In honour of Christopher Hitchens, whose deliciously scathing attack on Hanukkah deserves to be posted and posted again, and in honour of this evening actually being the first night of Hanukkah, I thought that I might share some of the earlier stories and laws of the festival that has come to be seen as the Jewish Christmas.
For a start, and as I imagine that most people know already, Hanukkah is nowhere mentioned within the Hebrew Bible. Whether or not it appears within Christian Bibles depends entirely upon the denomination of Christianity: the two books of Maccabees, while make passing allusion to the festival, are deuterocanonical to Catholics and apocryphal to (almost) everybody else.
The following is the relevant passage in 1 Maccabees (4:36-59), dated to within the last quarter of the 2nd century (ie: 125-100) BCE. I have emphasised those parts of it that might resonate with traditional perspectives on the festival:
But Judas and his brethren said: ‘Behold, our enemies are discomfited; let us go up to cleanse the Holy Place, and re-dedicate it. And all the army was gathered together, and they went unto mount Sion. And they saw our sanctuary laid desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest or upon one of the mountains, and the chambers (of the priests) pulled down; and they rent their garments, and made great lamentation, and put ashes on their heads; and they fell on their faces to the ground, and they blew the solemn blasts upon the trumpets, and cried unto heaven…
So they pulled down the altar, and laid down the stones in the mountain of the House, in a convenient place, until a prophet should come and decide (as to what should be done) concerning them. And they took whole stones according to the Law, and built a new altar after the fashion of the former (one); and they built the Holy Place, and the inner parts of the house, and hallowed the courts. And they made the holy vessels new, and they brought the candlestick in order to give light in the temple. And they set loaves upon the table, and hung up the veils, and finished all the works which they had undertaken.
And they rose up early in the morning on the twenty-fifth (day) of the ninth month, which is the month Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, and offered sacrifice according to the Law, upon the new altar of burnt offerings which they had made. At the corresponding time (of the month) and on the (corresponding) day on which the Gentiles had profaned it, on that day was it dedicated afresh, with songs and harps and lutes, and with cymbals. And all the people fell upon their faces, and worshipped, and gave praise, (looking up) unto heaven, to him who had prospered them. And they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed a sacrifice of deliverance and praise… And Judas and his brethren and the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their seasons year by year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth (day) of the month Chislev, with gladness and joy.
- R.H. Charles (ed. and trans.), The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume One: Apocrypha (Berkely: The Apocryphile Press, 2004), 81-82 – parentheses in the original; emphasis mine
This reference, while it might not exactly align with what we learn in Hebrew School, is not too far off. There is a reference to the name of the festival (Hanukkah meaning “dedication”), to the fact that it begins on the 25th of Kislev, the fact that it lasts for eight days, and the fact that it has something (something) to do with the repurification of the altar. There is no reference to the miracle of the oil.
There is a reference to the festival in 2 Maccabees as well but, like much of 2 Maccabees, it is rather strange. The text opens with a letter, containing an injunction to commemorate Hanukkah in Kislev, but refers to it as the festival as Sukkot instead, which is in the month of Tishrei. The second letter makes clear that we are speaking of the festival of the purification of the temple and that it should be celebrated on the 25th of Kislev, but it doesn’t name the festival, and it relates it to an event in the life of Nehemiah: approximately three hundred years before the Maccabees. The second chapter notes that Solomon had celebrated his dedication of the temple for eight days as well, so it is not surprising that certain scholars see the origin of this festival in a winter solstice that greatly predated the events to which it is usually attached.
Josephus mentions Hanukkah as well, but as with much of what Josephus says it’s unclear precisely what his sources are. For the most part, he relates a story not dissimilar from what we find in 1 Maccabees, but he adds a curious detail:
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon… They were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of the temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this 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.
- Antiquities 7.7.323-325 (trans. W. Whiston)
That Josephus should have known of a tradition that Hannukah was in some way a “festival of lights”, but not known of any custom as regarded the actual kindling of candles, or of any miracle that related to the kindling of a lamp, is astonishing – and says much as regards what may be the late development of those traditions. To find them stated explicitly, we need to turn to the rabbinic literature next, and when we do we are hit with a resounding silence.
