The Meaning of the Hanukkah Oil

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Meaning of the Hanukkah Oil

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The meaning of Hanukkah can be greatly enriched by seeing (a) the Rabbis' discomfort with the Hasmonean dynasty (the royal line that sprang from the Maccabees) and (b) their setting forth the story of the Bottle of Oil at the Temple, as a coherent hologram, a case where the medium and the message cohere.

The Rabbis of the Talmud believed they came to an understanding of the Maccabeean revolt with a higher consciousness than the Maccabees themselves, because they had the advantage of an historical vantage point in which they could see how the Maccabeean mindset and power-pattern worked out.

They didn't like it. Although Akiba supported the revolt of Bar Koziva/ Bar Kokhba, most of the rabbis did not — and after the decimation of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael that resulted from the revolt, they liked it even less.

On top of that, they had experienced the "unconstitutional" fusion of priestly and kingly power in the Hasmonean dynasty, and they didn't like that either.

The rabbis realized that their task was to transform the militarism of the Maccabees, without totally rejecting it. The rabbis were a movement for Jewish renewal, not Jewish amnesia. So they kept respect for the Maccabees alive, but muted. They did not canonize the Books of the Maccabees. (The Christians, drawing on Hellenized Jewry's paradoxical admiration for the book, did canonize them — IN GREEK!!!)

And while the Rabbis provided for Torah reading on the eight days of Hanukkah, they did not assign the chanting of even part of Hallel. And the passage on Hanukkah in the Talmud is short, almost a side-thought that occurs in the midst of a discussion of candles for Shabbat: "Mai Hanukkah?" — "What is Hanukkah?" This holiday has no Talmudic tractate of its own (unlike Purim).

What the Rabbis DID contribute to Hanukkah was a story that was essentially about their own role.

In that story, AFTER a military victory that "should" (by the military assumptions of Maccabeean thinking) have made everything easy, it turns out to be not so easy.

The Temple cannot be dedicated in any sensible way because there is not enough oil to last till newly consecrated oil can be prepared.

So — in the story told by the Rabbis — the Temple-dedicators act as the Maccabees had acted in the guerrilla military sphere — "do it now!" —
Instead of waiting (as would have been normally prudent) to consecrate new oil so the rededication of the Temple could be done right, they went ahead impetuously to make new light in the face of darkness (as the Maccabees had rushed ahead to make new political & military hope in the face of despair).

So IN A DIFFERENT SPHERE OF LIFE the temple-dedicators — in the story — acted with Maccabeean courage & hopefulness.

To the Rabbis, it was crucial BOTH to call for courage and hope, and to do so in a sphere other than military resistance, which they now viewed as hopeless and dangerous and self-destructive.

So the story the rabbis told about the Light was the story of the Rabbis themselves — absorbing that the Maccabees' military victory had saved the nation, but that getting stuck there would be self-destructive.

They needed to bring the Higher Consciousness of courage for Enlightenment into the people's arsenal of spiritual "weaponry."

As for why Hanukkah altogether -- I think the history strongly hints it is rooted in "solstice-festival" envy, a wonderful joke on those who complain today that its observance is too much based on "Christmas-envy." For that view, you can see the relevant chapter in my book Seasons of Our Joy.

Shalom, Arthur

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