Chanukah – From the Maccabees to the Festival of Lights

The central mitzvah (commandment) of Chanukah is the lighting of the candles of the Chanukiah, which is often referred to as a menorah. But, the term menorah technically refers to the 7 branched lamp of the ancient Temple – and, the Chanukiah is the 9 branched lamp of Chanukah. The basic mitzvah in the Talmudic tradition (the basis of Jewish law) of lighting the Chanukiah is for one Chanukiah to be lit for each home and for one candle to be lit each day (נר איש וביתו).

There is a concept of enhancing or beautifying a mitzvah (הידור מצווה) in the Jewish law. The Talmudic rabbis derived this concept from the verse – “This is my God and I shall exalt Him” (Exodus15, 2). In the case of Chanukah, as a matter of enhancing and beautifying our lighting of the Chanukiah, our practice today is to add an additional candle each day after the first day so that on the first day of Chanukah we light only one candle and on the last day we light 8 candles.

There are two questions that stand out in relation to the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah. First, why is the home so important on Chanukah such that the basic Talmudic law is that one Chanukiah is to be lit for each home? Second, why has the concept of enhancing or beautifying a mitzvah become an integral part of the law of lighting the Chanukiah such that the entire Jewish people do not follow the basic law of lighting one candle each day but enhance and beautify the mitzvah by adding an additional candle each day? The concept of enhancing and beautifying a mitzvah is actually not a legal requirement but a matter of going beyond what the law requires (לפנים משורת הדין) – and, yet, the practice has developed among the entire Jewish people that we enhance and beautify the lighting of the Chanukiah by adding an additional candle each day.

Before addressing these two questions, I want to give background about Chanukah. The story of Chanukah is not only a story of a war in the 2nd century BCE between Jews in the land of Israel and Syrian Greeks who were attempting to suppress the Jewish religion (as the land of Israel was in effect a colony of a Syrian-Greek empire) – actually, there was also a civil war among Jews in the land of Israel between Hellenistic Jews who identified with the Greek, Hellenistic culture that had spread throughout the ancient near east and traditional Jews who rebelled against the suppression of the Jewish religion by the ruling Syrian Greeks. This story is told in the First and Second Books of Maccabees. Strikingly, these books telling the story of Chanukah, the First and Second Books of Maccabees, were not included in the traditional Jewish canonization of the Hebrew Bible by the Talmudic rabbis. The books were excluded as external literature not part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and were not regarded as sacred literature.

I want to suggest that there are two main reasons that the Talmudic rabbis excluded the First and Second Books of Maccabees from the Hebrew Bible. One reason, in my view, is that the war against the Syrian Greeks was a civil war among Jews. We actually mention the war in our celebration of Chanukah only in the blessing on miracles (Al Hanissim) that we recite on Chanukah in the daily Amidah (standing) prayer and in our blessing after a meal (Birkat Hamazon). The Al Hanissim blessing on Chanukah mentions the external war against the Syrian Greeks but omits the internal, civil war among Jews. The other reason, in my view, is that the victory of the Maccabees in the war against the Syrian Greeks was in effect a pyrrhic victory. The descendants of the Maccabees who ruled in the land of Israel, the Hasmoneans, not only were not of the tribe of Judah and of the house of David (in violation of traditional Jewish law according to which Jewish kings were to be descended from the tribe of Judah and the house of David) – but, also, the Hasmonean rule was characterized by widespread corruption and further Hellenization.

I want to further suggest that the Talmudic rabbis shifted the focus of Chanukah from the war against the Syrian Greeks (even apart from the war also being a civil war among traditional and Hellenistic Jews) to the lighting of the Chanukiah and its symbolizing of light. In the Talmudic conception, the lighting of the Chanukiah becomes the central focus, and not the war fought against the Syrian Greeks (and certainly not the civil war among Jews) – so that Chanukah in the Talmudic conception becomes “the festival of lights”. The Talmudic rabbis shifted the focus from the war against the Syrian Greeks to the story of the rededication of the ancient Temple during the war against the Syrian Greeks (and, the name Chanukah literally means dedication). The Talmudic rabbis focused not upon the war but upon the dedication of the Temple and the legend of the miracle of the jar found in the Temple containing a one-day supply of oil that miraculously lasted eight days in lighting the menorah of the Temple (and, such a story of the jar of oil is not found in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, but is a very late Talmudic story long after Chanukah).

