Drawing by Zalman Kleiman
Descartes is sitting in a bar, having a drink. The bartender asks him if he would like another. "I think not," he says, and vanishes in a puff of logic.
The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the extraordinary victory of the Maccabees, a relatively small and dedicated force of fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire.
This story takes us back 2,144 years ago, to the year 138 B.C.E., some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple. Israel was then under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great. The
Syrian-Greek ruler of the time, Antiochus Epiphanes (meaning "the beloved one of the gods"), was determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, systematically desecrated Jerusalem's holy sites, barbarically executed Jews who refused to worship his pagan gods and subjected young Jewish women to rape. This was tyranny on a grand scale. Sadly, he was helped in this endeavor by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who assisted him in banning the observance of the mitzvos and turning the Temple into an interdenominational house worshipping an array of Greek gods.
To put it into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have died. Its daughter religions — Christianity and Islam — would have never emerged on the world arena.
But a small group of Jews, led by the elderly priest Matityahu and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Hanukkah prayers, a victory for the weak against the strong, and the few against the many. Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Hanukkah means "rededication."
This was a remarkable event and an extraordinary triumph. We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their G-d and their Torah to be reduced to the dustbin of history by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.
The Talmudic account
Yet astonishingly, the Talmud, the classical text of Jewish law and literature, gives us a very different perspective on the Hanukkah festival.
"What is Hanukkah?" asks the Talmud (1). The answer given is this:
"When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest — enough to light the menorah (candelabra) for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d."
So, according to the Talmud, the festival of Hanukkah is less about the military victory of a small band of Jews against one of the mightiest armies on earth, and more about the miracle of the oil. The Talmud makes only a passing reference to the military victory ("when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious"), and focuses exclusively on the story with the oil, as if this were the only significant event commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah.
Why the fuss about a cruse of oil?
This is strange. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of minor significance relative to the military victory. Besides the fact that this was a miracle that occurred behind the closed doors of the Temple with only a few priests as witnesses, it involved a religious symbol without any implications on life, death or liberty. If the Jews had been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today. If the oil had not burned for eight days, who would take notice? Would the latkes today taste any different?
Let us grease the question with a contemporary touch.
Imagine that after the extraordinary Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War, during which eight Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan and Algeria) were determined to exterminate Israel and its three million Jews, a candle located in a
central Jerusalem synagogue would have burned for six days. Sure, it would have added a nice sentimental touch to the euphoria of Israel's salvation, but would this, rather than the deliverance of millions of Jews from a second holocaust, been the cause for celebration? Would this detail even make the front page or the lead story of the media?
Similarly, the burning of the Temple candelabra for eight days was, no doubt, a heartwarming follow-up to a great victory. It was a demonstrative sign that G-d cherished the sacrifice of His children and had rewarded them with an astounding miracle. But it is clear that this was merely the icing on the cake, the crowning touch to a historical and momentous victory on the battlefield that preserved Jews and Judaism. Yet the Talmud turns this minor detail into the decisive motif for the Hanukkah celebration?
What is more, the miracle with the oil is the only element of the Hanukkah events that we commemorate to this very day. We have no costume or ritual commemorating a miraculous triumph. What we do have is the kindling of a menorah for eight days, commemorating the fact that the oil in the Temple menorah lasted for eight days. Why?
The core of Jewish history
The answer allows us to appreciate the essential ingredient that has defined 4,000 years of Jewish history. The military victory was extraordinary indeed; yet it didn't last. Just 210 years after Hanukkah, in 68 C.E., the Temple was destroyed, this time by the Romans. Jerusalem was plundered, Israel was decimated and the Jewish people exiled. It was the beginning of a period of Jewish powerlessness, dispersion and persecution that has lasted almost two millennia. In 1948 we witnessed the birth of the modern State of Israel and the splendid restoration of much lost Jewish dignity and might, but we are still in exile, mentally as much as physically.
Unfortunately, the political and military victory of Hanukkah did not last. What lasted was the spiritual miracle — the Jewish faith which, like the oil, was inextinguishable.
Strength founded on military power alone is temporary. It may endure for long periods, but ultimately, it will be defeated by a greater power. On the other hand, strength founded on moral courage, on spiritual light and on inner human dignity, can never be destroyed.
The sages who instituted the Hanukkah holiday keenly understood this truth. With their eyes focused on eternity, the rabbis of the Second Temple era grasped that the timeless core of Hanukkah was not the victory on the battlefield alone, but rather that the military triumph led to the rekindling of the sacred light and the moral torch. Sure, the military victory was an enormously significant event for which we are deeply grateful. Yet what makes Hanukkah a vibrant and heart-stirring holiday 2,100 years later in Los Angeles, London, Paris, Melbourne, Caracas, Casablanca, Johannesburg, on the Wall of China, in the Kremlin, and, of course, Jerusalem, is the story of a little cruse of oil that would not cease casting its brightness even in the darkest of nights and among the mightiest of winds.
For more than two millennia, with the onset of the Hanukkah holiday, Jewish families gathered around their candelabras, their children's faces aglow with timeless joy. As they gazed at the dancing flames they could hear the flickering candles sharing their story, a story with a penetrating punch line: The flame of Jewish faith, the flame of Torah, the flame of Mitzvos, the torch of morality and the light of redemption would never be extinguished.
Imperial Greece and Rome have long since disappeared. Civilizations built on power never last. Those built on care for the powerless never die. What matters in the long run is not only political, military or economic strength but are we managing to ignite the flame of the human spirit.
(This article is based on a Hanukkah address delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Hanukkah 5726, 1965 (2)).
1. Talmud, Shabbat 21b. See Rambam Laws of Chanukkah for his rendition of the meaning of the holiday. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 10 Chanukah for a discussion of these two perspectives.
2. Likkutei Sichot, vol. 25 pp. 235-242.
My thanks to Rabbi Dov Greenberg (director of Chabad at Stanford University) for his contribution to this article. My thanks also to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.