The roots of Hanukkah as a holiday celebrating a historical event are fairly clear. In the year 166-165 B.C.E., the Hasmoneans (called Maccabees in Greek sources) led a rebellion against the Greeks which culminated in the rededication of the Temple on the 25th of the month of Kislev. Subsequently, the Hasmoneans and their descendants established an eight day holiday to commemorate this occasion and to instill loyalty in their dynasty. This extra-biblical holiday came to be known as Hanukkah, which means rededication.
Despite the holiday’s clear origins, both traditional sources and modern scholars alike have grappled with the holiday of Hanukkah, specifically with the two questions that are the sub-title of this shiur: why is Hanukkah connected with fire and why is it eight days? The name of the holiday itself, Hanukkah, is probably short for Hanukkat Hamizbeah, the Rededication of the Altar. The altar was the main focus of Temple worship; some of the earlier sources that discuss the Hanukkah events focus on the rededication of the altar (see source 5).
So how did a historical event that centered on the rededication of the altar become associated with fire? While there is a fire on the altar, the fire associated with Hanukkah is the fire of the Menorah (or later the Hanukkiah). Furthermore, why should this holiday be eight days? While today we are familiar with the story of the miracle of the oil, this story does not appear in any source until the Babylonian Talmud (source 3, right hand column), which was compiled in the fifth century C.E., seven hundred years after the events of Hanukkah took place. If this event was so well-known, why would it have taken so long to be recorded? There are many sources from before the composition of the Bavli that discuss Hanukkah. Why don’t they mention this miracle?
In this shiur I will show how ancient sources grappled with these two questions. The Hanukkah story with which we are familiar is one of several explanations made in the ancient world as to why Hanukkah is an eight day fire holiday. We shall see how this tradition developed in rabbinic sources.
This shiur is based on a Hebrew article by Vered Noam which appeared in the Hebrew journal Zion (67, 2004). Noam’s article is a fantastic comparison of the rabbinic and non-rabbinic sources for Hannukah, but since it was written in Hebrew and published in an academic journal, I do not believe that it has been read by a broad, non-academic, English speaking audience. Throughout my career as a teacher of Talmud, one of my goals has been to make Hebrew academic scholarship available to a broader audience. This was my main goal in my first book, The Schechter Haggadah, and it is a major goal in my forthcoming book (jointly authored with Jason Rogoff), Talmudic Voices: An Introduction to the Academic Study of Talmud. It is my hope that this e-shiur will serve as another example of how academic study can enrich our Jewish religious lives.
While it might seem like there are several independent rabbinic sources that explain why Hanukkah is an eight day holiday associated with fire, there is in essence only one source that exists in several different forms. Two different versions of this source appear in a work called “The Scholion to Megillat Taanit” while the third is a quote of this source in the Babylonian Talmud. Megillat Taanit, the “Scroll of Fasts” is an ancient list of holidays, written in Aramaic, on which it is forbidden to fast or mourn. Many of these holidays are associated with Jewish military victories over Greeks and Romans during the Second Temple period. Many of the dates have been forgotten and haven’t been observed for thousands of years. However, the most famous of these holidays is still observed. The date records the victory of the Hasmoneans over Antiochus Epiphanes, and it is the basis of the Hanukkah holiday.
The “Scholion” is an attempt by later rabbis to write a commentary to Megillat Taanit. Traditional Jews sometimes call this text the “commentary to the Megillat Taanit.” We don’t know when the Scholion was written, but probably during the Talmudic period, from 300-600 C.E. The text of the Scholion has remained somewhat open to insertions, embellishments and changes throughout its history.
There are several different manuscript traditions for this Scholion, each of which is very distinct from the other. Vered Noam’s masterful work, Megillat Taanit, attempts to sort these traditions out. The first tradition we will examine is found in source 1. Section one of this source seems to know that Hanukkah is associated with oil and the menorah (the lamps). It says that the Jews found “pure oil.” This is clearly an attempt to explain why Hanukkah is associated with fire. But the author does not mention any particular miracle that occurred. There is no mention of finding only enough oil for one day and having it last eight days. The Jews just found pure oil—good news perhaps, but not quite a miracle.
