From Mattathias and the Apostate, 1866, by Gustave Dore. Wikimedia.
This time of year we light our Hanukkah candles, spin dreidels, fry fattening food, and tell our children the story of the miracle of the oil in the recaptured Temple in Jerusalem that should have burned for only one day but lasted for eight. Great story, right?
Let’s go back a little.
As has often been pointed out, the origins of this story are a bit murky. It appears nowhere in the first and second books of Maccabees, which in any event were excluded from the canon by the rabbis—even though they appear in the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Bible known as the Septuagint, and in many Christian Bibles. The main source for the story is the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate on the Sabbath, since there is no tractate for Hanukkah.
Here is how the Talmud relates the miracle:
When the Greeks entered the Temple, they contaminated all the oil in the Temple. But when the Hasmonean School gained the upper hand and beat them, they searched and found but one can that was set aside, bearing the seal of the high priest and not contaminated, but there wasn’t enough [oil] in it to light on more than one day. But a miracle occurred and they lit for eight days. The following year they established an eight-day festival. (Shabbat 21a)
The scholar Vered Noam observes in her work on the history of Hanukkah that this story fits into a genre of ancient Jewish legend involving national redemption and miraculous deliverance set in the Temple—except for the curious fact that, in this case, there is no mention of the high priest, who is usually the hero of such tales. Instead, the high priest appears only as kind of kashrut supervisor whose seal has been left on a can of oil. And note the language describing the heroic deliverers: the phrase Beit Ḥashmona’im is usually translated literally as “House of the Hasmoneans,” the Hasmoneans being the priestly clan, who, led by their patriarch Mattathias and his son Judah the Maccabee, spearheaded the revolt against the Seleucids, and thereafter established themselves as the ruling dynasty of independent Israel. But I have instead rendered it as Hasmonean School, since this is how rabbinic parlance normally refers to collections of disciples—such as the “School of Hillel” and its rival the “School of Shammai,” which we will encounter shortly.
The rabbis here say nothing of the miraculous military victory described in the books of Maccabees. They seem not to take much of an interest in military victories. Looking at their choice of language you might think the Hasmoneans outdebated the Seleucid empire! Noam sums it up this way: “Essentially this story is not a story of a miracle but rather the story of a renewal of the Temple service.”
Over the years some rabbis, and later many academic scholars, have argued that the talmudic sages had a relatively low opinion of the Hasmoneans, and it is easy to imagine why. Its members were hardly paragons of piety, in later generations engaging in precisely the Hellenization that the revolt was intended to prevent. Eventually the rivalries among Judah the Maccabee’s successors led to political instability and then to one side calling in the Romans for help, with predictable consequences. What’s more, in the Hasmoneans’ final years of rule they were opponents of the Pharisees, who were precursors to the rabbis. Therefore, the argument goes, the rabbis kept the books of Maccabees out of the Bible, made only passing mention of Hanukkah in the older stratum of the Talmud, the Mishnah, and shifted the holiday’s focus from the miraculous military victory over the mighty Seleucid empire to the cruse of oil.
But that conventional understanding is not quite accurate. The rabbinic attitude toward the Hasmoneans was more nuanced, and we can understand it by examining the peculiarities of the oil story, and how it is framed in the talmudic discussion. For background, we’ll need first to turn to M’gillat Ta’anit, or the Fast Scroll, an ancient list of minor holidays on which fasting was forbidden. There, the rabbis present again, almost verbatim, the previously quoted explanation of the oil and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. And then, the scroll gives an alternative explanation:
What reason did they see for making Hanukkah (literally, “inauguration”) eight days? Was not the inauguration [ḥanukkah] Moses made in the desert only seven days? . . . And likewise we find that the inauguration Solomon made was only seven days. . . . Rather, in the days of Greek oppression the Hasmonean School entered the Temple and built the altar and plastered it with plaster and designated vessels for the worship and were busy with it for eight days.
In this version, there isn’t a miracle at all, only the fact that it took eight days to build a new altar, make a new candelabra, and so on. This is still not terribly heroic, but it defines the Hasmoneans as priests, not victors in a civil war against Hellenistic assimilators, smeared with blood on their hands as they clean up the Temple. This passage’s real concern is the holiday’s peculiar length. In the Bible, Moses dedicates the Tabernacle and celebrates for seven days, as does Solomon after he dedicates the First Temple. Likewise the holidays of Passover and Sukkot both last for seven days. That Hanukkah gets an extra day alerts us to the fact that it is anomalous, that it breaks boundaries.
The School of Shammai tried to make this festival conform by linking it to one of the major biblical holidays: they ruled that you light eight candles on the first night, and one fewer each night, by analogy to Sukkot, on which fourteen bulls were sacrificed the first day, thirteen the second, and so forth. If we had followed their opinion, we’d be left with a sad little festival on the last night. The School of Hillel objected and, as usual, won the day, citing the principle that “you increase in sanctity and do not decrease.”
But the Talmud, unlike the Fast Scroll, doesn’t get to these details right away; instead, it inserts in the middle of the Hanukkah discussion a digression into tort law. In the Talmud, digressions are not the exception but the rule. You can learn a lot from where they appear, and this one tells us something profound about how the Talmud views the victory of the Hasmoneans and what we are celebrating.
We’ve learned [in a different tractate] that if a spark flies out from under a hammer and causes damages, the hammerer is liable.
