Hanukkah: A Festivus For Any Of Us? (I)

Attribution: DRosenbach at en.wikipedia

Attribution: DRosenbach at en.wikipedia

Seinfeld, the popular 1990s sitcom, brought Festivus to the public consciousness. Festivus is a recently-invented holiday billed as a way to celebrate the season of giving without commercialism. 

I know what you’re thinking. A Blue Thread is going to tell us that the story of Hanukkah was made up and then suggest that the holiday (not being in the Tanakh) is no more authentic than Festivus. We’re actually going to do nothing of the sort. Well, not much of the sort.

Today, we’ll just touch upon why, at least according to the Books of the Maccabees, Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration. The Books of the Maccabees, which neither Karaites nor Rabbanites deem to be holy, contain no reference to a miracle of oil lasting for eight days.

Why, then, is Hanukkah eight crazy nights?

Some Historical Context:
As described last week, Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids had overrun the Temple and imposed laws preventing Jews from observing our faith. The Jews eventually reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the God of Israel. Hanukkah is Hebrew for “dedication” and the name of the holiday literally refers to the dedication of the altar. This dedication occurred in the year 165 BCE.

First Book of the Maccabees:
The First Book of the Maccabees was written in the year 130 BCE, approximately 35 years after the Jews reclaimed the Temple. The Book states that the Jews spent eight days celebrating the dedication of the altar: 

“Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.” (1 Maccabees 4:55-56, 59 [Published by J.M. Dent & Co.].)

Second Book of the Maccabees:
The Second Book of the Maccabees was written in the year 100 BCE, approximately 65 years after the dedication of the altar. The Second Book explains that the dedication lasted for eight days because the Jews were observing Sukkot (i.e., The Feast of Tabernacles), which is a seven-day holiday followed by a separate one-day holiday: “And now see that ye keep the Feast of Tabernacles in the month of Casleu [i.e., Kislev].” (2 Maccabees 1:9.)

Other places throughout the Second Book of the Maccabees (such as 2 Maccabees 1:18 and 2 Maccabees 10:3, 6) also connect the length of the dedication of the altar with Sukkot.

The Talmud, written in 200 CE, is the first source (of which I am aware) to describe the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 21b.) Hanukkah rituals and customs such as lighting candles and eating fried foods reflect that miracle. [EDITOR’S NOTE 9:07 a.m. (pacific time): See the first comment for a clarification of when the miracle of the oil first appears in writing.]

Most Jews are familiar with the debates between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel believed that one should light Hanukkah candles ascending in number (i.e., one on the first day, two on the second day, etc.) to increase holiness. Shammai, on the other hand, believed that one should light Hanukkah candles in descending in number (eight on the first day, seven on the second day, etc.) corresponding to the sacrifices on Sukkot. (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 21b.) During Sukkot, the number of bullocks sacrificed each day decreased. (Numbers 29:13-32.)

As a Karaite, I never grew up lighting Hanukkah candles and I have no opinion as to the proper method of lighting Hanukkah candles, but I’ve always found it interesting that Shammai lost this debate – despite citing Sukkot as the context for the ritual.

*  *  *

I could write about other pre-Talmudic texts that make no reference to the miracle of the oil. At the end of the day, however, whether one believes the miracle of the oil actually occurred is a matter of faith and determining whether (and with what significance) to celebrate Festivus Hanukkah is a personal decision. 

Yet, Karaites and Rabbanites can (probably) agree on one important message of Hannukah: throughout our history many groups, including the Seleucids, attempted to eradicate the Jewish people and our faith. Hanukkah symbolizes a victory against such forces.

In our next post we’ll present some more background on Hanukkah. In the meantime, I’ll be noshing on some Hamantaschen sufganyot.


Filed under Festivus, Hanukkah, Maccabees, R. HIllel, R. Shammai

2 Responses to Hanukkah: A Festivus For Any Of Us? (I)

  1. Zvi

    The first source describing the miraculous oil lasting for 8 days is a Beraita, namely a leftover from 200 CE that hadn’t made it into the Mishna and was included in the Talmud that was written 300 years later.

  2. Pingback: Hanukkah: A Festivus For Any Of Us? (II) | A Blue Thread

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