For over 20 years I taught about Chanukah in Jewish day schools. Most of the background information we discussed was about the war against the Hellenist forces of the Seleucid Empire. Since I majored in history, I relished describing the battles and political maneuverings. Some kids loved it, others not so much. But that’s what we have about the Chanukah story. We have no historical accounts of the miracle of the cruse of oil. On the other hand, we have abundant material on the war. Yet, when we review what our Sages say about Chanukah, it’s mostly about the Beit Hamikdash and the oil. Why?
Let’s look at the most famous rabbinic statement about Chanukah. The Talmud records: What is Chanukah? Our rabbis teach: “On Kislev 25 begin eight days of Chanukah, during which there are no eulogies or fasting. When the Greeks entered the Beit Hamikdash, they defiled all the oils. After the Hasmoneans prevailed, they searched and found only one cruse of oil with the stamp of the kohen gadol. It was sufficient to light the menorah for one day alone. A miracle occurred, and they lit from it for eight days. The next year they established these eight days as festive days with praise and thanksgiving.” (Shabbat 21b). The war, which was amazing, gets few words.
BTW, it’s important to point out that phrase “and they lit from it for eight days.” There is a common misconception that the oil just lasted for eight straight days. That just wouldn’t do. There is a mitzvah to light the menorah every evening and morning. So the kohanim were doing just that. We’re not sure of the process, but many authorities suggest that they separated the meager amount of oil into eight portions, using one a day. In any case, the menorah was cleaned and lit twice daily, just as always.
The one prayer we have for Chanukah is only marginally stronger on the military miracle. In Al Hanissim we mention: “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few,” concerning the miraculous military achievement. However, again, there’s much more about the cleansing and purification of the Beit Hamikdash: Then Your children entered the shrine of Your holy House, cleansed Your Beit Hamikdash, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name. Curiously, no specific mention of the miracle of the oil.
If I had been on the ritual committee composing the prayer I would have opted for the wording of the Rambam, which was written much later: During the Second Temple period, the Greeks decreed that Yisrael be stripped of their religion, refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments… They entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure...until the Lord of their ancestors had compassion upon them and delivered them from their hands, saved them and had the Hasmonean kohanim gedolim defeat and kill them. Yisrael was delivered from their hands, a king from these kohanim was established. Sovereignty was returned to Yisrael for over two centuries, until the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash (Laws of Megillah/Chanukah 3:1).
Only in the next halacha does the Rambam discuss the miracle of the oil: When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the 25th of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary, with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil (Halacha 2). Notice that again the Rambam emphasizes the military aspect of the event.
Why didn’t our Sages, distinct from the Rambam, include these praises of the Maccabees’ military and political accomplishments? The conventional wisdom (based on the Ramban, Nachmanides) is that there is concern (embarrassment?) that this family of kohanim, who began as righteous champions of the Torah, stole the crown from the tribe of Yehuda and heirs of David Hamelech, proper kings of Yisrael. Almost as bad, perhaps, the descendants of these heroes became Zedukim, sworn enemies of the Sages (perushim). Many of the Sages were killed at the hands of the descendants of the Maccabees, especially Alexander Yanai.
I’d like to suggest another answer to this vexing conundrum. Perhaps, our Sages weren’t venting a grudge against this dynasty. Instead, maybe they were teaching us a lesson in Jewish political science. For every military triumph, we must thank God for the salvation from those who would destroy us. More important is what we do with the victory.
There are, Baruch Hashem, many military miracles in our Tanach. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho; Devora led a wondrous victory at Har Tavor; so did Gidon and Shimshon; there are the multitude of victories by David Hamelech. None are commemorated with holidays. Generally, we don’t even know when they occurred. Why not? Because we don’t view ourselves as a military power. It’s not only about the victory of arms. Do we celebrate the victors or venerate God? Do we elevate the generals or establish a just and holy society?
Always emphasize the spiritual.
The answer of our Sages is clear. The message for modern religious Zionists should also be clear.
Rabbi David Walk, who has made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.