Each year we pass through the same holy days, connecting anew to events in the past; but our travel through the annual cycle is not just spiritual nostalgia. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes that each mo’ed, each appointed day, is actually a way station in time. When we reach a sacred moment of the calendar, “the very holiness of time that influences us today is the same as when the festivals were first commemorated.”
This is the secret of the second blessing we say over the Hanukkah candles, marking the miracle done for our ancestors “in those days at this time.” The power of the Hanukkah story, says Dessler, is available to us in the present, each and every year. But what is that story?
It usually helps to tell a story from the start, but if we begin the Hanukkah story on 25 Kislev, the problems also commence right away. Jerusalem was conquered at the opening of the Maccabean Revolt, not at its conclusion, and the Temple was liberated several days before the 25th. So why was this the date chosen as a celebration for all generations?
Part of the answer lies in the Book of Haggai. There, in the second chapter, the prophet addresses the Jews who had uprooted themselves from the comfort of Babylonian exile and followed the voice of God back to Zion. It isn’t going well, the economy is in shambles and enemies threaten all around. Urging the people to unify, overcome their fears and finish rebuilding the Temple, Haggai promises them safety and well-being. Their doubts are not dispelled until he finally declares in the Divine voice: “I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. And I will overturn the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the might of the kingdoms of the nations” (Haggai 2:21-22). That day was 24 Kislev, and the Temple service restarted the very next morning.
The rest of our answer is found in the Second Book of Maccabees, which says: “Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the Temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again .... ” (Macc. II, 10:5). On 25 Kislev, at the outset of the revolt three years earlier, the Greeks defiled the altar and placed an idol in the Holy of Holies. Through the Hellenist Jews, they had controlled the Temple for some time. They chose this date in order to prove the prophecy false and show that Israel was just like the other nations they had conquered. By overturning Antiochus’s kingdom and rededicating the altar on the very same day, Judah and his brothers were asserting the truth of the Divine promise.
The books of Maccabees show that Judah and his brothers saw their story as one of God acting in history, and that the miracle of Hanukkah was God lending strength to the righteous few in battle, so that the Jewish story could continue. They also make clear that the Maccabees knew the danger of spiritual power clothed in military might. This is why they marked their victory with Hallel, songs of praise and thanksgiving, and instituted eight days of celebration like the eight days of Sukkot. The sons of Mattathias hoped that future generations could celebrate their military victory as a Divine miracle and not fall into the error of believing that “my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17).
We have no record of how Hanukkah was celebrated in the kingdom established after the revolt, but we do know that it descended quickly from the Maccabees’ spiritual heights. I can imagine that the Hasmonean kings sang as many praises to themselves as to God, and sadly their deeds tell us that they learned quickly to rely on the strength of their own hands.
THERE IS another Hanukkah story that we know, one about the light that emerges from the darkest of places. Where does that story originate, and where can it lead?
To the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud, who told the story hundreds of years later, the golden Menorah lies at the center of the plot.
The Maccabees almost faltered in the face of what they found in the liberated Temple. Their whole goal in fighting was to rekindle the lamp of God, but they were unprepared for the extent of the impurity that had taken hold at the heart of Israel. The miracle was that they did not give up, and their victory was made complete by their faith in a saving remnant. Their belief that after decades of culture war, a point of purity remained, producing a tiny jar of oil which burned for eight days.
Thousands of years later, we are still lighting candles to recall the power of their conviction.
Yet there is more to how the rabbis told the Hanukkah story. The Talmud teaches elsewhere (Avoda Zara 8a) that when Adam encountered the first winter, and the days grew gradually dark, he panicked and cried out: “Woe is me! My sin has destroyed the entire world!” When the spring came and the darkness passed, he realized that this was simply the way of the world. In celebration, Adam fixed an eight-day festival for all generations, to mark the return of the light. Thus Hanukkah also becomes the story of the essential human need to believe that even in the darkest times, the light will return.
The Jews have always lived in tension with the world, caught between the pulls of the particular and the universal. It therefore should come as no surprise that the Sages tell Hanukkah stories about both the inextinguishable light of Jewish nature, and the universal human hope that dawn follows the dark. Theirs is a story about the particular type of faith that emerges only from threatening darkness.
It should come as no surprise that the Sages tell Hanukkah stories about both the inextinguishable light of Jewish nature, and the universal human hope that dawn follows the dark
THIS IS just a taste of what Hanukkah offers; there are many more stories we could tell. Is that just an accident? Absolutely not.
As an educator, I know we need many stories of our past in order to connect people to a meaningful present. As a spiritual counselor I have discovered how telling multiple stories about ourselves can reframe the present and shape the future. As the creator of the Jewish Story podcast, I combine these insights into a story that unites diverse perspectives in order to connect past, present and future.
The narrative richness of Hanukkah is not a coincidence or the symptom of cultural fragmentation. It is the very holiness that occurred “in those days at this time.”
So how do we access it today? The holiness of Hanukkah is that everyone can tell its story, and that it is never quite the same. If we can learn to tell it together, perhaps we can spread the light of Hanukkah to the whole world.
HANUKKAH GELT: ‘To the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud, who told the story hundreds of years later, the golden Menorah lies at the center of the plot.’
ANTIOCHUS III is glorified on a coin, British Museum.