In this special Study, Hanukkah: Fact and Fiction, Nehemia Gordon explains that the real story of Hannukah, where the Rabbinic tradition of lighting candles for eight days comes from, and how the victory should be celebrated today.
The Seleucid Greek Jewish Persecution
The miracle of Hanukkah was born in the flames of the Seleucid Greek persecution of the Jews. This began three years before the first Hanukkah when the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, issued a series of decrees designed to eradicate the Jewish faith. The first round of anti-Jewish decrees went into force on the 3rd day of Tishrei in the year 168 BCE. These decrees are recorded in a 1st century CE document called "The Scroll of Fasting" (Megillat Ta'anit) which says:
"on the third of Tishrei... the evil Greek kingdom decreed eradication of Israel saying to them, 'deny the Kingdom of heaven' and say 'we have no portion with the God of Israel' and do not mention the name of the God of heaven on your mouths." Megillat Ta'anit, Tishrei
These initial decrees were followed with a prohibition against practicing circumcision and observing the Sabbath. Three months later, on the 25th day of Kislev, the Greeks re-dedicated the Jerusalem Temple as a sanctuary to the sun-god Apollo, sacrificing pigs on the altar. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, and it led to a Jewish uprising.
After three years of fighting, the Maccabees liberated the Temple, tore down the defiled altar, and on the third anniversary of its defilement dedicated a new one. To this day, the full name of the holiday is Hanukkat Ha-Mizbe'ach, Dedication of the Altar, in memory of this event. The real miracle of Hanukkah is the victory of a band of ill-equipped and untrained farmers and priests defeating a world super-power that tried to force them to eat pig, give up circumcision and the Sabbath, and forbade them to utter the name of our heavenly Father Yehovah.
Three hundred years after that first Hanukkah, the Roman emperor Hadrian re-instituted the anti-Jewish decrees. One Jewish leader, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was burned in the Roman fires for defying these decrees. According to the Talmud, he was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive "because he used to pronounce the name the way it is written" (Avodah Zarah 17b-18a). This rabbi was only one of thousands martyred by the Romans for publicly proclaiming the name of our heavenly Father "Yehovah"!
Hanukkah as a Day of Joy
The festival of Hanukkah is not commanded in the Tanach but there is nothing inherently wrong with it as long as you can separate fact from fiction. In Biblical terms, Hanukkah would be classified as a Yom Simchah, a day of joy. Numbers chapter 10 verse 10 talks about blowing the silver trumpets "on your days of joy, on your appointed times, and on your new moons". In modern times, the Jewish People observe a number of Days of Joy such as Jerusalem Day in commemoration of the liberation of the Holy City in 1967 and Independence Day in memory of Israel surviving an invasion by several Arab armies in 1948-1949. I celebrate these Days of Joy every year to give honor to the miracles that our Creator bestowed upon us in these two historic events.
Up until the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE the Jewish People observed dozens of days of joy in honor of great events that took place in that period. These days of joy are listed in the aforementioned 1st century document Megillat Ta'anit, the Scroll of Fasting. The scroll consists of a list of dates and associated events that were observed as national days of joy. The purpose of the scroll was to instruct people when not to fast. Fasting is associated with mourning and sadness and it would not be appropriate to fast on a day of joy. The most important day of joy listed in Megillat Ta'anit was Nicanor Day, which commemorated the decisive battle between Judah the Maccabee and the Seleucid Greek general Nicanor on the 13th of Adar in 161 BCE. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, all of the days of joy were abolished with the sole exception of the 8 days of Hanukkah.
The Hanukkah “Miracle”
Today, Hanukkah is best known as a festival commemorating a miracle that supposedly happened in 165 BCE, when the Maccabees liberated the Temple from the Seleucid Greeks. According to the well-known story, the victorious Maccabees searched the Temple looking for olive oil to use in the Menorah, the candelabrum that according to Exodus 27:20-21 must be lit every day. People had been killed in the liberation of the Temple and therefore all its contents were deemed ritually impure. The Maccabees desperately searched for a vial of oil with its seal intact because the seal would shield it from ritual impurity of the dead. This is in accordance with Numbers 19:15,
"And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean."
According to the story, the Maccabees only found a single vial of oil with the seal intact and immediately lit the Menorah with this single dose of oil. Ritual purification from the dead is a seven-day process (Numbers 19) so they could not work on producing a new batch of pure oil until the eighth day. The miracle, we are told, was that the single vial of oil burned for eight days instead of one, giving the Maccabees time to prepare a new batch of ritually pure oil.
The problem with this wonderful miracle is that it never happened. It is a pure work of fiction invented after the Temple was destroyed. It is not mentioned in a single source that pre-dates the Destruction of the Temple. To this day, the full name of the holiday of Hanukkah (Dedication) is Hanukkat Ha-Mizbe'ach, which means "Dedication of the Altar". After the Romans destroyed the altar in 70 CE, the rabbis invented the miracle of the oil to give new significance to this festival.
