Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ma'i Chanukah?

Why is Chanukah celebrated for eight nights?

Why do we light eight-branch candelabra?

In looking at three different texts about the “history” of Chanukah, we can read three different answers.

First, from the book of II Maccabees, the Chanukah celebration is described as being modeled after Sukkot:

They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.  7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.  8 They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year (2 Maccabees 10:6-8).

When I read this I picture the exhausted Jewish troops discussing their need for a victory party and debating how they would celebrate.  The most recent holiday before the dedication would have been Sukkot, the “festival of booths.”  So they would have been disappointed in how they had to celebrate two months prior.  Still reminiscing about how Sukkot could have been or would have been if the Temple was under their control, they decided to model their rededication festivities after Sukkot.  Makes a lot of sense!

About 100 years later or more, the Jewish historian Josephus explains the same phenomenon.  He explains that when the Maccabees were surveying the damage done to the Temple after the war, they found eight spears sticking out of the ground, four on either side of the entrance to the Holy of Holies.  That was clearly a sign that they should celebrate their dedication for eight days.

Another 400 years or so later, the Talmud explains that

When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean Dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil, which they lay with the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp for eight days (Shabbat 21b).

This is the answer we all come up with when we think about the miracle of Chanukah, but it wasn’t written about until several hundred years after the Maccabean revolt!  According to the principal of Ockham’s razor, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be true.  So which is simpler: that a one-day cruse of oil lasted eight days or that a group of people wanted to relive a holiday they enjoyed a lot?  Probably the latter.

But more important than trying to figure out what really happened over 2000 years ago is the realization what the development of our ancient texts teaches us.  The ragtag group of warrior priests winning the battles over the Syrian Greeks was a miracle.  It was amazing that they were able to come to some sort of victory against all odds.  That was truly something to celebrate.  Perhaps as the years went on they wanted to attribute the victory more to God and less to the guerrilla warriors.  That’s terrific, and makes for a great story.  So they changed the miracle from the battlefield to the candle light.  That’s ok, because Judaism is all about taking the needs of the day and reacting to them as a people.  The rabbis of the Talmud created such a powerful story that we still teach it to our children today. 

But no matter how amazing their stories are, the rabbis never teach us that their way is the final word.  They instead teach us that it is the responsibility of learned Jews to notice the miracles of our day.  We might not see a pillar of smoke and fire or a flaming chariot with fiery horses, but we will see a flower blooming.  We will connect with a friend, and notice the beauty in the world around us.  These are all miracles, and they should be noted as nothing less.  It is up to us to tell the stories of the miracles we see every day.

So this week I will try to point out one miracle for each of the eight days of Chanukah.  As the first day draws to a close, I remember the latkes my family and I ate last night.  To me it was nothing short of a miracle that my wife (very afraid of trying new things) thought the latkes with beets in them were amazing.  (She supposedly doesn’t even like beets!)  So today’s miracle is for new things: may we all enjoy them this Chanukah!

Chag Urim Sameach!

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