Chanukah: A Five Part History in Nine Songs

Part One: Chanukah in the Beginning--The Book of Maccabees

An Unexpected Military Victory

II Maccabees 10:1 - 9 (translation from the Oxford Standard Revised Edition of the Bible)

Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; they tore down the altars that had been built in the public square by the foreigners and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. 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. They celebrated for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying 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 edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

Part Two: Chanukah for the Rabbis--

From Martial to Miracles

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרות וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעות וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמות שֶׁעָשיתָ לַאֲבותֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה:

And we praise You for the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the victories and for the battles that You performed for our ancestors in those days at this time.

From the Haftarah for Shabbat in Chanukah (Zechariah 4:6)

“This is the word of the Eternal to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts."

Debbie Friedman: Not By Might

Not by might and not by power,

But by spirit alone

Shall we all live in peace.

The children sing

The children dream

And their tears will fall

But we'll hear them call

And another song will rise

Not by might, not by power--Shalom!

מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון 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

The Gemara asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

Ha-Nerot Halalu/These Lights

from Talmud, recited upon lighting each night

Ha-nerot halalu anachnu madlikin

Al hanisim, v'al ha-niflaot

Sh'asita l'avoteynu

Ba-yamim ha-hm ba-z'man ha-zeh

Al y'day kohanechah ha-k'doshim

V'chol sh'monat y'may Chanukah

Ha-nerot hallalu kodesh hem

V'ein lanu reshut l'hishtamesh ba-hem

Eleh lirotam bilvad

K'dai l'hodot l'shimchah

Al nisechah v'al niflotechah v'al yeshuatechah

We light these lights

For the miracles and the wonders

For the redemption and the battles

That you made for our ancestors

In those days, in this season

Through your holy priests

During all eight days of Chanukah

These lights are sacred

And we are not permitted to make

Ordinary use of them

But only to look at them

In order to express thanks

And praise to your great name

For your miracles, your wonders,

And your salvations

ת"ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה] כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

Our sages taught: When Adam saw that the days were getting shorter (during the fall months beginning in the Hebrew month of Tishrei), he said: "Oy, I did thr wrong thing and therefore the World is getting darker and is returning to chaos. That must be the death that was decreed upon me!" Adam spent 8 days in fasting and prayer. When Tevet came (and the winter began), Adam saw that the days were getting longer. He understood that the progressive decrease or increase in daylight was how the World works, and in the following year, he made the dates of his fast 8 days of celebration. Adam set this holiday to worship God, while the nations worship their gods.

Part Three: Before the Beginning

Chanukah's Pagan Roots as a Solstice Festival

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy: There is a great deal of evidence that, in much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, the winter solstice was a time for imploring the sunlight to return and celebrating its readiness to do so. In Rome, the 25th of December was the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. In Persia, at the winter solstice the common people set great bonfires and their rulers sent birds aloft bearing torches of dried grass.

It is a short leap to surmise that the Maccabees. . . were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

Moreover, if Hanukkah is not merely a solstice but a darkness festival, then the 25th of Kislev is the perfect time. In some years, the solstice day itself would be a night of bright full moon–especially powerful in an agrarian-pastoral culture with few artificial lights. So even the solstice itself would feel less like the darkest day of the year on such a moonlit night. By setting Hanukkah on the 25th of the month, the Jews made sure that the night would be dark. By setting it in Kislev, they made sure the day would be very short and the sun very dim.

Banu Choshech L'Garesh/We Have Come to Banish Darkness

Banu choshech l'garesh

B'yadaynu oh va'esh

Kol echad hu or katan

V'chulanu or eitan

Surah choshech hal'ah sh'chor

Sura mi-p'nai ha-or

We come to chase the dark away.

In our hands are light and fire.

Each individual light is small.

But together the light is mighty.

Flee, darkness and night.

Flee before the light.

Part Four: No Miracles and The Secular Zionists' Chanukah--

The Few over the Many as Symbol of Jewish Military Might

(א) הַֽלְלוּיָ֨הּ ׀ הוֹד֣וּ לַיהוָ֣ה כִּי־ט֑וֹב כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃ (ב) מִ֗י יְ֭מַלֵּל גְּבוּר֣וֹת יְהוָ֑ה יַ֝שְׁמִ֗יעַ כָּל־תְּהִלָּתֽוֹ׃... (ח) וַֽ֭יּוֹשִׁיעֵם לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמ֑וֹ לְ֝הוֹדִ֗יעַ אֶת־גְּבוּרָתֽוֹ׃... (י) וַֽ֭יּוֹשִׁיעֵם מִיַּ֣ד שׂוֹנֵ֑א וַ֝יִּגְאָלֵ֗ם מִיַּ֥ד אוֹיֵֽב׃

(1) Hallelujah. Praise the Eternal for God is good; God's steadfast love is eternal. (2) Who can tell the mighty acts of the Eternal, proclaim all God's praises? ... (8) Nevertheless God saved [our ancestors], as befits God's name... (10) redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.

Mi Yimalel/Who Can Retell?

Who can retell the things that befell us? [literally "the mighty acts of Israel"]

Who can count them?

In every age a hero or sage

Came to our aid.

Hark--In days of yore in Israel's ancient land

Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band

But now all Israel must as one arise

Redeem itself through deed and sacrifice

Mi yimalel g'vurot Yisrael

Otan mi yimneh?

