Just the other day someone wanted to know why we would teach in the religious school that the miracle of Hanukkah might not actually be the oil that lasts for eight days. Isn’t that the most important part? What else could be the reason if not that for having the holiday?
I hate to break it to you, and this might not be what you get into with your kids who are younger than 10 or 11 or so, but I don’t think there was a miracle with the oil last eight days. Nevertheless, I do believe Hanukkah is an important holiday to celebrate with an important message to learn.
Now why do I think what I do? First, if you read through I and II Maccabees (books in the Apocrypha, a collection of biblical style books written after the canon of the Hebrew Bible was already closed but still religiously significant and included in the Catholic Bible), which were written during the time when the Maccabees were rulers of Israel, there is no mention of the miracle with the oil. That is to say, in accounts that were written either right during the time of the Hanukkah story or not long after, they don’t know anything about “super oil.”
Furthermore, when we say the addition to the Amidah prayer for Hanukkah Al ha-Nissim, or when we read the passage Ha-Nerot Hallalu recited after lighting the menorah candles, neither of these prayers mention magic oil either.
It is not until the Talmud, edited together around 450CE that we encounter the story of the lights. The events of Hanukkah happened around 150BCE and so we are talking about six hundred years between the two events. And even those early parts of the Talmud are still separated from the time of the Maccabean Revolt by more than hundred years. A nice story to be sure, but not one that rings with the note of historical accuracy.
So why then do we a light a menorah at all? I suspect it is because the Maccabees really did restore the Holy Temple after they defeated the Seleucid Greeks, and the menorah was a key symbol of the Temple, so incorporating it into the celebrations the held for their victory made sense. And I think they made Hanukkah an eight-day holiday (the Temple menorah has six branches plus one central light) because that fit better with other important holidays like Sukkot and Passover, and the Maccabees felt their victory worthy of a similarly long celebration.
The miracle of Hanukkah then, the one we read about in the Books of Maccabees, the one we mention in our additional prayers including the candle blessings, the one even the Talmud acknowledges, is the faith of the Maccabees that their dedication to Judaism could help them prevail of the Greeks. And despite their smaller numbers, despite even the fact that even some of the Maccabees were themselves Hellenized Jews, their commitment to Jewish tradition, their hope and bravery, that is what we truly celebrate.
When you light the candles this year, make sure that lesson is a part of what you celebrate and remember. And after we put the menorah away, remember that just as the light of Hanukkah grows stronger every night of the holiday, so too, can our faith and courage during difficult times, helping us to prevail against those who might seek our harm, and see Jewish life and relevance survive and thrive.