In section two, the author of the Scholion asks why this rededication is eight days when the earlier Temple dedications were seven days. To answer this question, the author cites another story that explains the connection of fire with Hanukkah. In this story, when the Hasmoneans take back the Temple, they have to forge a make-shift Menorah (see also source 4a), presumably because the Greeks stole the original gold one. This story explains the association of Hanukkah with fire, but it does not explain at all why Hanukkah is eight days. After all, the menorah has only seven branches!
Source 2 is the other basic manuscript of the Scholion, the commentary on Megillat Taanit. In section 2, this source does contain a mention of the familiar “miracle of the oil.” However, this seems to be a late addition, one that replaced an earlier version that used to be part of this tradition. Note the stilted language, “and there was no oil in which to light.” Vered Noam has shown that the original version of this scholion read, “and there was nothing in which to light the oil.” This version is still found in the Or Zarua, a medieval talmudic commentary (source 4a). Thus the original version of this manuscript read as did the other manuscript of the Scholion—Hanukkah is associated with fire because the Hasmoneans came to the Temple and found that the Menorah was missing. So the Hasmoneans built a new Menorah – great news, but again hardly a divine miracle!
In section four this source explains why Hanukkah is eight days: “they found the altar torn down and they fixed it all eight days, and the holy vessels, and therefore the holiday is observed for eight days.” I do not know how long it takes to make an altar, but it is clear that the author of this version knows that Hanukkah means “Dedication of the Altar” and that Hanukkah is an eight day holiday. He adds these two facts together and comes up with the story that it took eight days to build this altar.
The third version of the Scholion is the version quoted in the Bavli, source 3, right hand. In other words, this is a case where the Babylonia Talmud quotes a tradition from a separate text with which it is familiar. This is the version of the story with which we are familiar. The author of this version seems to have embellished upon the source in the left hand column, the earlier version of the Scholion (source 1 and left hand column of source 3), with which he was familiar. The author uses the basic story of finding pure oil but adds some key elements. First of all, he explains why the holiday is eight days—there was only enough oil for one day but it lasted eight. Second of all, it was a miracle that caused the association with fire. Simply finding the pure oil is good news, but doesn’t seem to be sufficient to justify a holiday. But a divine miracle involving fire—that would explain why Hanukkah is associated with fire, as well as why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. Thus one story answers both questions. Hanukkah is an eight day holiday associated with fire because there was a miracle that occurred for eight days and that miracle involved oil/fire.
For obvious reasons, this story caught on and was transmitted from generation to generation. It brings God into the Hanukkah story and it answers the main questions concerning Hanukkah in a satisfactory manner. It is no less believable in a literal sense than any other miracle story. And so it was, that this became the story told from generation to generation. And in case you are curious—it is the story I tell my children as well.
Addendum: Greek Sources
There isn’t the space here to examine Greek sources, namely the two Books of Maccabees and Josephus on Hanukkah. There also isn’t space to speculate as to what the original reason for the holiday was. Perhaps you’ll have an e-shiur on just that topic next year! I have, however, included some of these sources for your perusal. There are several things you should note though, in light (pun intended) of this shiur. First of all, none of these sources mentions the familiar “miracle of the oil” the story found only in the Bavli. Second, these sources already know that Hanukkah is associated with fire and that it is eight days. Finally, each provides different answers to these questions. Thus our rabbinic sources, particularly the Scholion to Megillat Taanit, are part of a long-standing search by Jews for the origins of this beloved but mysterious holiday.
 Whether Moses’s and Solomon’s dedications were seven or eight days is a point disputed by ancient sources. For our sake it is enough to note that the author of the Scholion thinks that they were seven days.
מגילת תענית הסכוליון כ"י פרמה
בעשרין וחמשה ביה חנכתא תמניא יומין ודלא למספד.
- מפני שטמאו גוים את בית המקדש וכשתקפה מלכות בית חשמונאי בדקוהו ומצאו בו שמן טהור והדליקו בו את הנרות כל אותן ימים שהדליקו בהם את הנרות עשאום יום טוב.
