Why Do We Really Light Candles on Hanukkah?

Hanukkah 2,500 years ago was like any other holiday: praising God and sacrificing animals. When did marking the holiday with fire begin?

Children, wearing sweaters to ward off the December chill, lighting Hanukkah "candles", in this case gas-fired flares, at Hula Park. The origin of the custom to light fire to mark Hanukkah remains obscure - but may have originated with the Roman vassal king Herod.
Dror Artzi

Hanukkah was established as a holiday by Judah Maccabee in 164 BCE, to mark his victory over the Hellenized Jews and Seleucid Greeks and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. If Judah could travel in time and see how we celebrate Hanukkah, he would probably be appalled to see us lighting candles to mark a miracle like pagans.

Judah’s original Hanukkah was much like any other holiday of its day. It consisted of singing of God’s glory and sacrificing animals in the Jerusalem Temple.

We know that this was the case from 1 Maccabees (4:52-55), which is an excellent source indeed. Originally written in Hebrew during the reign of Judah’s nephew John Hyrcanus (134 BCE to 104 BCE), though only the Greek translation survives today, the extent of detail implies that the unknown author witnessed the events first-hand.

1 Maccabees makes no mention of the famous Hanukkah miracle, according to which a one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days.

Rabbinic authorities claim the miracle is not only the reason the holiday lasts eight days, but is the reason the holiday is celebrated at all. However, the miracle is only mentioned for the first time hundreds of years later, in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), which was redacted in about 500 CE.

The author of 1 Maccabees would have been unlikely to neglect to mention that a miracle took place. We must then suspect that it is a much later contrivance.

If there wasn’t an eight-day oil miracle, why does the holiday last eight days? 1 Maccabees doesn’t explain why Judah mandated an eight-day celebration, but it isn’t too difficult to guess. He would have consulted the holy scriptures (which by this period had already taken a form very close to our own).

There, he would have found several examples of dedication ceremonies. Moses held an eight-day dedication when he inaugurated the Tabernacle (Leviticus 8:33-9:4). So did King Solomon when he dedicated the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:8-10), King Hezekiah conducted an eight-day celebration when rededicating that Temple (2 Chronicles 29:17), and when the prophet Ezra reached Jerusalem and read the Torah to the people, it was immediately followed by Sukkot, which is an eight-day holiday too (Nehemiah 8:18).

Fire and enlightenment?

So we don’t need a miracle to explain the fact that Hanukkah is eight days long. But when did the holiday begin to be associated with fire and light?  

We know this was before 94 CE, since in Josephus’ book Antiquities of the Jews, published that year, the Jewish historian (who lived about 260 years after Judah Maccabee) describes the relighting of the Temple menorah in the context of Judah's rededication of the Temple.

The victory of Judah Maccabee over the Seleucids, as envisioned by Paul Gustave Doré in this 19th Century engraving.
Wikimedia Commons

Josephus refers to the rededication holiday as ‘Phta’, Greek for “Lights.” But he doesn't know either why it's named that, and makes quite a metaphoric stretch, between light and enlightenment.

After defeating Antiochus' armies, Josephus explains, Judah Maccabee recaptured the Temple and purified it: "When therefore he had carefully purged it he brought in new vessels - the menorah, the table and the incense altarAnd on the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislevthey lighted the lights [phta] that were on the menorah".

Judah and the Jews celebrated the restoration of Temple worship for eight days, Josephus continues: "Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their customsthat they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights [phta], because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light [phannai], and so this name was placed on the festival." 

(Josephus may have been phrasing things judiciously, to avoid it occurring to the Romans to connect between lighting candles with the Jewish revolt and the rededication of the Temple. He may have hoped to present the act of lighting candles as just another act of piety, lest the Romans take it into their minds to ban the practice.)

‘Sukkot of Fire’

The first reference to fire in the context of Hanukkah appears in 2 Maccabees, written some time 2100-1900 years ago, a century before Josephus lived. There the holiday is called “Sukkot of Fire”.

The phrase appears in the second of two letters appended to the beginning of 2 Maccabees. Originally written in Greek, the letter is ostensibly from the Jews of Jerusalem and their leader Judah Maccabee, but was almost certainly written later. We cannot date it with certainty but some scholars believe that its opening greeting, “Happiness and health” places its composition in the late first century BCE to the end of the first century CE, since all letters beginning with this greeting (but one, written in the fourth century BCE) come from that period.

That letter provides a theological explanation for the fire.

According to the letter, heavenly fire came down and lit the fire in the Tabernacle back in the Sinai, and the same took place when Solomon inaugurated the Temple. It goes on to say that when the Jews were exiled to Babylon in the 6th century BCE, the prophet Jeremiah hid the fire in a secret spot for the duration of the exile. When Nehemiah returned from the exile and built the Second Temple (contradicting the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), he sent people to retrieve the fire, but instead of fire they found a liquid. The letter then says Nehemiah commanded that the liquid be put on the altar, at which point the cloudy sky became clear and the altar caught on fire. The letter doesn’t state explicitly that anything similar happened when Judah rededicated the temple, but it is certainly implied.

So apparently Hanukkah became associated with fire during the second half of the last century BCE or the first century CE, but why? Prof. Moshe Benovitz, a scholar at the Schechter Institute, came up with an interesting theory, set forth in an article titled “Herod and Hanukkah” in the scholarly Hebrew publication “Zion” in 2003. Briefly, Benovitz postulates that the letter was written by a propagandist working for King Herod, and it was Herod who associated the holiday with fire.

Based on a single Roman reference to a holiday called “Herod’s Days”, the fact that Herod was crowned in the winter and that his new grandiose temple was probably dedicated on the same day, the fact that the timing of the letter coincides with Herod’s reign (37 to 4 BCE) and a number of other textual hints, Benovitz speculates that Herod was appropriating the Hasmonean holiday to himself, after he had ended their rule and killed off its sons.

Considering that the most likely time for religious reform is during change in government, his account seems plausible.

Caesar's reform

To explain why Herod might decide to associate his revamped Hanukkah with fire, Benovitz points to a spread of celebrations involving fire and light on Winter Solstice and the days before and after it in the Roman world, following Julius Caesar's calendar reform in 45 BCE.

Caesar's reform fixed the date of the solstice to December 25, which led to  its incorporation in different religious celebrations, notably Christmas much later, but also others, gravitating to that date. Light and fire are a logical way to celebrate the darkest day of the year, the tipping point when the sun “beats” the darkness and the days start getting longer. The first records of candles being given as gifts is on the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was celebrated on December 17, begin to appear at about that time.

It would not be out of character for the cosmopolitan vassal king Herod to join in this fashion and associate his winter holiday with fire too.

Another reason could be that after he had rebuilt the Temple from scratch, Herod could no longer claim his Temple had the authority of its antiquity, but he could claim that the fire burning within it was ancient and holy. Perhaps that’s just what he did.

Whether or not this is how Hanukkah became associated with fire, we first learn of candles being lit as a part of Hanukkah from a passing reference in the Mishnah (redacted in about 200 CE), in which Rabbi Judah says that if a camel carrying flax catches fire from a Hanukkah candle burning at the entrance to a store, the storekeeper is not liable for the damages (Bava Kamma 6:6).