Every year in December (starting the evening of December 6 this year), Jewish people throughout the world, celebrate the eight day holiday of Hanukah. If you ask any Jew to tell you how Hanukah began, or why Jews celebrate this festival for eight days, they will relate this story.
Once a Syrian Greek king polluted the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by erecting a statue in it. Then, after more than three years of fighting, Judah the Maccabee and his warriors recaptured the holy Temple in Jerusalem, and began to purify it.
But all the pure olive oil for the lamp that should burn continuously had been polluted except for one little jar of oil that miraculously burned for eight days.
This Hanukah story is about two kinds of battle; the physical struggle against others (political and sometimes military); and the spiritual struggle within ourselves to trust in God (the oil).
When the Maccabees recaptured and rededicated (Hanukah) the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 b.c.e. the physical struggle for religious freedom and independence did not end. It went on for another 25 years until full independence was attained.
But the spiritual struggle (oil) miraculously lasted only for eight days.
Look at the oldest written sources. About four or five decades after the first Hanukah, two books were written about the Maccabean Wars and the rededication (Hanukah) of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The First Book of Maccabees, compiled sometime before 130 b.c.e., was originally written in Hebrew. Today all we have is an early Greek translation. Its intended audience was the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. It describes the recapture of the Jerusalem Temple, its purification and rededication (Hanukah).
“They also made new sacred vessels, and they brought the lamp stand … into the Temple. They burned incense on the altar and lit the lights on the lamp stand, and the Temple was filled with light.… For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar. … Then Judah, his brothers and the entire community of Israel decreed that the days of rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at this same time every year beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days. (First Maccabees 4:49-59)
This first ancient source does not mention the “little jar of oil” miracle. At that time, the miracle was the victory itself, that God had enabled the Jews in Israel to physically and militarily defeat the far mightier Syrian Greek Empire.
The Second Book of Maccabees, was compiled a decade or two after First Maccabees, and covers most of the same period, but was written in Greek for the Jewish community outside the land of Israel. That Jewish community, whose primary language was Greek, was concentrated largely in the bustling port city of Alexandria in Egypt.
The purpose of Second Maccabees, clearly stated in the two letters that open the book, is to urge the Jews of Alexandria to adopt this new festival. The author states that his source for the history of the Maccabean war was a (now lost) larger five-volume history by one Jason of Cyrene.
Second Maccabees describes the purification of the Temple, adding significant information that is not found in First Maccabees: “Judah the Maccabee and his men, under the Lord’s leadership, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. … After purifying the Temple, they built a new altar; made a new fire; … offered sacrifices and incense … and lit the lamps. … On the anniversary of the very same day (three years later) on which the Temple had been defiled, the 25th of Kislev, they now purified the Temple.
“They celebrated joyfully for eight days, just as on Hajj Sukkot, knowing that (only two months before) on Hajj Sukkot (google my article on the Biblical holiday of Hajj Sukkot) they had spent the festival (hiding) like wild animals in the mountains and caves. That is why they now came carrying palm fronds and fruit, and singing hymns of praise to God, who had given them the victory that brought about the purification of His Temple.
“By a vote of the community they decreed that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate these festival days every year. (Second Maccabees 10:1-8)
The story of the small jar of oil that lasted much longer than anyone expected, is not mentioned in the early sources because they focus on the physical military battle to liberate the Jerusalem temple from Greek rule and restore Jewish political independence.
However, two and a half centuries later, the Holy Temple and Jerusalem itself were in ruins. In the generations following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 c.e. the Jewish people could have despaired, and become discouraged and depressed.
They might even have lost faith in God when the Romans built a new pagan city on Jerusalem’s ruins; with a Roman Temple filled with statues of Roman Gods in its center..
So the rabbis started emphasizing the spiritual internal battle needed for Jewish survival. Everyone, even small children, need to believe in a better future. All of us need to avoid negativeness. Everyone needs to have faith and trust in God.
As the Rabbis saw it, when the Maccabees realized that it would take a week or more to produce the ritually pure olive oil needed for the lamp that must burn continually before the (Sakina) Holy Ark, most of them wanted to delay the Hanukah celebration because they feared disappointing and dismaying their supporters if the light went out and spoiled the eight day celebration.
Only a minority led by a young child, favored using the little jar of oil that they had found, and trusting that somehow it would be enough. As the rabbis expressed it in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b): “Why Hanukkah? Our rabbis taught: ‘On the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukkah on which mourning and fasting are forbidden.
“For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil; and when the Maccabees prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one jar of oil with the official seal of the High Priest, but which was only enough for one day’s lighting.
“Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were decreed a festival with the recital of Psalms and thanksgiving.”
Notice that the miracle is two fold. That the oil lasted is a physical miracle. That they lit it, knowing it couldn’t last, is the spiritual miracle. To this day we still use one candle to ignite all the other Hanukah candles.
And to this day we acknowledge that the greater spiritual jihad is more important than the lesser military jihad because the Jewish people are still here; long after both the Greeks and the Romans have disappeared.
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