Chanukah: Festival of Lights

Chanukah (alt. sp. Hanukkah, Januca, etc.) is called in some sources "the Feast/Festival of Dedication," focusing on the military victory and reconsecration of the Holy Temple1 and in others "the Feast/Festival of Lights," focusing on the miracle of the cruse of oil and the lighting of the menorah all eight days of the reconsecration ceremony. It is the latter which is the focus of this treatment.

The prophet Haggai is understood to have foretold Chanukah in one of the oracles in the book bearing his name. The message of this prophecy was that in addition to the current subjugation under Persia, one more nation would subdue the Jews, the Seleucids; but their domination would last only a short time (Rashi). Hashem was thus saying, “During the Seleucid rule, I will cause a major upheaval in the land” — a reference to the Hasmoneans revolt against Antiochus IV and the miracle of Chanukah.

(ו) כִּ֣י כֹ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת ע֥וֹד אַחַ֖ת מְעַ֣ט הִ֑יא וַאֲנִ֗י מַרְעִישׁ֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאֶת־הַיָּ֖ם וְאֶת־הֶחָרָבָֽה׃ (ז) וְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי֙ אֶת־כׇּל־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם וּבָ֖אוּ חֶמְדַּ֣ת כׇּל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם וּמִלֵּאתִ֞י אֶת־הַבַּ֤יִת הַזֶּה֙ כָּב֔וֹד אָמַ֖ר יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃
(6) For thus said the LORD of Hosts: In just a little while longer I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; (7) I will shake all the nations. And the precious things of all the nations shall come [here], and I will fill this House with glory, said the LORD of Hosts.

Obviously, the Prophet was speaking about the miraculous military victory. It is often pointed out that the miracle of the oil is not attested in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees (written within about 40 years of the fulfillment), and thus the argument follows that it, perhaps, never happened. It is sometimes (even frequently) argued that there is no mention prior to the Gemara/Talmud, which took written form about the 7th century CE.

Josephus, though not describing the miracle, does refer to the holiday as being called by the Jews "Lights" (phota in the Greek of his text) already in the late 1st century CE.

(323) Ἑώρταζε δὲ ὁ Ἰούδας μετὰ τῶν πολιτῶν τὴν ἀνάκτησιν τῆς περὶ τὸν ναὸν θυσίας ἐφ᾽ ἡμέρας ὀκτὼ μηδὲν ἀπολιπὼν ἡδονῆς εἶδος, ἀλλὰ πολυτελέσι μὲν καὶ λαμπραῖς ταῖς θυσίαις κατευωχῶν αὐτούς, ὕμνοις δὲ καὶ ψαλμοῖς τὸν μὲν θεὸν τιμῶν αὐτοὺς δὲ τέρπων.

(324) τοσαύτῃ δ᾽ ἐχρήσαντο τῇ περὶ τὴν ἀνανέωσιν τῶν ἐθῶν ἡδονῇ μετὰ χρόνον πολὺν ἀπροσδοκήτως ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ γενόμενοι τῆς θρησκείας, ὡς νόμον θεῖναι τοῖς μετ᾽ αὐτοὺς ἑορτάζειν τὴν ἀνάκτησιν τῶν περὶ τὸν ναὸν ἐφ᾽ ἡμέρας ὀκτώ.

(325) καὶ ἐξ ἐκείνου μέχρι τοῦ δεῦρο τὴν ἑορτὴν ἄγομεν καλοῦντες αὐτὴν φῶτα ἐκ τοῦ παρ᾽ ἐλπίδας οἶμαι ταύτην ἡμῖν φανῆναι τὴν ἐξουσίαν τὴν προσηγορίαν θέμενοι τῇ ἑορτῇ.

(326) τειχίσας δ᾽ ἐν κύκλῳ τὴν πόλιν καὶ πρὸς τὰς ἐπιδρομὰς τῶν πολεμίων πύργους οἰκοδομησάμενος ὑψηλοὺς φύλακας ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐγκατέστησεν, καὶ τὴν Βεθσούραν δὲ πόλιν ὠχύρωσεν, ὅπως ἀντὶ φρουρίου αὐτῇ πρὸς τὰς ἀπὸ τῶν πολεμίων ἀνάγκας ἔχῃ χρῆσθαι.3

(323) Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. (324) Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. (325) And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (326) Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

Megillat Antiochus (“The Scroll of Antiochus”) is an apocryphal work recounting the story of Chanukah and the military victories of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks [Seleucids] in the 2nd century BCE. Composed in Aramaic sometime between the 1st and 5th centuries CE [most scholars opine 2nd or 3rd century], it was translated into Hebrew early on and into Arabic by the prominent 10th-century rabbinic leader Saadiah Gaon. The text was included in several medieval Bibles and prayer books. In some medieval Italian synagogues, the scroll was read publicly on Chanukah, just as the Book of Esther is read on Purim. It still forms part of the liturgy in some Yemenite Jewish communities.2 This seems to be the earliest source with a direct reference to the miracle of the oil. In conjunction with the reference to the name "Lights" in Josephus's Antiquities, however, the validity of the account is far more credible than some commentators want to admit.

