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It’s Hanukkah season, which in my family means certain rituals—and certain rules. We light candles for eight nights, though not necessarily in order (read my post on time-shifting holidays). We make children hunt for hidden gifts before opening them. (As my dad liked to joke, “If you want to be a good Jew, kid, you have to learn how to suffer.”)
But most important to me, at least, is that between the candles and the gifts, we have a moment of connection. It could be a sing-along, playing dreidel, answering a question. But on many nights, it means telling the story of Hanukkah. And now that my children are teenagers, it’s time that they learned the truth.
Most of the popular story around Hanukkah is a lie.
The Hanukkah story may be the most self-serving myth in Jewish history—and that’s saying a lot. At least many of the heroes of the Hebrew Bible have some flaws. The Maccabees' flaws have been entirely whitewashed.
Here’s what actually happened. For a fuller account of this story, you can check out my book, Where God Was Born, which includes a description of the night I was invited to light the Israeli national menorah in front of the Western Wall.
The Hanukkah story commemorates events in and around Jerusalem in the second millennium BCE. The central tragedy was the sacking of the Temple by the Syrian king Antiochus IV. Antiochus had seized part of the remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire, the Seleucid throne in Syria, in 175 BCE. A lavish despot nicknamed “the maniac,” Antiochus did what many leaders do: He used religion to try and unify his people. He issued edicts enforcing the status of Zeus as the common god of his heterogeneous people.
Many citizens of Jerusalem, including wealthy, well-educated Jews who enjoyed their association with Hellenism, welcomed his moves. Some Jews were so desperate to join the ultimate Hellenist club, the gymnasium, that they submitted themselves to an unimaginable procedure. They underwent reverse circumcision, otherwise known as epispasm. The surgery became so widespread that the Talmud later condemned it.
Buoyed by this rapid Hellenization and desperate for funds, Antiochus stormed Jerusalem and, on the 25th of Kislev 167 B.C.E. (roughly December), plundered the Temple. He removed its sacred furniture and stripped the gold leaf from the facade. He also ended circumcision and converted the Temple into a shrine of Zeus, in front of which Jews were required to sacrifice pigs.
A nearby priest, Mattathias, who lived south of Jerusalem with his sons John, Simon, Judah, Elazar, and Jonathan, vowed to fight back. “Why was I born to witness the ruin of my people and the ruin of the Holy City?” Mattathias said. The family began a stealth campaign, burning altars to Zeus and forcibly circumcising children. When Mattathias died, leadership passed to Judah, nicknamed Maccabeus, or the Hammer, who turned the guerilla war into a full-scale fight for independence.
Antiochus, bogged down in Persia by that point, sent only minimal forces to squash the revolt. Judah eluded them and marched into Jerusalem; he shuttered the gymnasium and cleansed the Temple. On the 25th of Kislev 164, three years after the original desecration, the Temple was rededicated. The Book of Maccabees says that the Jews celebrated for eight days, a number chosen because the new holiday made up for the eight-day holiday of Sukkot, which had celebrated the dedication of the First Temple. The Maccabees ordained that the dedication be honored each year “with gladness and joy.”
Later, the rabbis named the holiday Hanukkah, or Dedication, and began the annual festivities on the 25th of Kislev. In a similar move 500 years later, church officials moved the official date of Christmas from the 6th of January to the 25th of December to appropriate the still-popular pagan practice of celebrating the passing of the darkest days of the year. Long before twentieth-century consumerism brought them into union once again, Hanukkah and Christmas shared the goal of trying to move the world from paganism to monotheism.
Now, you might notice one thing missing from this story: oil! That’s because the iconic miracle almost certainly never happened.
The Jews went on to gain nominal independence from the Seleucids in 142 B.C.E. But once the heirs to the Maccabees, known as Hasmoneans, became leaders of the Jewish nation, they quickly descended into tyranny, ransacking the countryside for mistresses, hiring mercenaries, and plundering David’s tombs. The Jewish values that had inspired the original revolt were subverted to vulgar corruption
For this reason, The Book of Maccabees was not included in the Hebrew Bible. But Jews continued to love the story despite its non-canonical status. The famed scribe Josephus notes that in the first century C.E. that the holiday was being called the Festival of Lights, “I think from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us like a flash of light at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.”
The Talmud downplays the holiday, but the rabbis were convinced it would endure anyway, introduced a divine spin. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found only one cruse of olive oil to light the seven-branch menorah that had stood in the Temple since Solomon. With no time to make more oil, they lit the menorah, and it burned for eight days. The obviously made-up story brought the Hanukkah tale in line with other biblical accounts, including the burning bush and Moses’s dedication of the tabernacle, which both contain fire miracles.
Hanukkah remained a minor holiday through the Middle Ages, with no gift-giving. Jewish families would light eight oil lamps to commemorate the miracle, but in the sixteenth century, families began to replace the oil with tallow and wax candles. Menorahs were placed outside, to the left of the door, to be visible by neighbors returning home after sunset.
Hanukkah began to emerge as a major holiday in the late 1800s, on the backs of the two new forces in world Jewry: Zionists and Americans. Early Zionists latched onto the story because it showed the power of Jews seizing independence through military action. “No miracle happened here,” they insisted; Jews won this victory.
In the United States, Hanukkah was elevated as a counterpart to Christmas and a way for Jews to participate in the American winter sport of competitive consumption. This Christianized Hanukkah is the one I grew up with, and I loved it.
My wife and I are continuing this tradition with my children, although now that they’re old enough, the gift-giving is tempered with a side of reckoning. I can’t say my daughters love all this grappling with the past—“Dad, why can’t we just light candles and open presents like everybody else!” My answer: Hey, it wouldn’t be a Jewish holiday without some healthy debate—or a little complaining about your parents.
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