Part II -- The Strange Career of Hanukkah Itself

We have looked at the pre-history of Light in Torah and its appearance before hanukkah began. To see that essay on the spirituality of Light, see the lead story on the left-hand column of  <>. Now the prehistory becomes an introction. Now let us turn to the Festival of Lights-- Part II of this essay on the strange career of Hanukkah.

In the 25th of the lunar month Kislev “in the year 145 of the Greek era” (i.e., 167 BCE), the forces of Antiochus, king of the Hellenistic successor-state Syria, offered sacrifices on an altar that had been set up above the Jewish altar to YHWH in the Jerusalem Temple (I Macc.1:59). This offering climaxed a struggle between Hellenized and anti-Hellenist Jews, and began a series of bloody attacks on Jewish families that had circumcised their boy-children, part of a campaign to shatter biblical Judaism along with all the other indigenous religions of the Eastern Mediterranean region and replace them with a Hellenistic pattern.

Why did the new sacrifices and the anti-Judaism campaign explode then? The Maccabean record does not propose a reason. It is possible that the date was not accidental but fit into a religious focus on the darkest time of the year. For we do know that the date itself in the Jewish lunar moonth comes as the moon is disappearing from public view, and in the Northern Hemisphere the sun is close to solstice, its darkest time.

 And we do know that in parts of the region from ancient Israel to Iran, in Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic empire, a religion flourished that celebrated the sun=god Mithra, who was said to have been born on the 25th of the solstice month. So perhaps – we cannot be sure – the 25th of Kiislev had real religious signicanace to those who dedicated the Temple to  their own sun-god religion of light reborn in the solstice.

For three years, some Jews who supported biblical Israel's Temple Judaism waged a furious guerilla war against Antiochus’ Syrian-Greek empire and its many Jewish sympathizers. The guerilla bands won, and on the 25th of Kislev three years later they were able to rededicate the Temple to the God of biblical Israel.. According to II Maccabees 10: 1-11 -- 

 They proclaimed an eight-day festival to honor Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, which they had been unable to observe during the war, with all its joyful waving of etrog fruit and palm branches. No mention of an eight-day miracle of olive oil or of lights lit as the moon and sun darkened and then reawakened. They decreed that the whole people should observe these eight days every year, with “hymns to the One who had so triumphantly achieved the purification of his own Temple.”

 But political disaster, the triumph of a new kind of Judaism led by rabbis, and a continuing popular religious celebration of Light transformed the eight-day festival.

 The Roman Empire –- far stronger than Antioches had ever been – destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, and shattered the Jewish population in the Land of Israel after defeating a rebellion in 135 CE led by Bar Kochba. A huge proportion of the Jews were banished and sold as slaves. The surviving rabbis were unwilling to celebrate the Maccabean rebels for fear that path would lead to another Bar Kochba disaster.  But they had a solstice-time festival to deal with. So the Talmudic record of their decisions begins, “Mah zot Hanukkah”  --  What is this Hanukkah?” as if they can barely remember. While recognizing but limiting celebration of the Macccabean victory, they set forth a story of a miracle: Olive oil that should have given light for only one day in the Temple Menorah but lasted for eight days.

 God’s miracle, not the Maccabees’ rebellion, justified lighting lamps for an eight-day festival. And the rabbis made Zechariah’s visions the prophetic teaching of the Shabbat of Hanukkah, climaxing in “Not by might and not by power but by My Breathing Spirit,’ says the Infinite Breath of Life.”

 And by doing this they also may have brought into Jewish practice a popular custom of lighting lamps as the dark of moon and sun gave way to new light as the New Moon rose and the sun grew stronger during the eight-day festival. A remnant of Mithra, grown Jewish? Perhaps.

Interestingly, a later version of Mithraism flourished in the City of Rome itself. It may have been because Mithraism and its god-birthday of December 25 was so popular that in the fourth century of the Christian era, Christian churches began to adopt the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus, destined to become the Son of God.

 And so Hanukkah persisted through almost two millennia, until about 1900 CE. Then three factors disrupted the rabbinic synthesis.

 One was the breakdown of many ghetto walls in Western Europe and America. Those walls had kept Christians with their solar-calendar festival of December 25 separated from Jews with their lunar-solar calendar festival beginning 25 Kislev. As many ghetto walls dissol Jewish envy of Christmas emerged. The Christian custom of gift-giving for Christmas was given great power by the enormous growth of commercial consumerism, and Hanukkah as well became a beacon for buying.

 And the emergence and growth of political Zionism undercut the rabbinic caution about military solutions to Jewish disempowrment. The Maccabees became heroes, not questionable guides into possible disaster, and Zionist songs changed references to the spiritual  power of God to the politico-military power of the people armed. (For Rabbi David Seidenberg’s comments on the songs, see

 Now we face the possibility of another great change in Hanukkah.  Jewish youth alongside the youth of other communities are increasingly worried about the threat to their future through global scorching and the climate crisis. They are increasingly critical of the whole machinery of consumer commercialism and dependence on burning fossil fuels. Many are critical of what they see as Israeli militarism. So a different aspect of Hanukkah comes forward.

That aspect is seeing the legend of the eight days’ usefulness of one day’s olive oil as a call not to wait for God’s miracle but to take human action to conserve energy and turn to new sources of renewable energy to heal God’s Earth, not destroy it. Some also see Zechariah’s vision of the tiny cyber-forest of olive trees feeding oil directly into the tree-shaped Light-bearing Menorah as a call to covenant between sacred human action and other sacred life-forms.

 So perhaps Hanukkah begins to become a new practice for uniting physical activism, emotional empathy, ecological intellect, and awe-inspired Spirit –- the Four Worlds –- into One Breath that unites all life.


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