Why Do Jews Light Hanukkah Candles Anyway?

Some enlightening theories about why we kindle the holiday candles for eight days.

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The lighting of the Hanukkah candles.
The lighting of the Hanukkah candles.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

With the Feast of Lights coming up, we will soon start lighting candles. We will do it in ascending order, if we follow the practice of Beit Hillel the school of thought named after the great sage, who declared with respect to the Hanukkah candles: “On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.” If, on the other hand, we choose to follow Shammai’s ruling, we would be doing it in a descending order, as he maintained that: “On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 21b).

In any case, why, one may ask, do we light eight candles on Hanukkah? The holiday is not mentioned in the Bible, and 1 Maccabees (one of the books of the Apocrypha, which was probably originally written in Hebrew, but came to us in the Greek version of the Septuagint, completed 132 B.C.E.), says only that days of the rededication of the altar in the Temple by Judah Maccabeus, circa 166-65 B.C.E., after it was defiled by the Greeks, “should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness" (1 Mac. 4:59).

But why “a space of eight days”? After all, God created the world in six days only; on the first he said “let there be light” and on the seventh he rested. One explanation is supplied by 2 Maccabees (10:6): “And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles, when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts.” Still there is no mention here about lighting any sort of lights or candles whether by adding to or reducing their number every day.

The Talmudic sages were apparently well aware of this discrepancy and thus, in Tractate Shabbat, go to great lengths to offer explanations about lighting the lights and about what to do in case one should go out, especially on the Sabbath. This tractate is also where we first encounter the story of how one jug of oil sufficed miraculously for eight days: “What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the high priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days.”

With all due respect to our sages, however, I would say that one cannot take their word as the gospel truth. As in many other instances, they pose a question that begs explication or elaboration, due to what they see as omissions, in the sacred writings. They then provide their own sometimes-ingenious interpretations for things not spelled out in the Good Book.

Many Orthodox and Haredi Jews accept what is written in the Talmud as an abiding truth that can serve as the basis for halakahic rulings. But even they differentiate between things a Jew has to conform deoraita, (as spelled out in the Torah), in contrast to those described in Talmudic writings (derabanan, “as decreed by the rabbis”).

Not being an observant Jew myself, and without casting aspersions (especially on the matters of deoraita) I would venture to propose a slightly different version of the events that took place in the month of Kislev in 166, B.C.E., when Judah Maccabee and his men entered the Temple. The Maccabees revolted both against the Greeks (actually the Seleucids, but let’s not split hairs here), who practiced ruthless cultural colonization, forbidding Jewish religious practices and enforcing their own (heavily influenced by Hellenic culture) rituals and also against those Jews who were oftentimes too ready to conform to the new regime and to its foreign religious practices. Upon reentering the Temple, the Maccabees found it defiled, and faced both a scarcity of faith and a scarcity of undefiled, kosher oil.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that an ancient spin doctor working on behalf of the self-appointed guardians of faith in the Lord had come forward with the following scheme: “What we need desperately is a boost of faith in the almighty God of the Jews. So let’s light the big chandelier [a French word that sneaked into English, which derives from the Latin candere, to shine and is the source for the English “candle”] in the Temple. We want it to burn for a while, so let’s make it eight days like on Sukkot, which we did not observe properly this year. Now, everyone knows that the Temple was befouled by the Greeks, so let it be known even though there is really enough oil that only one jug contains so-called kosher oil. Then let us kindle eight lights, with whatever oil is there, kosher or not, and extinguish one each day [in line with Shammai’s idea]. We will announce that the kosher oil is running out, and on the eighth day, we’ll make a big show of delivering a new consignment of pure, newly pressed, kosher oil to the Temple. Then we’ll have a good reason to thank God for the miracle of one jug.”

In our times, such a spin would not have held water, as it were, for even one day, let alone eight, but apparently in those ancient days they did not have the free, critical press that we (still?) have. In any event, the spin that gave rise to the tale of “one-jug-of-oil-burning-eight-days” has worked right up until today. A miracle indeed.

While pondering that, I’ll be soon lighting eight candles (plus the shamash) of Hanukkah today with my family, and will sing along with them, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.” Although a non-believer, I’m an avowed follower of Hillel, and in my eyes Hanukkah is part of Jewish culture and heritage. And I’ll be expecting miracles, of course, although I’m fully aware that they may be some sort of spin. Maybe of a dreidl.

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