected Herzl's own life.[6] Here is an excerpt from what he wrote:

"There was a man who felt deep down in his soul that he needed to be a Jew. His outward circumstances were not unsatisfactory. He had a sufficient income, and a pleasant profession in which he could create whatever his heart desired. He was an artist. His Jewish origin, and the faith of his fathers, he had long ignored. Then the old hate arose again, disguised with a fashionable title.[7]... Out of mystifying ideas he came to a clear thought which he uttered aloud. The thought was that there was only one way out of Jewish misery and that was the return to Jewry...."[8]

Briefly he traced the intellectual consequences of this decision, the desire to separate the assimilative habits current in his home life from the primal Jewish ideas. His children could be made to see a new viewpoint. These at least should be educated as Jews. The thought of the Maccabaean festival presented an opportunity. He purchased a Menorah, but "when he held this nine-branched candelabra he became depressed. In his father's house, in his distant childhood, these little lights too, had flamed and there was something sad and sorrowful about them." It was tradition bound. He examined the Menorah. Its shape suggested that its design had followed the lines of a tree with extended branches.

"Our man was an artist, and he thought to himself, is it possible to revive this dried Menorah, to nurture its roots like a tree?... Then he considered the form and decided to design a Menorah that shall be a cluster of burgeoning buds. So passed the week.

"Came the eighth day when the whole row of lights were flaming, also the loyal ninth, the servant that serves merely to light the other eight. A great brilliance spread from the Menorah. The children's eyes glistened. To our man the illumination appeared as the flaming up of the nation. First one lit candle. It is still dark, and that one light looks sad. Then a fellow traveller joins it, one more and more. The darkness must yield. First the young and poor are enkindled, then gradually others, who love right, truth, freedom, progress, humanity and beauty. When all the candles burn one is astonished and happy over the completed task. And no task affords more happiness than to be the servant of light."[9]

For Herzl, the Hanukkah lights symbolized universal values like progress, freedom, humanity and beauty, but incorporated into Jewish tradition.[10] Kindling lights in the Jewish home lends expression to a renewed and growing bond with Jewish tradition and the light therein.

[1] There is another tradition, as well, which says that the Jews are destined to be redeemed in Tishre (R.H. 11a).

[2] The period when the days grow longer and daylight stronger is a time of joy and celebration in many of the world's cultures and religions, as is hinted at the end of this baraitha, but this is not the place for further detail.

[3] On the many similarities between dedication of the altar in the time of the Hasmoneans and the dedications of the altar in the time of Moses and of Solomon, not in the date but in the organization of the days, cf. N. Hakham, "Mai Hanukkah," Sefer he-Hag ve-ha-Mo'ed, (Z. Ariel, ed.), Tel Aviv 1993, pp. 142-145.

[4] Parallel versions appear in other prayer books, such as that of R. Saadiah Gaon, the Vitri Mahzor, the Rome Mahzor, etc. Suggestions that one recite "al ha-nissim" date back to Tractate Shabbat 24a, and an abbreviated formulation is mentioned in Masekhet Soferim (Higger ed., 20.6).

[5] This is the opinion presented in Bayit Haddash by R. Joel Sirkis ha-Levi. Another solution, which attempts to bridge the gap between the two explanations of why the holiday of Hanukkah was established, is suggested by R. Hezekiah ben David de Silva, author of Peri Hadash, namely, that the first day was appointed in commemoration of the military victory, and that the remaining seven days are in commemoration of the miracle of the oil. This theory also explains why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days even though the miracle of the oil was only seven days (since the oil that was found sufficed for the first day).

[6] Written as the feature article in Die Welt (31.12.1897), and published in Theodor Herzl: Neumim u-Ma'amarim Ziyoniyim I, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 188-190. English translation, with interpolated summaries, from Herzl, pp. 199-200.

[7] Referring to anti-Semitism which reached new heights in his day.

[8] Note that Herzl stressed a return to Jewishness, not to Zionism. This calls to mind Herzl's famous remark at the First Congress, made in response to the misgivings expressed by my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Asher Michael Cohn, Rabbi of Basel, regarding the attitude of Zionism towards Jewish tradition: "Returning to Jewishness comes before returning to the land of the Jews."

[9] It appears that Herzl viewed himself as the shamash that kindles flames and hearts.

[10] Although this spiritual interpretation would seem far from the commonly held view in many circles in Israel, where "Maccabee" is the name of a sports organization and a brand of beer, nevertheless in Israel today the lit Hanukkiah in public places does connote the aspiration to be linked up with Jewish spiritual struggles throughout the ages.