The terms Chanukah and Chanukiah that mean dedication come from the Hebrew root education. The ancient Temple of Jerusalem was a center of ritual worship – especially animal sacrifices performed by a hereditary priesthood. In ancient Israel, the priests were the main, institutional, religious leaders of the Jewish people, as reflected in the plain meaning of Scripture (Deuteronomy 17, 8-11) – “If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment… And thou shall come unto the priests…and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment…according to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do”. In the plain meaning of Scripture the authority to teach law and adjudicate legal matters was given to priests. The ancient Temple then was to be not only a center of ritual worship in which the priests performed animal sacrifices but also a center of teaching Torah in which priests functioned as teachers of the Jewish people – and, the menorah was the symbol of this teaching function of the priests in teaching Torah. The lighting of the menorah by the priests in the ancient Temple symbolized the light of Torah that was to emanate from the Temple. The term Torah in Hebrew literally means instruction or teaching – and, in Aramaic, the language of the Talmudic literature, Torah is called oraita (אורייתא), which comes from the Hebrew-Aramaic root light (אור).

In my view, the central question that concerned Chanukah in its historical context of the conflict between Hellenistic culture and the traditional Jewish culture, and the conflict between Hellenistic Jews and traditional Jews, was a question of how the light of Torah was to be spread in the face of a conflict with a competing culture. The Maccabees chose to fight not only an external war against Syrian Greeks but also to fight a civil war against Hellenistic Jews. I want to suggest that the reason that the Talmudic rabbis shifted the focus of Chanukah from the war against the Syrian Greeks, and especially from the civil war among Jews, is because the Talmudic rabbis were opposed to the spreading of Torah by the use of violence and by war. The light of Torah for the Talmudic rabbis is to be spread slowly and patiently in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance – just as light spreads slowly in illuminating more and more darkness.

The Talmud advocates mutual respect and tolerance as the way of spreading Torah especially concerning the relations between Hillel and Shammai, two great Talmudic teachers – and, the relations between Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai), two schools of thought in the early Talmudic period, which developed on the basis of the differing approaches of the teachers Hillel and Shammai. Regarding Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 30b) – “a person should always be humble like Hillel, and not strict like Shammai”. Humility is a character trait that implies precedence of peace (including mutual respect and tolerance) between people over truth – and, one who is intellectually humble will not have an arrogant attitude of superiority assuming a monopoly on truth. Intellectual humility will express itself in a moral commitment to mutual respect and tolerance in the face of disagreement. Strictness is a character trait that implies that truth takes precedence over peace between people – as one who is strict is stringent in enforcing or adhering to requirements and principles. Strictness is an unwillingness to compromise truth and strict justice.

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) exemplifying the differing approaches of Hillel and Shammai. A  potential convert comes to Shammai and says that he is willing to convert to Judaism on condition that Shammai teach him the entire Torah while “standing on one foot” – that is, in a very concise way. Shammai takes a builder’s rod and chases the non-Jew out of the Beit Midrash (study hall). Although the source does not say that Shammai hit the non-Jew with the rod, in any case his using it as a threat is an act of violence in the spirit of the Maccabees. The same non-Jew then went to Hillel and Hillel converted him teaching him that the essence of Torah is the moral teaching “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”. Hillel told him that the rest of Torah is commentary upon this teaching and that he should go and study. Hillel related to the non-Jew with respect and tolerance especially in converting the non-Jew even though the non-Jew would not have anywhere near an adequate understanding of Torah by being told that the essence of Torah is the moral teaching “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” – and, Hillel clearly trusted that by studying Torah slowly and patiently the convert will gradually develop greater understanding of Torah just as light slowly and gradually illuminates darkness.

There is a remarkable Talmudic source (Eruvin 13b) relating to the question of how we can determine law, and know how to act, when there are differing schools of thought. The Talmud raises the question regarding the many debates between Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai):

Three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated – these saying the law is according to us and these saying the law is according to us. A Heavenly voice proclaimed: “Both these and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to Beit Hillel”. And, if both these and these are the words of the living God, on what account is Beit Hillel privileged to establish the law according to them? – because they are easy going and humble, and they teach both their own views and those of Beit Shammai. And not only that, but they teach the views of Beit Shammai before their own.