(סט) וַיְבַקְשׁוּ שֶֽׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ לְהַדְלִיק הַמְּנוֺרָה וְלֺא מָצְאוּ כִּי־אִם צְלוֺחִית אַחַת אֲשֶׁר הַיְתָה חֲתוּמָה בְּטַבַּֽעַת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֺל וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי הָיְתָה טָהוֺר וְהָיָה בָהּ כְּשִׁיעוּר הַדְלָקַת יוֺם אֶחָד׃

(ע) וֵאלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַֽיִם אֲשֶׁר שִׁכֵּן שְׁמוֺ שָׁם נָתַן בְּרָכָה וְהִדְלִֽיקוּ מִמֶּֽנָּה שְׁמוֺנָה יָמִים׃

(עא) עַל־כֵּן קִיְּמוּ בְּנֵי חַשְׁמוֺנַי קִיּוּם וְחִזְּקוּ אִסָּר וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עִמָּהֶם כְּאֶחָד

(עב) לַעֲשׂוֺת שְׁמוֺנָה יָמִים הָאֵֽלֶּה יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה כִּימֵי מוֺעֲדִים הַכְּתוּבִים בַּתּוֺרָה וּלְהַדְלִיק בָּהֶם נֵרוֺת לְהוֺדִֽיעַ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַֽיִם נִצּוּחִים׃

(עג) וּבָהֶם אֵין לִסְפּוֺד וְלֹא לִגְזוֺר צוֺם וְתַעֲנִית זוּלָתִי אֲשֶׁר מְקֻבָּל עָלָיו מִלִּפְנֵי זֶה וְיִתְפַּלֵל לִפְנֵי אֶלֹהָיו׃‏

(69) And they sought pure olive oil with which to light the Menorah, but they found only one little vessel sealed with the seal of the High-Priest and they knew it to be pure. And it contained but sufficient oil for one day.

(70) But the God of Heaven Who caused His presence to dwell in the Sanctuary, gave His blessing and it sufficed to light the Menorah eight days.

(71) Therefore did the sons of the Ḥashmonai together with the Israelites

(72) ordain that these eight days be ever celebrated as days of joy and feasting along with the festivals ordained in the Torah; that candles be lit to commemorate the victory they achieved through the God of Heaven;

(73) that it be forbidden to mourn or to decree a fast-day during this period, except such as may have been established previously, and it was further ordained to pray and thank God.

Why did the reconsecration need to be eight days in duration? Was it because this was seen as a delayed Sukkot (as many modern sources suggest4) or was there another reason? Sefer Hasmonean II (also called 2nd Maccabees) says it is to be observed for 8 days "like Sukkot" but does not call it a delayed Sukkot.

(ט) ויחוגו חג לה' שמונת ימים כימי חג הסוכות, ויזכרו את הימים מקדם בחגגם את חג הסוכות בהרים ובמערות, ויתעו בישימון כבהמות שדה.

(9) And they celebrated the Festival to the Lord for eight days, like the festival of Sukkot, and they remembered the previous days when they celebrated of the festival of Sukkot in the mountains and in the caves, and they went out in the desolation/wildnerness, like wild beasts.

As the first Temple was solemnized through an eight-day consecration (per Divrei Hayamim beit), it is reasonable to surmise that this rededication of the (second) Temple should follow suit.

(ח) וַיַּ֣עַשׂ שְׁלֹמֹ֣ה אֶת־הֶ֠חָ֠ג בָּעֵ֨ת הַהִ֜יא שִׁבְעַ֤ת יָמִים֙ וְכׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֣ל עִמּ֔וֹ קָהָ֖ל גָּד֣וֹל מְאֹ֑ד מִלְּב֥וֹא חֲמָ֖ת עַד־נַ֥חַל מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (ט) וַֽיַּעֲשׂ֛וּ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֖י עֲצָ֑רֶת כִּ֣י ׀ חֲנֻכַּ֣ת הַמִּזְבֵּ֗חַ עָשׂוּ֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים וְהֶחָ֖ג שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃ (י) וּבְי֨וֹם עֶשְׂרִ֤ים וּשְׁלֹשָׁה֙ לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הָעָ֖ם לְאׇהֳלֵיהֶ֑ם שְׂמֵחִים֙ וְט֣וֹבֵי לֵ֔ב עַל־הַטּוֹבָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ לְדָוִ֣יד וְלִשְׁלֹמֹ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּֽוֹ׃

(8) At that time Solomon kept the Feast for seven days—all Israel with him—a great assemblage from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. (9) On the eighth day they held a solemn gathering; they observed the dedication of the altar seven days, and the Feast seven days. (10) On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he dismissed the people to their homes, rejoicing and in good spirits over the goodness that the LORD had shown to David and Solomon and His people Israel.

Notes and Sources

  1. 1 Maccabees 4:52-59; 2 Maccabees 10:5-9 (ca. 120 BCE); egkainia (dedication) in the Greek of John 10:22 (Christian Bible, 1st century CE).
  2. This paragraph is quoted from the description here on Sefaria (online:; present author's inline notes appear in square brackets.
  3. Greek text of Josephus: Flavius Josephus (Flavii Iosephi opera), Antiquitates Judaicae (B. Niese., ed.; Berlin: Weidmann, 1892).
  4. E.g., Yechiel Heilprin, Seder Hadorot 3, 622 (early 18th c. CE).