The Minor Festivals (Chapter 16)
Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein

Purchase Guide to Jewish Religious Practice

In addition to the major festivals that are prescribed in the Torah, there are several minor festivals of later origin. Since these do not have the sanctity of the major festivals, work is permitted. They are marked by special observances in the synagogue and home, and their meaning is elaborated by additions to the morning and evening liturgy. Chief among these minor festivals are Hanukkah and Purim. Both commemorate great deliverances of the Jewish people.

1. Hanukkah
"Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month of Kislew, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up in the morning, and offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs, citherns, harps, and cymbals . . . And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days . . . Moreover Judah and his brethren, with the whole congregation of Israel, ordained that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Kislew, with mirth and gladness" (I Macc. 4:52–59).

"What is Hanukkah? For the rabbis have taught: Commencing with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislew there are eight days upon which there shall be neither mourning nor fasting. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil that was there. It was when the might of the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and vanquished them that, upon search, only a single cruse of undefiled oil, sealed by the High Priest, was found. In it was oil enough for the needs of a single day. A miracle was wrought and it burned eight days. The next year they ordained these days a holiday with songs and praises" (B. Shab. 21b: for variations of the story, see Pesiqta Rabbati, ed. Meir Ish Shalom, p. 5a; Megilat Ta'anit, ed. Lichtenstein, P. 341).

These passages represent the two strands within the Jewish tradition regarding Hanukkah and its meaning, the one preserved in the Apocrypha, in First and Second Maccabees, and the other in the Talmud.

In the apocryphal books, the story of the people of Israel during the Hellenistic period places special stress on the battles and victories of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family. The war fought by the Hasmoneans is given a religious meaning; it was a struggle against the suppression of Judaism, culminating in the purification and rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. The rededication took eight days; hence the eight days of Hanukkah.

The Talmudic tradition, on the other hand, stresses the miracle of the cruse of oil and mentions the Hasmonean struggle only cursorily. It is remarkable that while the Talmud contains an entire tractate devoted to Purim, Hanukkah is not even mentioned in the Mishnah, (but see site editor's note) The talmudic discussion begins with the question ma'ee chanukah ("What is Hanukkah?"), as if the answer were not very well known.

The early authorities sensed that the Hasmonean victories had already lost their luster by the mishnaic period. Abudraham claims that while the Hasmoneans were initially pious, they sinned by making themselves the rulers of the Jewish state, an office not to be assumed by a priestly family, As Kohanim, the Hasmoneans had no right to take the royal scepter into their hands. Their punishment for this crime was eventually inflicted by Herod, who exterminated virtually all the Hasmoneans who were alive during his reign (Abudraham Hashalem, p. 201).

Rabbi Moses Sofer sees Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi as responsible for the. omission of Hanukkah from the Mishnah, He says that Yehudah Hanassi, who claimed to be a direct descendant of King David, regarded the Hasmoneans as usurpers since they were not members of the Davidic dynasty (Rabinowitz, Hol Umo'ed, p. 65). It has been suggested that there was also a political reason for the fact that the Maccabees are not mentioned in the Mishnah. The Romans, who dominated Judaea during the period when the Mishnah was compiled, would have interpreted any I emphasis on a Jewish war of independence as a sign of rebelliousness and this might have had dire consequences for the entire community (see Kahana, Sifrut Hahistoriah Hayisra'elit, 1:61).

It is apparent that the Hasmonean dynasty had lost its glory by the time of the Mishnah, for the last of the Hasmoneans were guilty of the very things their forebears fought against; as a result, Hanukkah was well-nigh forgotten (Kahana. loc. cit.). In time the festival was reestablished, but now the stress was on the miracles that accompanied the rededication of the Temple, not on the victories of the Maccabees. Hence, when the Talmud asked ma'ee chanukah the answer did not pertain to the Maccabean victories and rededication of the Temple, but rather to the miracle of the cruse of oil (B. Shab. 21 a).

The talmudic tradition has obtained to our own day. The message of Hanukkah is expressed in the prophetic words of the Haftarah of the Sabbath of Hanukkah: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts" (Zech. 4:6). In this spirit Dr. Kaplan says: "The striking feature of the celebration of Hanukkah is the fact that, although the occasion which it commemorates was incidental to a successful war of independence fought against an oppressive foreign ruler, that occasion itself was neither a victory on the field of battle nor a political transaction that gave official recognition to the hard-won independence of Judaea. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem to the God or Israel after it had been deliberately defiled by the Grecian rulers" (Kaplan, The Meaning of God, p. 330).

With the rise of Jewish nationalism, Hanukkah assumed a new importance; again the stress was shifted, this time back to the wars for political independence. The celebrations that heretofore were conducted at home and in the synagogue took the form of public demonstrations. The heroism of the Maccabees in liberating their country from foreign domination became a source of inspiration for nationalist endeavors (see Sefer Hamo'adim, Hanukkah, pp. 189–91, article by Joseph Klausner; Schauss, The Jewish Festivals, p, 230; Waxman, Handbook of Judaism, p. 73; Wahrman, Hagei Yisra'el Umo'adaw, p. 98).

This stress on the Maccabean struggle for independence reached its peak in Israel, where Hanukkah has become a patriotic celebration.

In America the proximity of a Christian holiday, and its prominence on the secular calendar, has influenced the celebration of Hanukkah both positively and negatively. The positive influence expresses itself in the greater and more widespread observance of Hanukkah, Negatively, Hanukkah has become more important to many American Jews than some of the major festivals on the Jewish calendar and is celebrated more and more lavishly in order to compete with the celebration of the non-Jewish holiday.

Site Editor's Note: In fact, the festival is mentioned several times in the Mishnah. For instance, Taanit 2:10 and Moed Katan 3:9 list it as a day on which mourning is forbidden. Bava Kama 6:6 recognizes that most people would light candles outside their homes, with a possible fire hazard resulting. Megillah 3-4 lists the Torah readings for the holiday. Perhaps what Klein means to say is that there is no tractate devoted specifically to Hannukah, and only passing mention of its distinctive Mitzvot. (Rabbi Joshua Heller)

Source: A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein. copyright 1979, 1992, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


Return to JTS Celebrates Hanukkah 5772