The following is the sum total of all references to the festival of Hanukkah within the Mishna, and I hope it explains everything you ever wanted to know about the festival:
Mishna, Tractate Bikkurim 1:6
הקונה שני אילנות בתוך של חברו מביא ואינו קורא רבי מאיר אומר מביא וקורא יבש המעין נקצץ האילן מביא ואינו קורא רבי יהודה אומר מביא וקורא מעצרת ועד החג מביא וקורא מן החג ועד חנכה מביא ואינו קורא רבי יהודה בן בתירא אומר מביא וקורא
One who purchases two trees from another’s [field], must bring [the first fruits to the priest], but he does not recite [the traditional formula, found in Deuteronomy 26:3, 5-10).
Rabbi Meir says, he brings them and he recites it.
Should the spring dry up or the tree be chopped down, he must bring [the first fruits to the priest], but he does not recite [the traditional formula].
Rabbi Yehuda says, he brings them and he recites it.
From the reaping [ie: from Shavuot] until the festival [ie: until Sukkot], he brings [the first fruits to the priest] and he recites [the traditional formula], but from the festival [of Sukkot] until Hanukkah he brings [the first fruits to the priest] but he does not recite [the traditional formula].
Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira says, he brings them and he recites it.
Mishna, Tractate Rosh HaShanah 1:3
על ששה חדשים השלוחים יוצאין על ניסן מפני הפסח על אב מפני התענית על אלול מפני ראש השנה על תשרי מפני תקנת המועדות על כסלו מפני חנכה ועל עדר מפני הפורים וכשהיה בית המקדש קים יוצאין אף על איר מפני פסח קטן
There are six months on which emissaries would go out [in order to alert distant communities as to the sighting of the new moon]:
On Nisan, because of Pesach;
On Av, because of the fast [ie: Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av];
On Elul, because of Rosh haShana [which occurs on the very first day of the following month];
On Tishrei, in order to align the festivals [of Yom Kippur, presumably, and Sukkot];
On Kislev, because of Hanukkah;
On Adar, because of the Purim.
And, when the temple existed, they would also go out on Iyyar, because of Minor Pesach (ie: the second Pesach, which is referred to in Numbers 9:10-11).
Mishna, Tractate Taanit 2:10
אין גוזרין תענית על הצבור בראש חדש בחנכה ובפורים ואם התחילו אין מפסיקין דברי רבן גמליאל אמר רבי מאיר אף על פי שאמר רבן גמליאל אין מפסיקין מודה היה שאין משלימין וכן תשעה באב שחל להיות בערב שבת
One may not establish a communal fast on the first of the month, on Hanukkah or on Purim, but if they began [fasting already], they may not interrupt it: the opinion of Rabban Gamliel.
Rabbi Meir says that even though Rabban Gamliel said that one may not interrupt it, he agrees that one may not complete it either [but that he must break his fast, one presumes, close to the hour at which it would otherwise be scheduled to end].
This is also the case with Tisha b’Av that falls on Erev Shabbat [- an unfortunate calendrical coincidence, which no longer occurs with the established calendars currently in use].
Mishna, Tractate Megillah 3:4
ראש חדש אדר שחל להיות בשבת קורין בפרשת שקלים חל להיות בתוך השבת מקדימין לשעבר ומפסיקין לשבת אחרת בשניה זכור בשלישית פרה אדמה ברביעית החדש הזה לכם בחמישית חוזרין לכסדרן לכל מפסיקין בראשי חדשים בחנכה ובפורים בתעניות ובמעמדות וביום הכפורים
If the first day of Adar falls on a Shabbat, one reads the section [known as] Sheqalim [“Coins”, Exodus30:11-16]; if it falls on a weekday, one commences with the previous [Shabbat, reading the section then] and pauses on the following Shabbat [and leaves until the Shabbat following that one the order that, otherwise, would be as follows]:
On the second [Shabbat of the month of Adar, one reads the section known as] Zachor [“Remember”, Deuteronomy 25:17-19];
On the third [Shabbat of the month of Adar, one reads the section known as] Parah Adumah [“Red Heifer”, Numbers 19];
On the fourth [Shabbat of the month of Adar, one reads the section known as] HaChodesh haZeh laKhem [“This Month, to You”, Exodus 12:1-20];
On the fifth [Shabbat of the month of Adar], one returns to the regular order [of haftarot, persumably].
