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The Real Story of Chanukah

I need to share a secret with you. Now that the holiday is over, I feel it is time to tell you that what you think about Chanukah might be slightly off. Don’t worry, the candles you lit were legitimate, it’s that the story that might need tweaking.

When I was growing up, I was told that Chanukah was celebrated because the Maccabees found a small vial of oil that would normally only last one night but instead lasted eight. And that is the miracle the Rabbis of the Talmud decide upon as there was real ambivalence for them concerning the holiday.

The holiday was created by the Maccabees. Now in case you are thumbing through your Torah commentary wondering in which book the story can be found, you aren’t looking in the right place. In fact, the story of the Maccabees is found in a book that never made it into our canon. It is part of another genre of literature call the Apocrypha which was written somewhere between 200 BCE and 400 CE. The Maccabees were zealots, and their war was not just against the Greek rule and the laws which forbade certain religious practice, it was against assimilated Jews as well. That’s right, the Maccabean revolt slaughtered Hellenized Jews.

“Our earliest source on the celebration of Hanukkah is the Book of Maccabees I, written at the end of the 2nd Century BCE. It tells us: ‘And Judah and his brothers commanded that all the people of Israel shall celebrate the holiday of the dedication of the Temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, every year in praise and thanks to God,’” Elon Gilad explains in his article for Ha’aretz. “The later Book of Maccabees II - written in Alexandria, in Greek, in 124 BCE - tells us the holiday was celebrated as a second Sukkot. That may explain why the holiday lasts eight days. That is, simply, the length of Sukkot, which is a harvest festival and possibly Chanukah began as one as well. Some researchers suggested that the holiday coincides with the end of the olive-oil making season, which could explain the oil-centeredness of the holiday.”

I hope you understand now why I waited until after Chanukah was over to share this; I didn’t want anyone to choke on a latke. I’ll wait until next year to explain the Middle Ages gambling game we call dreidel.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy secular New Year!


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