Why did it take 600 years after the Maccabees recaptured the Temple for the story of the miraculous jar of oil to emerge?
Ask any Jew to tell you how Chanukah began or why we celebrate this festival for eight days and you will no doubt be told the story of how Syrian Greeks defiled the Temple, and how, after Judah the Maccabee and his brothers recaptured and cleansed it, they found a little jar of oil that miraculously burned for eight days. But, in fact, Chanukah was observed for 600 years before the “jar of oil” story made its debut in Jewish literature!
Where, then, did the story of the “jar of oil” come from? And what was the miracle of Chanukah for our ancestors?
The answers can be found in the written sources. Forty-four years after the Maccabean victory in 164 B.C.E., two books chronicled the war and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple.
The First Book of Maccabees, compiled some time after 120 B.C.E., recounts: “They...made new sacred vessels, and they brought the lampstand... into the Temple. They burned incense on the altar and lit the lights on the lampstand, and the Temple was filled with light...For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar....Then Judah, his brothers and the entire community of Israel decreed that the days of rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at this same time every year beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days” (4:49-59).
This early account does not mention the “little jar of oil” miracle. Apparently the author did not know of the story. At the time, the miracle was the victory itself: that God had enabled the Judeans to overcome the far mightier Syrians.
The Second Book of Maccabees, compiled at about the same time as First Maccabees, reports: “Judah the Maccabee and his men, under the Lord’s leadership, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem... After purifying the Temple, they made another altar. Then by striking flint they made a new fire and...offered sacrifices and incense, lit the lamps...On the anniversary of the very same day on which the Temple had been defiled, the 25th of Kislev, they now purified the Temple. They celebrated joyfully for eight days, just as on Sukkot, knowing that [a few months before] on Sukkot they had spent the festival [hiding] like wild animals in the mountains and caves.... That is why they came carrying stalks wreathed with branches—palm fronds—and ripe fruit [the lulav and etrog], and sang hymns of praise [Hallel] to Him Who had given them the victory that had brought about the purification of His Temple. By a vote of the community they decreed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these festival days every year” (10:1-8).
Like First Maccabees, Second Maccabees makes no mention of the “jar of oil.” It does, however, shed light on why Chanukah is an eight-day holiday.
A few months earlier, the Jews had been unable to pray in the Temple on Sukkot—known as “The Holiday” (HeChag)—the most important festival on the Jewish calendar because it included Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain. During the eight days of this festival, vast numbers of Jews would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to thank God for the crops just harvested and pray for rain and a good yield in the next year.
Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, the Jews’ first act was to celebrate a belated Sukkot, now in the month of Kislev. They carried the lulav and etrog, sang the Hallel Psalms for eight days as on any Sukkot, and participated in torchlight processions during which jars of water were carried up to the Temple and symbolically poured onto the altar (part of the Sukkot ritual). The large golden oil lamps burning in the Temple courtyard lit up the entire city of Jerusalem (Mishnah Sukkah 5:3).
Initially the new festival was called “Sukkot in Kislev.” We know this from Second Maccabees, which begins with a letter the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea sent to the Jews of Alexandria, Egypt urging them to “…celebrate Sukkot in the month of Kislev” (1:1-9). A second letter to the Jews of Egypt, written in 164 B.C.E. and purportedly by Judah the Maccabee himself, reads in part: “Since we are about to celebrate [the first anniversary of] the purification of the Temple on the 25th of Kislev, we thought it proper to inform you that you too may celebrate this Sukkot [in Kislev]” (1:18).
Notably, “Chanukah” (Dedication) is not mentioned until Megillat Ta’anit (The Scroll of Days on which Fasting is Forbidden), which was written during the first century C.E.—two hundred years after the Maccabees purified the Temple! “On the 25th Day of Kislev,” it reads, “Chanukah [begins]—eight days—mourning is forbidden.” And in none of these sources is there mention of the “little jar of oil.”
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) relates a notable event in the first century C.E.: “The residents of Lydda declared a fast on Chanukah. Rabbi Eliezer [ben Hyrcanus] returned there and bathed. Rabbi Joshua [ben Hannaniah] also returned and had his hair cut. [Bathing and haircutting were forbidden on fast days.] [Later] they said to the residents [of Lydda], “Go now and fast in atonement for having fasted [on Chanukah]!”
From this we learn that some Jews must have opposed the celebration of Chanukah, which to them probably represented an “activist” approach to dealing with occupiers. Afraid that even non-violent opposition might unleash the wrath of the oppressor, these “passivist” Jews wished to play down the message of the Maccabees—that opposition to foreign rule is sometimes justified and, with God’s help, can succeed.
In the years that followed, depending on the century or the location, either “activist” or “passivist” approaches would dominate. The Jews of Palestine, by and large, continued to favor activism, which often took the form of subtle literary derogation of the oppressor. In contrast, and perhaps because the ruling authorities typically gave them the right to self government, the Jews of Babylonia tended to favor accommodation, declaring, “The law of the government is the law” (“dina de’malchuta, dina”), a dictum that occurs nine times in the Talmud.
Thus, for the Jews of Babylonia, the Chanukah story of the Maccabees’ victorious struggle presented a problem: their young people might be influenced by the Maccabee model to become “activist” opponents of authority. It is at this point, six centuries after the Maccabean victory, that the miracle of the “little jar of oil” finally makes an appearance in the sacred literature. The festival of Chanukah had become so firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the people, it was impossible to eliminate. So the Babylonian Jews changed the miracle story from the military victory against overwhelming odds to the little jar of oil that lasted eight days.
“Why Chanukah?” asks the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat (21b). The answer: “Our rabbis taught [in Megillat Ta’anit] on the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Chanukah on which eulogies [mourning] and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil; and when the Hasmoneans prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one jar of oil with the official seal of the High Priest, but which was only enough for one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were decreed a festival with the recital of Hallel Psalms and thanksgiving.”
The real question of this Talmudic text is not “why do we celebrate Chanukah?” but rather “on the authority of what miracle are we permitted to recite Hallel Psalms on Chanukah, a custom usually reserved for biblical festivals?” Its answer is the miraculous “jar of oil,” which, given its first appearance here, was probably borrowed from some other tradition or invented for the occasion.
This passivist version of Chanukah was not universally accepted. Three hundred years later in Palestine, another explanation was offered for the recital of Hallel during this holiday. Pesikta Rabbati (a Palestinian midrash completed in the year 847 C.E.) says: “The sons of the Hasmonean High Priest [were] victorious over the Kingdom of Greece… Upon entering the Temple they found eight iron rods which they thrust [into the ground] and kindled lights in them. On what authority is Hallel recited? Because [one of the Hallel Psalms] states: ‘The Lord God has given us light’” (Psalm 118:27).
In this version of the story, the Hasmoneans were originally High Priests, which is not elsewhere confirmed; and the authority for reciting Hallel is not the miraculous oil, but rather the authority of God.
In the centuries that followed, Jews in dire straits in different parts of the world usually chose the “passivist” route of accommodation, and with it, the little jar of oil miracle. In modern times, however, activism has been restored as a valid Jewish option—one which made the modern miracle of the State of Israel possible and drives the Jewish goal to bring freedom to the oppressed, hope to those in despair, and peace to the world.
Rabbi Manuel Gold is a Jewish educator and author.