Some of you know that I have a habit of destroying the Chanukah story for folks. So, if you are happy with your understanding of Chanukah, stop reading now…
The miraculous story of the oil lasting eight glorious nights is a wonderful Jewish legend that was developed by the rabbis hundreds of years after the “real” Chanukah story. This “real” story documented a war between our Jewish heroes, the Maccabbees, and the Greeks who did everything in the their power to destroy Judaism and her holy Temple. Around 165 BCE (before the year 0), the Maccabbees were victorious, defeating the Greeks and regaining the Temple that had been plundered and defiled. In an attempt to purify the Temple, the Maccabbees rededicated (Chanukah means dedication) the holy structure by burning the Menorah (the seven branched candelabra that stood in the Temple) for eight days and established an annual eight-day festival where lights would be lit to honor this military achievement.
Why eight days? It had nothing to do with oil! It had to do with the fact that the Maccabees, having been forbidden to practice their Judaism while under control of the Greeks, decided to rededicate the Temple for eight days in honor of the last Jewish holiday that they were forbidden to celebrate: Sukkot, which, along with the additional holiday of Shemini Atzeret, lasts eight days. I know it’s complicated!
Jumping ahead to the rabbis, who wrote and lived hundreds of years after the Maccabbees’ victory, they found themselves living during a time period when the Temple no longer existed. It came crashing down in 70 CE after the Romans conquered Jerusalem. While Jews still had a presence in Jerusalem and the surrounding region, many Jews were living in what we call the Diaspora – outside the land of the Israel. Jews were no longer ruling themselves, or in charge of their own destiny. Given this, the Maccaebees’ military holiday, designed to celebrate the conquest of the powerful oppressor who denied Jews their freedom, had the potential to be dangerous. It might send the wrong message to the ruling powers that had tremendous control over the plight of the Jewish people. It might inspire observers of the holiday to cause unrest and revolt against local leadership. These were the rabbis’ concerns. And so, in an attempt to keep our ancestors calm and safe, the rabbis of the Talmud, which was compiled around 500 CE (more than six centuries after the Maccabees’ victory) simply mention that Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates the miracle of a little vessel of oil that was found in the Temple after the Greeks had destroyed it – a vessel so small it only contained enough oil to burn for one night. But, as we know, miraculously, this oil burned for eight nights, redeeming the Temple and the Jewish people. With this introduction of the miracle of the oil by the rabbis, Chanukah was forever transformed. No longer was it a holiday celebrating a military victory. Rather it became a spiritual celebration that focuses on the power of light over darkness. It’s why many of us sing the late, great Debbie Friedman’s “Not By Might” during Chanukah – a song based on the words of the prophet Zechariah “ Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — said God” (Zech. 4:6)
Now, if this is the first time I have undermined the miracle of Chanukah for you, I know the look on your face. I’ve seen it many times. I’m sorry. But, trust me, all is not lost!
Now that you know the “truth”, I want to point out that even without the oil lasting eight nights (and maybe it did – maybe the Maccabees just left that out and the rabbis reintroduced this lost tradition hundreds of years later!), Chanukah is still a miraculous story.
The Maccabees were a tiny group of Jews who should not have been able to defeat the powerful Greeks. But they did! And because of this miracle, Judaism survived and didn’t become consumed by Greek culture. Sadly, we know that this story of miraculous survival repeats itself many times throughout Jewish history. For centuries, people have tried to stop us and, despite causing us tremendous harm and taking many lives, they’ve failed. We saw this just a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh. Despite tremendous powers that have raged against us, nothing has stopped the Jewish people. This is a miracle.
As we continue to light the lights of Chanukah, I encourage us all to think about the incredible strength, courage and faith of our ancestors who lived through extremely dark times – but did whatever was necessary to keep the flame of Judaism alive. At this, the darkest time of year, may the lights of Chanukah not only make our homes brighter, may they also remind us of the true miracle of the Jewish people: darkness cannot extinguish our flame.
This Chanukah, sure, celebrate the miracle of the oil that the rabbis teach us about. But also, celebrate the real miracle of these eight days – the strength of our people!
May nights six, seven and eight be wonderfully bright for us all. We hope to see you this evening for our Kabbalat Shabbat Chanukah Hoedown at 6:30pm! And remember to keep checking the Chanukah Countdown Calendar.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.