A single jar of oil was found;
enough to burn
for only one day.
Then,
a great miracle
happened there.
For eight days,
   the oil burned.*

1. 8 Lights: The oil burned for 8 days

“…’On the 25th of Kislev, the eight days of Hanukah begin. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all of the oils. When the Hashmoni’im prevailed against and defeated them, they searched [the Temple] and found only one cruse of oil left with the seal of the High Priest; there was only enough oil (in the cruse) to kindle (the menorah) for one day. A miracle occurred, and they kindled the lights from that cruse for eight days’ (Shabbat 21b).”

This small paragraph is the only mention of this miracle in all of Talmud or Midrash. It’s also unmentioned in Josephus, or in either “Maccabees I” or “II.” It does, however, appear in “Megillat Antiochus” [2nd century non-biblical “megillah” for Hanukah; online translations available].

On one or more nights, someone in a household could recite this paragraph, short as it is, as lights/candles are being lit. Even better — do it in the original Hebrew/Aramaic! Add a chant or niggun (melody)!

“defiled the oils” – by using the Temple’s supplies in the worship of Zeus (in other sources, Dagon). Such worship included placing an idol in the Temple and sacrificing a pig on the altar — both of which Torah forbids. Once a cruse of oil had been opened for this purpose, any left-over contents couldn’t be used in Jewish worship. [“Zeus” in Greek corresponds to “Deus” in Latin and “deva” in Sanskrit, especially when “v” is pronounced as “w”].

“one cruse with the seal of the High Priest” – i.e. unopened, and therefore still valid for use in Jewish worship.

2. Who were the “Greeks?”

“Alexander” — Greek: “Alexandros;”  “protector of men”  (“ander/andros,” as in “anthro-“, meaning man/men).

333 BCE — Alexander in Jerusalem

Upon meeting the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, Alexander bowed to him. He’d seen the High Priest in a dream, which he interpreted as a good omen. Alexander peacefully absorbed the Land of Israel into his empire, without insisting that the Jews take on the Greek forms of worship. In tribute, the Sages decreed that Jewish boys born that year be named Alexander. (Tamid 31b)

Yiddish forms:

Sanser     A short form of Alexander.
Sender (variation: Sendor)

(feminine forms):
Sandra, Sondra (feminine form) (related: Cassandra, Kassandra)

After Alexander’s death, his empire split between 3 generals.

Seleucis controlled the area that included Judea. His army consisted of Greeks/Macedonians and Persians/Syrians.

100 years later, it’s the “Seleucid Greeks” who control Judea at the time of the Maccabees.

167-160 BCE — the Maccabean revolt

165 BCE — Judah Maccabee retakes the Temple on the 25th of Kislev [Judah, like Alexander, wins impressive military victories fighting armies much larger than his own]

There’s thus over 160 years from the time of Alexander to the time of the Maccabees

3. We kindle one additional light each day

“Ma’alin ba’kodesh v’ein moridin: We increase in holiness; we don’t decrease.” (Shabbat 21b)

4. We add each light/candle from right to left

a. Hebrew is written and read from right to left

b. In the Temple, when the priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice, he sprinkled from his right and proceeded to his left (Abraham Chill; Minhagim; p. 250)

5. We kindle from left to right

I’ve heard that this is a symbolic gesture of respect to Beit Shammai.  Beit Hillel’s view — to increase the number of lights each night — was accepted over Beit Shammai’s opposing view — to reduce the number (emulating Sukkot, on which the number of offerings decreased each day). Kindling the lights from left to right is like counting backwards in Hebrew (i.e. 3-2-1), thereby symbolically “decreasing” them, without ignoring the decision in favor of Beit Hillel to increase the (total) number. Thus, although Beit Shammai’s view was rejected, it was respected.

Making  each step in the process deliberate, intentional, and meaningful adds to the kavannah.

6. In the Gospels:

John 10:23 — “It was The Feast of Dedication [i.e. Hanukah means “dedication”] in Jerusalem, and it was winter [i.e. Kislev]. Jesus walked in the Temple, in ‘Solomon’s Collonade’ [a “promenade” with a roof supported by columns, along the inner wall, to the left of the Eastern (or front) Gate/entrance to the Temple area].”

This isn’t mentioned in the other 3 Gospels.

Hanukah wasn’t a “pilgrimage” festival, like Pesach (“Passover”), Sh’vuot (“Weeks” or “Pentecost”) or Sukkot (“Tabernacles”), in which Jews were required to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem. But just as Beit Shammai looked to Sukkot as a model for how Hanukah should be observed, perhaps Jesus, too, was regarding this as a personal, voluntary obligation, in keeping with the  Biblically-ordained festivals.

It’s interesting that whereas at other times (e.g. hand washing), Jesus rejects the rabbis’ authority to make binding decisions about religious observance (calling their decisions “the customs of men,” rather than Divinely ordained), in the case of Hanukah — a purely rabbinic invention; Shammai and Hillel lived only a generation or two earlier — Jesus chooses to observe it.

I’ve wondered whether there’s any historical connection between Hanukah being on the 25th of Kislev, and Christmas being on the 25th of December (the observance of which isn’t mentioned in Christian scriptures, and doesn’t begin until the time of Constantine, almost 300 years later). I’ve not found anything conclusive, although there’s mild conjecture in some pieces I’ve looked at.

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[*] © 2008 by Rabbi Eli Mallon