The Astonishing Real Story of Hanukkah

Surprise: It has nothing to do with a miraculous oil supply.

Moshe Gilad

The real story of Hanukkah begins with a revolt, for reasons that would resonate to this day – gross inequality and religious coercion. Rather less well-known is that the holiday originally had nothing to do with a miraculous oil supply but rather involved ousting foreign rule and slaughtering Hellenized Jews.

Back in the days before the Maccabean Revolt, Judea was semi-autonomous, but was firmly under the control of the Seleucid Empire, led by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The moneyed elite of Judea had become largely Hellenized, taking up the dominating culture of the day.

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

But not everyone enjoyed the comforts of “modernity.” The inequality led Jewish zealots to oppose the sweeping cultural changes in Judea. The alarmed Hellenized Jews called for the emperor's help; and the emperor did send troops to entrench Hellenization even further. Thus the war known to history as the Maccabean Revolt began.

After some years of guerrilla warfare under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, Jewish independence was regained. Jerusalem was freed. The Hellenized Jews were slaughtered and the Temple was rededicated.

That, we are told, took place on the winter solstice on the 25th day of Kislev, 160 BCE.

Celebrating the Temple

Our earliest source on the celebration of Hanukkah is the Book of Maccabees I, written at the end of the 2nd Century BCE. It tells us: “And Judah and his brothers commanded that all the people of Israel shall celebrate the holiday of the dedication of the Temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, every year in praise and thanks to God.”

The later Book of Maccabees II - written in Alexandria, in Greek, in 124 BCE - tells us the holiday was celebrated as a second Sukkot. That may explain why the holiday lasts eight days. That is, simply, the length of Sukkot, which is a harvest festival, and possibly Hanukkah began as one as well. Some researchers suggested that the holiday coincides with the end of the olive-oil making season, which could explain the oil-centeredness of the holiday.

Moving onto the Mishnah, which was redacted in 220 CE but encompasses tradition spanning generations - Hanukkah is mentioned only in passing. There is no special tractate. Some think that's because it wasn’t an important holiday back then. Others suggest Hanukkah was so widely celebrated that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

What the Mishnah does tell us, is that messengers were sent out to far reaches to tell people in advance when the holiday was to be celebrated. During it, mourning practices were forbidden and special Bible portions were read. There is only one reference to candle-lighting and even that is in the context of a legal matter. Bottom line: The defendant was not found liable for damage caused by a fire he accidentally started when lighting a candle at the entrance to his shop for Hanukkah.

Pharisees trump the Sadducees, as usual

Nor does the Talmud - compiled around 500 CE but containing writings spanning centuries - have a separate tractate on Hanukkah, but it does provide more information on the holiday. This is where we first learn that candles were lit for eight days.

But why? Today only one explanation is offered: the miracle of the oil, enough for one day but lasting for eight. The Talmud, however, offers other possibilities: that it took eight days to get oil in from the countryside, or that there were eight spikes found in the Temple which were converted into a menorah.

The eight-day progression of the candle lighting also appears in the Talmud for the first time. But today's practice of starting with one candle (and the shamash) and building to seven (and the shamash) was not necessarily the norm.

That is the norm introduced by the Pharisees: that each day an additional candle be lit. But the Sadducees argued that one should start with a full menorah, and take away one candle each day. As is usually the case, Judaism sided with the Pharisees.

Liturgy takes shape, sort of

During the time of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages the liturgy of the holiday started taking form. Several special prayers were composed for the holiday. One is “Al Hanisim” – "About the miracles," a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the miracles he had bestowed on his people.

Intriguingly, that this prayer was canonized with a small factual error in it. Mattathias, the patriarch of the Hasmonean clan that led the Maccabean revolt, is named in the prayer "Mattathias son of Johanan the high priest". But although Mattathias’ father was in fact called Johanan - he was not the high priest.

The anonymous composer of this prayer was led to error by a book on the Maccabees called "Megillat Antiochus," which is riddled with factual mistakes.

The song “Maoz Tzur,” which is traditionally sung after the candle lighting, was composed in the 13th century. Other songs would follow.

Beheaded generals and gambling

Sometime during the Middle Ages, it became a tradition for Jewish women to eat dairy products on the holiday in recognition of the heroism of Judith, the Jewish heroine of the Book of Judith.

Now, Judith had become associated with the Maccabees even though according to the account of the apocryphal Book of Judith itself, she lived hundreds of years before them.

At any rate, according to the story, when infiltrating the enemy camp, Judith, for reasons of kashrut, ate no meat: she confined herself to dairy products, while she ingratiated her way into the tent of the enemy general Holofernes, who she beheaded, thus saving her people from certain destruction.

In Eastern Europe, the dairy diet took the shape of eating latkes, which were cheesy pancakes. Only later in the mid-19th Century, when Russian farmers began growing potatoes, did latkes take the form of the potato pancakes that we know today.

The tradition of spinning dreidels on Hanukkah is also a product of the Middle Ages.

The dreidel was simply a gambling game, with the letters on the dreidel not denoting "nes gadol haya sham" (“A great miracle happened there”) as we say today. Rather, each letter stood for a Yiddish word having to do with the game: nun was for nicht (nothing), gimel was for ganz (all), shin was for stell ein (put in), and hei was for half (half) – which indicated what one must do after each turn. The rules are those of an earlier non-Jewish gambling game called teetotum.

The tradition of eating fried doughnuts, or sufganiyot as they are called in Israel, is an even later addition to the holiday. It first appeared attested in Morocco in the end of the 18th Century, though it is widely attributed to the father of the Rambam, Rabbi Maymon, who lived in Iberia hundreds of years earlier.

Finally, Hanukkah has always been a minor holiday in Jewish tradition. That's because while other holidays are sanctioned by the Bible and thus are seen as divinely ordained, Hanukkah is post-biblical: it was ordained by rabbis. It seems to have gained its importance in the 20th Century in the United States, mainly because it tends to coincide with Christmas. And this is how the holiday got its present shape with dreidels, latkes, sufganiyot and menorahs, and lest we forget - gifts.