For all [of the following] one breaks off [from the regular reading and reads the sections described in a subsequent mishna, Megillah 3:6]:
The first days of the months, Hanukkah, Purim, fast days, appointed times [when, according to the Mishna in Taanit 4:2, segments of the population would make their way to Jerusalem in order to be present for the regular daily offerings] and Yom Kippur.
Mishna, Tractate Megillah 3:6
בחנכה בנשיאים בפורים ויבא עמלק בראשי חדשים ובראשי חדשיכם במעמדות במעשה בראשית בתעניות ברכות וקללות אין מפסיקין בקללות אלא אחד קורא את כלן בשני ובחמישי ובשבת במנחה קורין כסדרן ואין עולין להם מן החשבון שנאמר וידבר משה את מעדי יי אל בני ישראל מצותן שיהו קורין כל אחד ואחד בזמנו
On Hanukkah, [one reads the section known as] Nesiim [“Princes”, Numbers 7];
On Purim, [one reads the section known as] VaYavo Amaleq [“Then Amalek Came”, Exodus 17:8-16];
On the first days of the months [one reads the section known as] BeRoshei Chodsheikhem [“One the First Days of Your Months”, Numbers 28:11-15];
At the appointed times [that were mentioned above, one reads] the work of creation;
On fast days, [one reads the] blessings and the curses [Leviticus 26]. One may not break up the curses [and divide them between more than one reader], rather one person must read all of them.
On Monday and Thursday [mornings] and on Shabbat afternoons, one reads according to the regular order and does not raise [?] them from the count [ie: one reads portions from that which is going to be read the following Shabbat morning, and makes sure to actually reread them that following Shabbat – acc. to R’ Obadiah of Bertinoro], since it says: “Moses declared the set times of the Lord to the Israelites” (Leviticus 23:44) – their commandment is that they should read every section in its season.
Mishna, Tractate Moed Katan 3:9
בראשי חדשים בחנכה ובפורים מענות ומטפחות בזה ובזה לא מקוננות נקבר המת לא מענות ולא מטפחות איזהו ענוי שכלן עונות כאחת קינה שאחת מדברת וכלן עונות אחריה שנאמר ולמדנה בנתיכם נהי ואשה רעותה קינה אבל לעתיד לבא הוא אומר בלע המות לנצח ומחה יי אלהים דמעה מעל כל פנים וגו
On the first days of the months, on Hanukkah and on Purim, women may cry out [in lamentation, during a funeral] and clap their hands. On each of these [days] they may not wail. Once the deceased is buried, they may neither cry out [in lamentation] nor clap their hands.
What is “crying out”? When they all cry out as one.
[What is] “wailing”? When one declares and they all cry out after her, as it says: “Teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament” [NRSV, Jeremiah 9:19; v20 in English Bibles].
But in time to come, it says: “He will swallow up death forever and the Lord God will wipe each tear from every cheek” [Isaiah 25:8].
Mishna, Tractate Bava Kama 6:6
גץ שיצא מתחת הפטיש והזיק חיב גמל שהיה טעון פשתן ועבר ברשות הרבים ונכנסה פשתנו לתוך החנות ודלקה בנרו של חנוני והדליק את הבירה בעל הגמל חיב הניח חנוני נרו מבחוץ החנוני חיב רבי יהודה אומר בנר חנכה פטור
A spark that flies out from under the hammer and causes damage: he is obligated [to make financial restitution].
A flax-laden camel that is walking in a public place, whose flax [is so bulky that it] goes into a shop and catches fire on the shop-owner’s candle and sets fire to the establishment: the owner of the camel is obligated. [But,] had the shop-owner left the candle outside, he is liable.
