Project Genesis

The Jewish Legal System

The Sanhedrin and the Rabbis

Establishing Chanukah as a Holiday

Question: Why do Rabbis insist that there was a”miracle”. Judah declared an 8 day celebration to begin on 25th of Kislev and to last 8 days. He decreed that it was to be celebrated annually in honor of the victory. Josephus states that the 8 day period was specifically chosen because Judah wanted to make the new holiday parallel the 8 days of Passover. Chanukah was duly celebrated for some 300 years before anyone even mentioned a miracle. The 8 day miracle of the oil became the accepted version of the Maccabee story and purported reason for existence of Chanukah even though there is no mention of the miracle during the intervening 300 years.

Answer; Your question is a great question, and I will strengthen your question for you before I attempt to answer it. (A Jew always answers a question with a question ;-))

The story of Chanukah took place in 139 BCE and you are correct that Judah instituted the holiday (although not alone he convened a Beit Din – Jewish court which he undoubtedly was a member) in order to institute it. This is not only documented by Josephus but in the Chanukah prayer that is recited to this day (towards the end of “Al HaNisim”) it says, “... V’Kavu shmonat yimei chanukah eylu lhodot ulhallel lshimcha hagadol“. translated – “... And they established these 8 days of chanukah to give thanks and praise to His great name.” This is stated at the end of a long paragraph describing the “miracle” of chanukah; the war. It describes a small weak band of Jewish ‘soldiers’ who defeated the world super power, militarily speaking, of the time. Legions of the Assyrian-Greeks fell to the Macabee army. This is the miracle described.

So here goes the question (building on yours) the Talmud as you correctly stated approx. 300 yrs. later states that the “miracle” of Chanukah is that the oil burnt for 8 days. Which is correct and does one override the other?

Just to put a little icing on the cake – in the “Al HaNisim” prayer that we mentioned it says “that afterwards [the war] the sons came and they established these 8 days of ….” Who are the sons, wasn’t it Judah and his court?

The Chanukah celebration is a holiday commemorating a miracle fought on two fronts. There was a physical victory and a spiritual victory. The “Al HaNisim” prayer highlights the physical victory of a miraculous battle that saved the Jews. The Talmud is referring to the Spiritual victory. The Chanukah episode as I believe was documented by Josephus as well (he was personally affected by this) was undergoing a spiritual attack of Hellenism and the assimilation of Assyrian-Greek culture which was antithetical to Jewish belief, practice and culture. Promiscuity focuses on the physical and worship of beauty instead of G-d. The miracle of the oil being rekindled in the Temple was a symbol of our spiritual victory as well. And for this reason we light our Chanukah Menorah (candelabras) to commemorate the spiritual victory,the miracle of the oil. Which if you look up the Talmudic passage it only mentions the history of chanukah and the miracle of the oil as an introduction of the laws pertaining to the lighting of the Chanukah candelabra that is part of the Chanukah celebration. The other miracle of Chanukah, the battlefield victory that is mentioned by Joshephus and in the “Al HaNisim” prayer is celebrated through our prayers that praise G-d for our salvation from physical defeat.

In today’s practice Chanukah is celebrated by the lighting of the Menorah (Candlabra) to commemorate the miracle of the oil and additionally in synagogue during the prayers we exclusively mention the miracle of the physical victory at war commemorating that miracle.

Anecdotally, the reference of “afterwords [the war] the sons came and they established these 8 days of ….” “the sons” mentioned and not Judah and his court. Is a reference to who caused the holiday of Chanukah to be firmly established. That is a Beit Din (Jewish Court)’s authority to establish a decree for the Jewish People can be overridden by another Beit Din that is of a higher standing. For example when the Beit Din established the holiday of Purim it as a firm establishment since no future Beit Din could over turn their ruling since that was the last Beit Din which had members who were Prophets (and thereby considered a higher status Court). The court in the time of Chanukah had no prophets and in theory could have been overturned by a later or another court. The only other factor that can cause the firm establishment of a decree is its acceptance level by the Jewish People. That is, if the Jewish People en mass, accept the decree, it becomes instituted as law and can not be overturned. So the credit given for the establishment of Chanukah wasn’t ascribed to Judah and his court rather to “the sons” referring to the Children of Israel, the Jewish People who embraced the decree to observe Chanukah.

Excellent question! That is the Talmudic way—to challenge, investigate and understand thereby gaining a greater appreciation.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

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