By Perry Fein
The Hannukah story, as you or may or may not have learned in Hebrew school, goes a little something like this: Once upon a time, an evil king named Antiochus
ruled over a vast empire. With his large and powerful army, he set his sights on the tiny, insignificant Judea; which was, at the time, a sovereign Jewish kingdom that housed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. After invading and conquering Judea, his soldiers looted the Temple and banned most aspects of Jewish life.
As a means of disguising their true motives, Jews who had been previously studying would hide their prayer texts and take out these spinning tops in order to seem like they were gambling instead.
A family of Jewish Zealots called the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans) and their constituents could not tolerate the injustice. The story from here can take any number of dramatic turns; but the common elements in all accounts involve this small band of ragtag Jewish countrymen-turned-warriors withdrawing into hiding. From the hills, we are told, they waged a remarkably successful guerilla campaign against the much larger, professional military.
After they defeated the invaders and the tyrant Antiochus, they returned to Jerusalem in order to clean and rededicate the Temple to God. From this we derive the name of the holiday, which directly translates to “dedication”.
Part of the process of sanctifying the Temple included lighting the menorah, the candelabrum that was meant to burn in the Temple day and night. To the dismay of the victorious Jews, however, there only appeared to be enough oil to burn for one night. But in typical biblical fashion, the one true God interceded on behalf of his chosen people in order to make the oil last eight whole nights.
Jews have inherited two very significant traditions from this story: The nir tamid is the “eternal light”, usually in the shape of an elaborate lantern, which shines above the Ark in a synagogue at all times. Additionally, the hannukiah, a nine-branched candelabrum, is an adaptation of the original Temple menorah. It is modified to represent the eight nights that the oil lasted—plus one extra, used to light the rest.
The significance that oil plays in the story is truly the only plausible explanation for the presence of “oily” treats like latkes and jelly doughnuts at typical Hannukah celebrations.
The actual historical record, which is limited to the books of the Maccabees and the writings of Josephus, call into doubt the divine nature of the story. In these accounts, the Maccabean “revolt”, as it is described, is actually a political development in which God plays no role. The rededication of the Temple, from which the holidays derives its name, is indeed recorded— but the miracle of the oil is suspiciously omitted.
While I grant that it is very possible for events to be forgotten in a historical chronicle, I do not think that explains the inconsistency in this case. I believe it is much more likely that the miracle of the oil was retroactively “remembered”. What would otherwise have been a straight- forward military victory was attributed religious importance of biblical proportion.