- והלא חנוכה שעשה משה אינה אלא שבעה...והלא חנוכה שעשה שלמה אינה אלא שבעה...מה ראו לעשות זו שמונה?
- אלא בימי יון נכנסו בני חשמונאי להר הבית ושבעה שפודין של ברזל היו בידיהם וחפום בבעץ והיו מתעסקין בהם כל שמנה.
Megillat Taanit, Scholion, Parma Manuscript
On the twenty-fifth day [of Kislev] is Hannukah. Eight days in which one may not mourn.
- Because the gentiles defiled the Temple, and when the Hasmoneans overcame them, they checked and they found pure oil and they lit the lamps. All of those days that they lit the lamps they made into a festival.
- But wasn’t the dedication (Hannukah) that Moses did only for seven days?...And wasn’t the Hannukah that Shlomo did for seven days?...So why did they make this into eight days?
- In the days of the Greeks, the Hasmoneans went on to the Temple Mount with seven iron spears in their hands, and they covered them with tin and they occupied themselves with this for eight days
מגילת תענית הסכוליון כ"י אוקספורד
בעשרין וחמשה ביה חנכתא תמניא יומין ודלא למספד.
- בימים הראשונים חנוכת משה...
- חנוכת בית חשמונאי לדורות. ולמה נוהגת לדורות? שעשאום בצאתם מצרה לרוחה ואמרו בה הלל והדליקו בה נרות בטהרה.
- כשנכנסו יונים להיכל טמאו כל הכלים ולא היה שמן במה להדליק. וכשגברו מלכות בית חשמונאי מצאו פך אחד בחותמו של כהן גדול ונעשה נס והדליקו ממנה עד שמונה ימים.
- ומצאו מזבח סתור ותקנוהו כל שמנה וכלי שרת ולכך נוהגת שמונה והיתה חנכת המזבח.
Megillat Taanit, Scholion, Oxford Manuscript
On the twenty-fifth day [of Kislev] is Hannukah. Eight days in which one may not mourn.
1) In the days of yore there was the dedication done by Moses.
2) The dedication done by the Hasmoneans is a holiday for all the generations. And why is it to be observed for all generations? For they made [this holiday] when they escaped their troubles and they said Hallel, and they lit lamps in purity.
3) For when the Greeks went into the sanctuary, they defiled all the vessels and there was no oil in which to light. And when the Hasmoneans overcame them they found one flask with the High Priest’s seal and there was a miracle and they lit it for eight days.
4) And they found the altar torn down and they fixed it all eight days, and the holy vessels, and therefore the holiday is observed for eight days, and it is the Hannukah (dedication) of the altar.
 The text is hard to decipher here, but the scholion certainly mentions Solomon.
מאי חנוכה? דתנו רבנן: בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון, דלא למספד הון ודלא להתענות בהון. שנכנסו יוונים להיכל וטמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל, וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום, בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן היה 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.
Bavli Shabbat 21b
What is Hannukah? For our rabbis taught, on the 25th of Kislev there are the days of Hannukah, they are 8, and one is not allowed to offer a eulogy or fast on them.
For the Greeks entered the Temple and they defiled all of the oil in the Temple, and when the Hasmoneans prevailed, they looked and didn't find anything but one flask of oil that was stamped with the High Priest's seal. And there was only enough to light for one day. And a miracle was made and they lit for 8 days. The next year they established these days as holidays, for the recitation of the Hallel and for Thanksgiving.
מפני שטמאו גוים את בית המקדש
וכשתקפה מלכות בית חשמונאי
בדקוהו ומצאו בו שמן טהור
והדליקו בו את הנרות
כל אותן ימים שהדליקו בהם את הנרות עשאום יום טוב.
Scholion, Parma Manuscript
For the Greeks defiled the Temple.
And when the kingship of the Hasmoneans prevailed they found pure oil.
And they lit candles
And all the days that they lit the candles, they made into a holiday.
כשנכנסו יונים להיכל טמאו כל הכלים ולא היה שמן במה להדליק. וכשגברו מלכות בית חשמונאי מצאו פך אחד בחותמו של כהן גדול ונעשה נס והדליקו ממנה עד שמונה ימים.