If a camel loaded with flax is passing through a public thoroughfare, and some flax should drift off into a shop and be set alight by the shopkeeper’s candle, and ignite the building, then the camel’s owner is liable.
Rabbi Yehudah says, but what if it’s a Hanukkah candle? . . . (Shabbat 22a)
Why are we suddenly talking about hammers? Camels? Flax? Don’t these rabbis ever have any sense of the divine? Is it always nickels and dimes with them?
On the contrary, I would argue that in these prosaic discussions the rabbis come as close as they are willing to a discussion of the innate qualities of the Hasmonean victory. As I noted, the rabbis reduce the Hasmonean warriors to a Hasmonean School; they don’t even bother to mention any of its individual leaders by name. As Noam puts it, “the rabbis cherished the Hasmonean victory and the national freedom to which it gave birth, but steadfastly refused to regard military-political leaders as figures worthy of emulation. Instead of idolizing a fighter, the leader of a rebellion, they preferred to ignore him as an individual and to praise an anonymous victory.”
Not so fast. As everyone knows, the military leader of the revolt was Judah the Maccabee—that is, Judah the Hammer—the third son of Mattathias the Hasmonean, priest of Modi’in. That’s where the mysterious hammer comes from. And the spark? What the rabbis are saying is that the Hasmoneans had every right to purify the Temple; that was priestly business. But by proclaiming themselves kings of liberated Judea, they violated the ancient division of labor between priestly sons of Aaron and royal sons of David. And it was when the Hasmonean dynasty went on in its later generations to exert a less-than-priestly influence on national life that the spark flew out from under the hammer and set the building alight. You should also note that the word used here for building is birah, which might also be translated as “capital city”—that is, Jerusalem.
The discussion continues. Why can’t we just require the shopkeeper to place his Hanukkah candle very high up, where it’s unlikely to start any fires? In answering the question, the rabbis again try to frame Hanukkah within the conventions of other festivals—once again, the holiday of Sukkot. Because a sukkah placed above a certain height is invalid, they reason, so too Hanukkah candles shouldn’t be placed above the same height. So the legalistic digression in fact serves to remind us of the dangers of Judah the Hammer’s legacy: he founded the dynasty that would invite Roman intervention, which would in turn lead to the Romans’ burning of Jerusalem, the capital. This chain of unintended consequences works very much like the hammer that lights the spark that ignites the straw that burns down the building. To counteract those dangers, the rabbis try to push Hanukkah back into the boundaries established by other holidays.
But then, before we return to the basics of the festival, we get another apparent non sequitur:
Rabbi Kahana said: Rabbi Natan ben Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanḥum, “Why does it say of Joseph ‘and they took him and threw him in the pit but the pit was empty, there was no water in it’ (Genesis 37:24)?
“From it saying, ‘but the pit was empty,’ don’t I understand that it contained no water? Rather, the words ‘there was no water in it’ come to teach us that there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions.”
From the bustle of the shuk, we are suddenly in the desert with Joseph and his brothers tending sheep. But this isn’t a non sequitur at all, and not only because this passage in Genesis is always the weekly Torah reading on or just before Hanukkah. If you reframe the heroic Judah Maccabee as a hammer whose spark can set the building aflame, you can certainly reframe the zealous Hasmoneans as brothers willing to indulge in a fratricidal conflict. In fact, you don’t have to reframe at all: Judah’s great-great-nephews Hyrcanus and Aristobulus engaged in a literal war between brothers in the 1st century BCE.
It would be easy to say that the rabbis, as scholars rather than warriors, sought to minimize the military aspect of the Hasmonean victory, emphasizing the Temple service, the ritual lighting of the menorah in every Jewish household, and legalistic details. By turning Judah the Hammer into the hammer that lit the spark that burned the store, they seem to be warning about the dangers of military might. Take it one step further, and you have a sermon for a Peace Now Shabbat gathering about how the state of Israel has forsaken the sages’ legacy by replacing Jewish spirituality with celebrations of martial valor. But that, besides being morally and theologically bankrupt, would be a misreading.
Why is Rabbi Kahana talking about water in the pit? Water is the standard rabbinic metaphor for Torah. Where there is no Torah there is nothing to drink and hence no life. The problem with the Hasmoneans was not that they were not heroic, or that they were too heroic, but that they were too ready to overstep boundaries; they confused their military heroism for the capacity of communal and religious leadership. The sad end of the dynasty, the rabbis are trying to tell us, is the consequence of this usurpation: two contenders vying for the high priesthood whose fratricidal conflict led to the end of the Hasmonean kingdom and resumption of foreign rule. It wasn’t the victorious war for freedom and sovereignty that the rabbis objected to, but how the warriors waged the peace.
Lacking knowledge of the rules of proper conduct, leaders will exceed their boundaries, set the store alight with a spark, and could cause brother to kill brother. Rabbi Kahana’s allusion to the parched pit holds the key to understanding why talmudic literature treats the Hasmoneans as minor kosher supervisors rewarded with a miracle whose oil burned for eight days rather than the military heroes of the generation. They dug a pit without the quenching, life-giving water of Torah. True, the people of Israel did not immediately die of thirst, for absence of Torah is not in itself a cause of death. More likely, death will come from the snakes and scorpions that creep in to fill the space left by the Torah’s absence.