Hanukkah: A Brief Look at the Murky History of the Festival of Lights

by Eitan K.

As anyone who has ever spent an evening wandering around old Jerusalem neighborhoods toward the end of Hanukkah can attest, the festival of Hanukkah (“dedication” in Hebrew) is one of the most interesting, not to mention beautiful, of all of the Jewish holidays. But the origins of some of its observances are shrouded in mystery.

We commonly refer to Hanukkah as the “festival of lights” and this phrase goes back to Josephus Flavius who, interestingly enough, makes no connection between the re-lighting of the Temple menorah and the name “festival of lights,” instead simply explaining that the Judeans’ desire for freedom of worship was “brought to light,” thus inspiring the name for the holiday. This is a strange explanation.

Our earliest records of the holiday are recorded in 1 & 2 Maccabees, which describe the events of 164 BCE that led to the purification of the Temple and rededication of the altar culminating in the declaration of an eight-day feast (presumably intended to be like the other three eight day festivals in the Hebrew calendar). Josephus follows almost 250 years later and appears to make use of 1 & 2 Maccabees while composing his history. Around the same time the gospel of John makes a passing reference to the holiday as well, calling it the “feast of dedication,” just as the books of Maccabees do. A century or two later some passing references appear in the Mishnah also to the festival as “Hanukkah” (dedication), but the fact that the Mishnah mostly ignores Hanukkah is surprising.

It is only in the Talmud, about 700 years after the events of the re-dedication of the altar at the hands of the Maccabees, that we find an in-depth discussion of Hanukkah including an explanation of how it is observed (Shabbat 21-24). It is also only in the Talmud that we first hear of the miracle of the small amount of oil being found and lasting for eight days until pure oil could be made and brought to the Temple. Josephus, a priest, appears to have known nothing about this tradition, or else intentionally suppressed the connection to avoid generating suspicion among his Roman readers regarding the symbolism of the holiday.

This begs another interesting question: What are the origins of the hanukkiah, the special eight (or nine) branched candelabra that is famously associated with Hanukkah? While there have been some reports of Roman era hannukiot (plural of hannukiah), archeology also hasn’t been too “illuminating” with regard to the origins of this candelabra. Here again it is only in the time of the Talmud that we have certain references to the eight-branched candelabra, although the Talmudic accounts attribute the observance to a much earlier period, including discussion of a purported debate between Hillel and Shammai over the proper way of lighting the hanukkiah. The truth is that we don’t really know where the use of the hannukiah came from or when it began.

Last but not least, the origin of the ninth “shamash” or “servant” candle, is another topic of intense speculation and debate. There are questions as to the origin of the hannukiah, including the early use of a shamash candle, and even implying its place in the imagery of several New Testament writers.

Whatever the origins of this Feast of Dedication, it brings us an opportunity to remember the miracles that the Almighty has done for our people, and for us as individuals. While we can certainly do this any time of the year, Hanukkah invites us to reflect on the calendar year that has been, and to hope for the calendar year ahead.

Hag Hanukkah Samea’ch!

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