The Rabbis and the Great Hanukkah Cover-up

What self-censorship in Jewish tradition teaches us about national survival.

Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar
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A reproduction of 'The Maccabees,' a 1842 painting by Wojciech Korneli Stattler.
A reproduction of 'The Maccabees,' a 1842 painting by Wojciech Korneli Stattler.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar

When the early Zionists looked for historical precedents of Jewish political independence, they found a natural point of reference in the Hanukkah story. The Hasmonean uprising was a turning point in Jewish history: for the first time since the Babylonian exile the Jews fought a regional power and won. That victory led to the re-establishment of a politically independent Jewish commonwealth under a Jewish monarch for the first time since the destruction of the First Temple.

And yet, the Talmud doesn’t even mention it! The question “What is Hanukkah?” gets an answer, all right, but it isn’t the answer that we expect. Instead of a history lesson, we get a colorful story of how the sole remaining can of ritual olive oil for the menorah sufficed for eight days, until more could be brought—a nice story, but not particularly satisfying. What about the military victory over vastly superior forces? What about the resurrection of an independent Jewish state? Tell us about the real miracles—the ones that changed the course of history!

But it wasn’t only the Talmud that was mysteriously reticent about the Hasmonean victory. The earlier Sages went to great lengths to obscure the underlying political and military basis of the holiday, along with the ensuing civil war.

While the philosophy of quietism so evident in the Mishah and Talmud has often been attributed to fear of the non-Jewish authorities, this attitude in fact appears to be part of a conscious pedagogical program which started with the Tanakh itself. Bible scholar Jacob Wright maintains that the Tanakh was written with the aim of providing a blueprint for a stateless nation.

The biblical text consistently downplays—or omits altogether—tributes to military victories and other nationalistic achievements. The classic biblical hero isn’t the warrior who valiantly dies in battle, but rather the man who goes out to fight and then returns home to care for his family. The biblical exemptions to going to war set out in Deuteronomy 20:5-7 are not for conscientious objectors; they exempt those who have something more important to do than going to war. Raising families and harvesting crops win out over fighting the king’s battles.

The culture against which the Hasmoneans fought was one with very different values; it was an empire built solely on conquest, on picking up the pieces left by the ruin of earlier empires. The Hellenism of the day was dying; the center of gravity of Greek political power had shifted to western Asia, leaving its original homeland increasingly depopulated and economically bankrupt. While the outer trappings of Hellenism were enthusiastically adopted by the Seleucid elites, its cultural institutions were missing or enfeebled.

And here we find the real focus of Hanukkah: a clash of two cultures, each struggling for survival. While the Seleucid Empire shone in the reflected light of a brilliant but dying Hellenistic culture, Jewish society was struggling to relight the fires of its own cultural identity after the Babylonian exile. It’s quite possible that had Jewish society of the time been stronger in its identity, its clash with Hellenism would have been neither traumatic nor violent; Jewish cultural elites would have taken from the foreign culture what could easily be woven into the fabric of Jewish tradition, and calmly rejected the rest.

But that’s not how the story went—and this history lesson is subtly woven into the observance of Hanukkah. The hanukkiah is not lit in the private space of the home, nor is it traditionally lit in purely public spaces; rather, it is set out on the threshold of the home, marking the dividing line between private and public space, between the light streaming outward from the home and the light coming in from outside. And really, this is what the holiday is all about: defining distinctions between what is inside and what is outside—what values we assimilate from other cultures and what is best left outside, what customs and world-views uniquely define us, and what traditions and practices we can let go of in light of new circumstances. In the end, our light meets the lights of other cultures, and yet remains itself.

And so we come to the secret of the answer given by the Sages. Pressed to explain what Hanukkah was all about, the Sages said nothing about the military and political victories, but instead brought forward a beautiful midrash that sums up the true miracle of that time: For all that we were dragged into a brutal war of brother against brother, of the settling of scores and the collapse of government; for all that we had so forgotten our own Oral Law that much of it had to be recreated later by Sages whose very names were no longer Jewish—still, our light did not go out. We came through one of the darkest periods of Jewish history with our inner fires still burning, ready to rebuild.

After a career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar now divides her time between researching trends in asymmetric conflict and learning Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” recently published by Kasva Press, and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish education and philosophy can be found at

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