The Talmud here raises a fundamental problem as to how we can determine law (how to act) if we accept that the contradictory views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are both true (“the words of the living God”). The answer that the law is decided in accordance with the views of Beit Hillel because of their superior moral character traits is striking in that the law is determined according to a non-legal standard. It is possible to rationalize that the Talmud is actually suggesting a legal standard by which the law is decided – in accordance with the views of Beit Hillel not due to their superior moral character traits but due to their superior learning and method of study in that they present the views of Beit Shammai in addition to their own. But, this is a weak rationalization, as the Talmud explicitly emphasizes that not only did Beit Hillel present the views of Beit Shammai but they taught them prior to presenting their own – “And not only that, but they teach the views of Beit Shammai before their own”. To present the views of Beit Shammai together with their own may be understood as representing a superior method of study leading to greater knowledge and wisdom on the part of Beit Hillel. However, for Beit Hillel to present the views of Beit Shammai prior to their own in no way contributes to greater knowledge, and is simply an expression of their respect and moral sensitivity.

By the way, the term used in the source for humility (עלובים) regarding Beit Hillel literally means to be insulted. Unfortunately, as an expression of intolerance in the Jewish world there are those who often utter statements regarding fellow Jews (as well as regarding non-Jews) that are insulting. I emphasize that Beit Hillel is not described as insulting others (מעליבים) but as being willing to be insulted by others (עלובים) as an expression of their humility.

It is thus the moral values of Beit Hillel, as emphasized in the source (“because they are easy going and humble”), and commitment to such democratic values as pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance, that constitutes the reason, according to the Talmud, that the law is established according to Beit Hillel. This then is the connection to the first part of the source – the declaration in the first part that both the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are “the words of the living God” necessarily implies that mutual respect is to obtain between the schools expressing a commitment to pluralism as a moral and democratic principle in which contradictory viewpoints are appreciated as reflecting complementary aspects of truth. In the second part Beit Hillel is viewed as exemplifying such a commitment to moral and democratic values of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance demonstrating that they are worthy of having the law established according to their views.

There is a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding the lighting of the Chanukiah in adding additional candles in order to enhance and beautify the commandment (Shabbat 21b). Beit Hillel held that we are to light an additional candle each day beginning with one candle the first day in ascending order until the last day when we light eight candles – and, this is our practice today. Beit Shammai held that we are to light eight candles on the first day and to remove one candle in descending order each day until the last day when we light only one candle.

I want to suggest that this debate reflects the differing approaches of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai concerning the question of how to spread Torah. In my view, the focus in the approach of Beit Shammai is upon the flame of the candles of the Chanukiah reflecting their zealotry in the spirit of their teacher Shammai in being committed to truth even above peace in importance. A flame burns and destroys an object completely – and, thus, we are to light the candles of the Chanukiah in descending order symbolizing the burning and destroying of an object (just as the Maccabees were willing to engage in war and destroy in order to spread the truth of Torah). The focus in the approach of Beit Hillel, in my view, is upon the light illuminated by the candles of the Chanukiah reflecting their humility in the spirit of their teacher Hillel in being committed to peace above truth in importance. The light slowly and gradually illuminates darkness – and, thus, we are to light the candles of the Chanukiah in ascending order symbolizing the gradual illumination of darkness in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance.

We can now turn to the questions that I asked regarding the lighting of the Chanukiah on Chanukah. I will begin with the second question. The reason why the concept of enhancing or beautifying a mitzvah has become an integral part of the law of lighting the Chanukiah such that the entire Jewish people do not follow the basic law of lighting one candle each day but enhance and beautify the mitzvah by adding an additional candle each day is that the lighting of the candles symbolizes the light of Torah that is to be spread slowly and patiently, in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance, illuminating more and more darkness – and, this is the essence of Chanukah, the festival of lights, in the Talmudic conception, such that the more we light (symbolized by adding a candle each day) and slowly illuminate the darkness is not just enhancing and beautifying of the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiah but is truly an integral part of the mitzvah.

The reason why the home is so important on Chanukah such that the basic Talmudic law is that one Chanukiah is to be lit for each home is that the essence of the light of Torah is peace (including mutual respect and tolerance). Peace (shalom) is even considered in the Jewish tradition to be a name of God, and thus to represent the essence of Godliness. The Talmud (Gittin 59b) teaches the entire Torah is given on account of the ways of peace, as it is written – “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are of peace” (Proverbs 3, 17). One of the most important mitzvot in the Jewish tradition is peace in the home (shalom bait). The light of the Chanukiah on Chanukah, and the light of Torah, are to be spread slowly and patiently in a peaceful spirit of mutual respect and tolerance – and, just as the light illuminates darkness only slowly and gradually, so too on Chanukah we begin spreading the light of Torah in our own home slowly and gradually and only from there outwards to others.

 

 

 

 

 

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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