As its name implies, the original significance of Hanukkah was the dedication of the altar in the year 165 BCE. The Seleucid Greeks had desecrated the altar in the Temple by sacrificing a pig on it to the sun-god Apollo. They did this on the 25th of Kislev in the year 168 BCE. After liberating the Temple in 165 BCE, the Maccabbees tore down the defiled altar and built a new one. They dedicated this new altar on the 25th of Kislev, three years to the day after it was desecrated by the Greeks.
Why Eight Days of Hankkuah
The historical events surrounding Hanukkah are described in two historical works called 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, written shortly after the events took place. Both of these books describe the events in excruciating detail. Both books tell the story of the liberation of the Temple but neither says a single word about the alleged miracle of the oil. Instead they give three reasons for celebrating Hanukkah for eight days. The first reason was a miracle that repeated itself in the days of Moses and Solomon, both times associated with eight days of dedication. When Moses dedicated Aaron and his sons as priests in the desert, the ceremony lasted eight days. On the eighth and final day of the dedication, a fire came out of heaven and consumed the sacrifices that Aaron and his sons offered on the altar (Lev 9:1, 24). This miracle happened again when Solomon dedicated his altar for eight days (2Chr 7:1, 9). The book of 2 Maccabees explicitly mentions this as the reason for eight days of Hanukkah.
The second reason for eight days was as a sort of "Second Sukkot". In Numbers 9 it says that if someone fails to partake of the Passover sacrifice in the First Month they can observe a Second Passover in the Second Month. The Maccabees had failed to observe Sukkot while they were fighting the Greeks. As soon as they liberated the Temple, they followed the example of Numbers 9 and made up for this with a Second Sukkot, as 2 Maccabees explains:
"And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. " (10:6)
The book of 2 Maccabees gives a third, and rather bizarre reason, for the festival of Hanukkah. Apparently this festival existed in some form or another going back to the time of Nehemiah when it was known as "The Feast of Fire". 2 Maccabees explains that when Nehemiah first offered sacrifices on his altar he expected a fire to come down from heaven just as it had in the time of Moses and Solomon. The same miracle also happened when David first offered sacrifices on his altar (1Chr 21:26) and when Elijah rebuilt the altar on Mount Carmel in his challenge to the priests of Baal (1Ki 18:38). Naturally when no fire materialized, Nehemiah was extremely disappointed. There was a legend that the priests of the 1st Temple hid the last burning embers of Solomon's altar in a cave. Nehemiah sent priests to retrieve it, but all they found after seventy years was "thick liquid". They collected this thick oil and poured it on the altar but nothing happened. Then suddenly it ignited, as 2 Maccabees explains:
"When this was done and some time had passed and the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled." (1:22).
What was the oil that spontaneously ignited when exposed to sun light? 2 Maccabees explains:
'Nehemiah and his associates called this "nephthar," which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha.' (1:36).
Naphtha was a well-known naturally occurring petroleum product, but it did not normally ignite when exposed to light. This oil spontaneously igniting when exposed to sun light gave birth to the "The Feast of Fire".
Here's the really important thing. The two books of Maccabees give these three reasons for Hanukkah: 1) Moses and Solomon's eight-day dedications, 2) Second Sukkot, and 3) Nehemiah's "Festival of Fire". Not a single word about the miracle of oil burning for eight days! Josephus also talks about Hanukkah and refers to it as the "Festival of Lights" but says nothing about the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. Instead he says:
"we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival." (Josephus, Antiquities 12:325)
If the Festival of Lights really had something to do with eight days of miraculous oil, wouldn't Josephus say this? He obviously was unaware of this reason for the festival. The story of the eight days of miraculous oil is also missing from the Scroll of Fasting, that 1st century CE document that lists all the days of joy of the Jews of that time. The first time this miracle is ever mentioned is in the Babylonian Talmud (Sabbath 21b) in a section written over three hundred years after the events.
Should Hanukkah be Celebrated
If you choose to celebrate Hanukkah, avoid the part that adds to God's Torah. Specifically, the blessing over the candles which thanks God for commanding us to light the candles, something He never commanded. This is a violation of Deuteronomy 4:2 which says:
"Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of Yehovah your God which I command you."
The same commandment is reiterated in Deuteronomy 12:32 [13:1] and a third time in Proverbs 30:6:
"Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar."
Also, be sure to separate fact from fiction. Hanukkah means "dedication". The full name of the holiday is Channukat Hamizbe'ach, Dedication of the Altar. The Maccabees had to rededicate the Temple altar that had been desecrated by the Seleucid Greeks. They celebrated this dedication for 8 days in memory of the 8 days that both Moses and Solomon celebrated at the dedication of the Tabernacle and First Temple. The alleged miracle of 8 days of oil was not originally part of Hanukkah. It is not mentioned in the two books of Maccabees written shortly after the events. It was only made up after the altar was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, to give the holiday new purpose. The real miracle of Hanukkah is the victory of a band of ill-equipped and untrained farmers and priests defeating a world super-power that had tried to force them to eat pig and give up circumcision and the Sabbath.
As I look around Jerusalem at the Hanukkah lamps peaking out of windows, and decorating doorways, I remember all those who died in centuries past in the fires of persecution for living by the word of God and proclaiming His holy name. I am thankful that today, despite social pressures and traditions, I am allowed to proclaim His name without fear of death.