Hanukkah: Will the Real Hanukkah Please Stand Up?

According to popular Jewish tradition on the 25th of Kislev the Maccabees defeated the evil Greeks and rededicated the defiled temple. Hanukkah celebrates not only the military victory but also a spiritual one, of good over evil, of light over darkness.

Several non-Rabbinic sources (I&II Maccabees and Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews) tell the Hanukkah story in much greater detail, and more significantly, indicate that the story did not end on 25 Kislev. In fact, immediately following the rededication that day, the Greeks recapturedJerusalemand were not defeated for good until 13 Adar, when the head of their leader, Nikanor, was cut off and displayed at the gates of the city. According to these accounts our Hanukkah was just a stage along the rather circuitous route to victory and independence.

The Rabbis knew of Nicanor’s Day and mention it as a day on which fasting is prohibited (BT Ta’anit 18b based on the extra-Rabbinic Megillat Ta’anit) but over time it seems to have lost not only significance but even mention. During the Gaonic period (after the Talmud) the festive nature of Yom Nikanor was eclipsed by the Fast of Esther. Hanukkah, on the other hand, was established as an important festival, with special halakhot and prayers and Hallel to thank God for the military victory as well as the miracle of the oil.

It would appear that the Rabbis’ preference for the date of the temporary rededication, rather than that of the final victory, reflected their fear of hubris, excessive human pride. Deuteronomy 8:17-18, describes the dangers when there will be peace and prosperity in Eretz Yisrael: (lest) you may say to yourself “my own strength and the might of my own hand made me this wealth.” Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the strength to make wealth. By choosing to not to celebrate the final victory but rather one stop along the way that had particular religious significance, the Rabbis wanted to leave no doubt that victory was by virtue of divine, not human, action.

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. The early Zionists turned Hanukkah into a holiday of national political victory, at times purposely denying it any religious significance. One popular Israeli song, “Mi Yemalel Gevurot Yisrael” unabashedly removes God from Psalm 106:2 to praise the bravery of the Jewish people. Another, originally sung by Polish Partisans during WWII, proclaims “a miracle never happened to us, we never found a jug of oil…” If the Rabbis wanted to make sure to put Hanukkah into a religious context, secular Zionists did their best take it out.

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.