Scholion, Oxford Manuscript
For when the Greeks went into the sanctuary, they defiled all the vessels and there was no oil in which to light. And when the Hasmoneans overcame them they found one flask with the High Priest’s seal and there was a miracle and they lit it for eight days.
לפי שנכנסו יונים בהיכל וטמאו כל הכלים ולא היה להם במה להדליק שמן וכשגברה יד בית חשמונאי הביאו שבעה שפודי ברזל וחפום בבעץ והתחילו להדליק.
Scholion, based on the Or Zarua
Because the Greeks entered the Temple and defiled all of the vessels and there was nothing in which to light the oil. And when the Hasmoneans prevailed they brought bronze spit and covered them with tin and they began to light.
I Maccabees 4
41) Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.
42) He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law;
43) these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the abomination to an unclean place.
44) They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of burnt offerings that had been desecrated.
45) The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar.
46) They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them.
47) Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one. …
49) They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple.
50) Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple…
52) Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight,
53) they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made.
54) On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals.
55) All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.
56) for eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. …
58) There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.
II Maccabees 1:10
10) We are now reminding you to celebrate the feast of Sukkot in the month of Chislev. Dated in the year one hundred and forty-eight….
18) We shall be celebrating the purification of the temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev, so we thought it right to inform you, that you too may celebrate the feast of Sukkot and of the fire that appeared when Nehemiah, after he built the Temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.
19) When our fathers were exiled to Persia, devout priests of the time took some of the fire from the altar and hid it secretly in the hollow of a dry cistern, making sure that the place would be unknown to anyone.
20) Many years later, when it so pleased God, Nehemiah, commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to look for it.
21) When they informed us that they could not find any fire, but only muddy water, he ordered them to scoop some out and bring it. After the material for the sacrifices had been prepared, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle with the water the wood and what lay on it.
22) When this was done and in time the sun, which had been clouded over, began to shine, a great fire blazed up, so that everyone marveled.
23) While the sacrifice was being burned, the priests recited a prayer, and all present joined in with them, Jonathan leading and the rest responding with Nehemiah...
30) Then the priests began to sing hymns.
31) After the sacrifice was burned, Nehemiah ordered the rest of the liquid to be poured upon large stones.
32) As soon as this was done, a flame blazed up, but its light was lost in the brilliance cast from a light on the altar…
36) Nehemiah and his companions called the liquid “tihur”, meaning purification, but most people named it naphtha.
II Maccabees 10:5-8
5) On the anniversary of the day on which the temple had been profaned by the foreigners, that is, the twenty-fifth of the same month Kislev, the purification of the temple took place.
6) The Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Booths, remembering how, a little while before, they had spent the feast of Booths living like wild animals in the mountains and in caves.
7) Carrying rods entwined with leaves,* beautiful branches and palms, they sang hymns of grateful praise to him who had successfully brought about the purification of his own place.
8) By public decree and vote they prescribed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these days every year.
Josephus Antiquities, Book XII, Chapter Six
6. When therefore the generals of Antiochus's armies had been beaten so often, Judas assembled the people together, and told them, that after these many victories which God had given them, they ought to go up to Jerusalem, and purify the temple, and offer the appointed sacrifices. But as soon as he, with the whole multitude, was come to Jerusalem, and found the temple deserted, and its gates burnt down, and plants growing in the temple of their own accord, on account of its desertion, he and those that were with him began to lament, and were quite confounded at the sight of the temple; so he chose out some of his soldiers, and gave them order to fight against those guards that were in the citadel, until he should have purified the temple. When therefore he had carefully purged it, and had brought in new vessels, the candlestick, the table, and the altar [of incense], which were made of gold, he hung up the veils at the gates, and added doors to them. He also took down the altar [of burnt-offering], and built a new one of stones that he gathered together, and not of such as were hewn with iron tools. So on the five and twentieth day of the month Kislev, they lighted the lamps that were on the candlestick, and offered incense upon the altar [of incense], and laid the loaves upon the table and offered burnt-offerings upon the new altar.. …
7. 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. 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. 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.