Hanukkah has become an iconic holiday. In many ways, it has become as well known and popular as Christmas. But what exactly is its message?
The origins of Hanukkah are mired in obscurity. The rabbis of the Talmud established the days of Hanukkah as a commemoration for a small jug of oil that burned for eight days instead of burning for one day, as expected. Religious zeal and fervor were the themes of the first Hanukkah. For much of Jewish history, and for much of Orthodox Judaism today, the holiday retains much of its Talmudic meaning. Hanukkah is like a wink from a hidden God reminding us that when we stand up for our Judaism, God is standing with us.
This is not a very pluralistic message. It’s also not the way that most people look at Hanukkah today. Many people see that holiday as a celebration of religious freedom. Others see it as a beautiful way of competing with more popular holidays like Christmas. Yet others consider the military struggle for autonomy the central focus of the day.
Purists might recoil at the thought that the Talmudic intent behind the holiday is being ignored or even changed. I don’t think this is a valid concern.
Jewish holidays have multiple layers of meaning, often depending on time and place. During the First Temple period the holiday of Sukkot was a harvest holiday. Most Jewish people don’t celebrate the harvest aspect of the holiday anymore. Passover has meant different things to different people as well. It started as a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt. For many people throughout the long exile it has come to symbolize our yearning to return to the Land of Israel and a Messianic utopia.
Even within the somewhat narrow confines of Orthodox Judaism, Hasidut added new elements and meaning to our holidays. We have a longstanding tradition of reinterpreting Jewish holidays.
There may be no starker historical example of this reinterpretation than Hanukkah itself. Maccabees I and Maccabees II provide their own reasons for the holiday. No miracle of oil is found in these texts. Josephus also neglects to mention this miracle. These sources focus primarily on the military victory.
It is pretty clear that the rabbis of the Talmud sought to refocus the day from a military victory and its attendant zealotry in favor of the commemoration of a miracle of a small cruse of oil. The Talmud glosses over the military victory in its description of the holiday.
“What is Chanukkah? That [which] our Sages taught: On the 25th of Kislev - the days of Chanukkah, they are eight, not to eulogize on them and not to fast on them, for when the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest, but there was in only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days. The following year [the Sages] fix those [days], making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21A, Translation from Sefaria.org)
In the Talmud, the military victory is presented merely as incidental to the miracle of the oil. There was no miraculous victory and winning the war was not worth celebrating on its own in their view. The rabbis of the Talmud may be said to have started the tradition of reinterpreting the Hanukkah story.
Medieval commentaries asked why Hanukkah is eight days if the miracle was only for seven days? There was enough oil for one day! One day was natural and seven days were miracles, so we should celebrate seven days of miracle. One commentary reinterprets the military victory as a miracle to answer this famous question. Another reinterpretation. This time in nearly direct opposition to the Talmud’s version.
Reinterpretation is all part of the Hanukkah story. As long as the message is consistent with the ideals of Judaism and serve to help maintain a connection to the essence of the holiday, we should embrace new ideas. Orthodox Jews may insist that the laws of rabbinic Judaism are incontrovertible, and in our view they are, but the message and meaning of our holidays have long been much more fluid. If today’s Hanukkah message can be transformed to a more unifying and inspirational day for more Jews, so be it.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or email. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com.