Hen b'chol dor yakum ha-gibor

Goel ha-am

Sh'ma--bayamim ha-hem ba-z'man ha-zeh

Maccabbee moshia u-fodeh

U-v'yamaynu kol am Yisrael

Yitached yakum va-yigael

We Carry Torches

Words: Aaron Zev

Melody: Mordechai Za'ira

We carry torches

On dark nights

The paths are bright under our feet

And the one who has a heart

Thirsty for light

Will raise his eyes and heart

To us

To the light will come!

A miracle didn't happen to us

A can with oil we didn't find

To the valley we went, to the mountain we climbed

The wells of hidden light we discovered.

Part Five: Chanukah in America

From Classical Reform Universalism and Call to Social Justice

American Jewish historian Jenna] Joselit notes that it was not until the late 1920s, when Jewish immigration to America was effectively ended, that Hanukkah “began to come into its own as a Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Merchandisers to Jews began advertising their wares as ideal Hanukkah gifts.

Colgate promoted toiletries as Hanukkah gifts and food purveyors such as Loft’s and Barton’s candies marketed chocolates wrapped in gold foil to simulate Hanukkah gelt[money]. Aunt Jemima flour proclaimed itself “the best flour for latkes,” and the Hadassah Newsletter advised that “mah-jongg sets make appreciated Hanukkah gifts.”

Ma'oz Tzur (Hebrew and Translation--first verse)

13th century poem, 18th century music

Ma'oz Tzur Yeshu'ati, lekha na'eh leshabe'ah.

Tikon beit t'filati v'sham todah n'zabayach

L'et tachin matbeach mi-tzar ha-minabeach

Az egmor b'shir mizmor chanukat ha-mizbayach

My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation!

It is pleasant to sing Your praises.

Let our house of prayer [the Temple] be restored.

There will we offer You our thanks.

When you will have slaughtered the barking foe.

Then we will celebrate with song and psalm

The altar's dedication.

Rock of Ages

Leopold Stein translation, 19th century

Rock of Ages, let our song

Praise Your saving power;

You amidst the raging foes,

Were our sheltering tower!

Furious, they assailed us,

But Your arm availed us.

And Your word, broke their sword

When our own strength failed us!

Children of the Maccabees,

Whether free or fettered,

Wake the echoes of the songs,

Where you may be scattered!

Yours the message cheering,

That the time is nearing,

Which will see, all men free,

Tyrants disappearing

Cantor Steven Weiss: Chanukah as a Battlecry for Justice and Equality

As Professor Jonathan Sarna in his book "A Time to Every Purpose" put it: “…treating Hanukkah as if it were the ‘Jewish Christmas’ was something of a fraud. Hanukkah, after all, celebrates those who resisted pressures to conform religiously and culturally. It is, in a sense the holiday of anti-assimilation. It promotes the right to be different. Far from being the Jewish Christmas, Hanukkah should really be celebrated as the Jewish anti-Christmas.”

Sarna goes on to say that Mattathias’s declaration of his allegiance to Jewish practice and revolt against oppression is “a testament to religious liberty and minority group rights.”

In other words, the whole story of the Maccabees is about preserving what we now call multiculturalism. It is about defending all citizens’ rights to live, practice and celebrate in their own distinctive way.

Light One Candle (Peter Yarrow)

Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn't die

Light one candle for pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied

Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice

Justice and freedom demand

But light one candle for the wisdom to know

When the peacemaker's time is at hand

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!

Let it shine through our hope and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago

Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart

And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts

Repeat chorus

What is the memory that's valued so highly

That we keep it alive in that flame?

What's the commitment to those who have died

That we cry out they've not died in vain?

We have come this far, always believing

That justice would somehow prevail

This is the burden, this is the promise

This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out!

Part Six: Assimilation and Anti-Assimilation at the Same Time

Conservative Yeshiva Online

But the battle of Hanukkah between national/military strength vs. religious piety, between the “natural” and the “miraculous,” did not end in the Talmud; it continues to our own time.

Hanukkah is best seen as not exclusively one or the other. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the tension between national and religious identity, when we feel pulled in different directions, on the one hand wanting to see ourselves as a powerful nation like all others and on the other hand wanting to feel special, to be a light unto the nations, the messengers of religious and spiritual truth. As our history shows, either of these desires, when taken in isolation, can be destructive. The lesson and perhaps the test of Hanukkah is in our ability to balance the two, to acknowledge and take responsibility for national identity and yet to do so in a moral and spiritual context.

Candlelight—The Maccabeats

I'll tell a tale, tale, tale

Of Maccabees is Israel

When the Greeks tried to assail

But it was all to no avail

The war went on and on and on

Until the might Greeks were gone


I flip my latkes in the air sometimes
Sayin' hey-o, spin the dreidel

Just wanna celebrate for all eight nights

Singin' hey-o, light the candle

We say Al ha-nissim, oh yeah, for all eight nights

Then we play dreidel by the candlelight

And I told you once, now I told you twice

'Bout the miracle of the candlelight

They took the field, field field

Their rivals thought are they for real?

Those Maccabees, they'd never yield

They charged ahead with sword and shield

The war went on and on and on

Until the mighty Greeks were gone

Repeat chorus

We say Maoz Tzur for all eight nights

Then we play dreidel by the candlelight

And I told you once, now I told you twice

'Bout the miracle of the candlelight

And the great menorah

For eight days, it kept burning

What a celebration

A great return to Torah learning

'Cause I can feel it

And I. . .

Nes gadol, nes gadol

Repeat chorus

We say Maoz tzur, oh yeah, for all eight nights

Then we play dreidel by the candlelight

And I told you once, now I told you twice

'Bout the miracle of the candlelight.