Rabbi Yehuda says, he is exempt if it is a Hanukkah candle.
From the foregoing, we can determine the fact that Hanukkah is celebrated in the month of Kislev (Rosh HaShanah 1:3), that between Sukkot and Hanukkah one does not recite the traditional formula over the first fruits (Bikkurim 1:6), that communal fasts are impermissible on Hanukkah – or, at least, they must be cut short (Taanit 2:10), that the day features its own special Torah reading (Megillah 3:4, 6), that women may not wail on Hanukkah during a funeral, and must desist from crying out and clapping after the body has been interred (Moed Katan 3:9) and – most importantly! – that there is such a thing as a “Hanukkah candle”, and that it is supposed to be left outside the shopfront (Bava Kama 6:6). It’s not exactly the Shulchan Arukh already, but at least we’re getting somewhere.
Now, if this were to be an exhaustive analysis of Hanukkah in the early rabbinic literature (and it is most certainly not), I would next have to note all of the references to this festival in the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud, the halakhic midrashim, and maybe even some of the midrash aggadah. As it is, I’m going to skip straight to the Babylonian Talmud, and as much as I would love to append Rav Saadiah Gaon’s description of Hanukkah from his siddur (the first ever written, for all of the year), that will just have to wait for a later post.
So! What does the Talmud have to say?
The relevant passage can be found in Tractate Shabbat 21a-23b, and can be divided into four sections. The first section concerns the material from which the Hanukkah wicks and oil can be made, the second concerns the procedure whereby one lights the candles, the third concerns the nature of the festival itself, and the fourth constitutes a smattering of unrelated laws, found amongst discussions of other Shabbat-related and temple-related topics:
1. The substance of the wicks and the oil
The Talmud presents three opinions, together with rationalisations of all three. The opinions are those of Rav Huna, Rav Hisda, and either Rav Matana or Rav (the Talmud is unsure):
Rav Huna declares that the same wicks and oil that are forbidden on Shabbat (due, it would seem, to their inferior quality) are also forbidden on Hanukkah, whether the day in question is a Shabbat or a weekday;
Rav Hisda declares that the same wicks and oil that are forbidden on Shabbat are forbidden on Hanukkah, but only if the day in question is a Shabbat. On days of Hanukkah that are not Shabbat, one may use whatever he wants as a wick and as oil;
Rav (or Rav Matana) declares that the same wicks and oil that are forbidden on Shabbat are permissible on Hanukkah, both on weekdays and on Shabbat.
What is the logic? According to the Talmud, the dispute centres around two Hanukkah-related laws: whether or not it is necessary to repair the candle after it goes out, and whether or not it is permissible to use the light of the candle for something else – reading, for example.
We can therefore assume that Rav Huna permits both, and therefore forbids the use of low quality wicks and oil on a weekday (low quality means that they will go out easily, and one might forget to repair them), as well as on Shabbat (being allowed to use the light for reading might mean that you forget that it’s a Shabbat and fix them if they go out);
We can assume that Rav Hisda holds that it is not necessary to fix the candle if it goes out, and that he therefore permits the use of inferior products on the weekdays of the festival, but that he permits using the light for other activities, making them unsuitable for Shabbat;
Finally, we can assume that Rav (or Rav Matana) both denies the necessity of fixing the wick, and disallows the usage of the light for other activities. According to him, therefore, such products are permissible on Hanukkah irrespective of the day of the week.
What follows this discussion is a brief interlude, the point of which is that it is better to learn new things as a child than as an adult, followed by a meta-discussion on whether or not Rav’s (or Rav Matana’s) position is tenable. The overall conclusion of this section is… Wait, you were looking for a conclusion??
2. The procedure of lighting the candles
There are two discussions in this section, the first of which concerns the procedure by which the candles, themselves, are lit, and the second of which concerns the placement of the candelabrum (the hanukkiah):
The rabbis teach that the obligation of lighting candles on Hanukkah rests on the head of the household, who lights on behalf of his family. Nonetheless, those who are expedient (or those who beautify the commandments, depending on your favourite etymology of mehadrin) will light one candle for each member of the household. Those who are particularly expedient (mehadrin min hamehadrin) will do one of the two following things:
a) According to the school of Shammai, they will start by each lighting eight candles, then diminish the number by one every evening, lighting seven on the second night, six on the third and so on. The final night of Hanukkah, every member of the household lights a single candle;
b) According to the school of Hillel, they will start by each lighting a single candle, then increase the number by one every evening, lighting two candles on the second night, three on the third and so on. The final night of Hanukkah, every member of the household lights eight candles.
The Talmud goes on to discuss the nature of this particular dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, and their respective philosophical views. Here, as in most instances, the halakha follows the school of Hillel (although the Talmud doesn’t say so, and we are left – again – without a clear conclusion. You might have to get used to that).
The second discussion in this section concerns the placement of the hanukkiah, which – as we saw in the Mishna (Bava Kama 6:6) – needs to be public.
The rabbis teach that it is necessary to place the Hanukkah candle outside the house, on the doorstep. Should one live in an upper storey, one places it at a window that overlooks a public space. In times of danger, when one doesn’t wish to advertise the fact that one is lighting Hanukkah candles, one is allowed to place the hanukkiah inside, on a table. In agreement with the view expressed above by Rav/Rav Matana (that the Hanukkah candles cannot be used for any other purpose), an additional candle is necessary if one requires light, but a fireplace is considered sufficient for all but an important person (אדם חשוב).
At this particular juncture, you’re probably wondering the same thing that I’m wondering, and it’s nice to know that the rabbis are wondering this as well. In amongst all of these discussions, we haven’t once answered the most basic question of all, which is the question that the Talmud asks next: “מאי חנוכה”
3. What is Hanukkah – or, as I prefer to translate it, “What the hell is Hanukkah anyway?”
Given the incredible importance of this particular question, I feel that it is worthwhile to present what the Talmud says directly:
תנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
The rabbis taught: On [ie: from] the 25th of Kislev, there are eight days of Hanukkah, on which it is forbidden to eulogise or to fast, since when the Greeks entered the sanctuary they contaminated all of the oil in the sanctuary, and when the Hasmonean monarchy prevailed and defeated them, they checked but could only find one container of oil, with only enough to burn for one day, lying with the seal of the high priest. A miracle occurred for them and they lit [the lamps] with it for eight days. A subsequent year, they established these [days] and they made them a festival with praise and thanksgiving [ימים טובים בהלל והודאה].
This, in a nutshell, has become the official Hanukkah story. We now have all of the key ingredients: the name, the date and the mythology. As with the story of the 72 sages who wrote the Septuagint, it is fascinating to see this one grow, but unlike that particular tale, we’ve very little to go on besides the sources that I’ve listed here. References within the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud and the midrash, as mentioned before, will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting the fact that the Talmud’s story doesn’t stop quite yet. So far as Hanukkah-related legislation is concerned, the Talmud continues by noting a variety of other laws, found over the next couple of pages.
These laws concern the placement of the candles (their height from the ground, as well as which side of the door they are to be placed at), the explicit impermissibility of using their light for any mundane activity (the example given is of counting money), the legality of using a Hanukkah candle in order to light another Hanukkah candle, the nature (and the number) of any blessings to be recited by those who are lighting them and those who are witnessing them being lit, and the extent of the obligation:
• Guests who are lodging overnight are obliged to light their own candles, according to Rabbi Sheshet, although Rabbi Zeira qualifies this assertion;
• Women are allowed to light their own candles, according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, as they also benefitted from the miracle;
• Deaf-mutes, people who are mentally incompetent and children are all disqualified – as they usually are.
So far as whether or not any or all of the laws mentioned here are still current, the development of the halakha is such that, were one to gain a true insight into the evolution of this festival, one would need to consult the traditional commentaries and meta-commentaries, compendia and responsa. That would best be left for another time, and to one with greater textual competence than myself.