The Pardes of Hanukah

1. Pshat-MCA
Date: Kislev 25-
Name: Hanukkah=Rededication
The Story:
In the 4th Century, BCE Alexander the Great conquered the entire Middle East. After his death the empire was split and factions fought over Israel. The winner was The Selucid empire which was centered in what is now Syria. In 167 BCE Antiochus (who called himself Epiphanes = God has made manifest) forced all of the peoples under his rule to Hellenize. He outlawed Jewish practice such as the celebration of Shabbat and the ritual of Brit Milah (circumcision). He tried to replace Jewish worship with the worship of Greek gods including the sacrifice of non-Kosher animals, most notorious, pigs.

When the Greeks came to Modi’in and set up an altar, an old priest named Mattathias attacked and killed a Jew who was about to make a sacrifice at the altar. There followed a protracted Guerilla war against the Greeks, led by Mattathias and his five sons. Mattathias passed on the leadership of the rebellion to his eldest son, Judah, who was called “HaMaccabee” (the Hammer).

The Maccabees defeated the Greeks and liberated Jerusalem.
They began the long hard task of cleaning the Temple. They found that they had only one small cruse of oil with which to light the Menorah. But that cruse lasted for eight days (until they could produce enough ritually pure oil).

The Facts:
The literature of Hanukah is found in collections of Apocrypha literature known as the 1st and 2nd Books of the Maccabees, in the works of Josephus and in the Talmud. There is no mention of the story of the oil in any of the Apocrypha literature about the holiday.

The reason given in the works of the Apocrypha for the 8 days of the holiday is because Hanukah was modeled after Sukkot, which the Maccabees could not celebrate during their war with the Greeks.

In Josephus’ work on Hanukah, he does not mention the miracle of the oil, though he does call the holiday, the festival of lights.
The Mishnah does not mention Hanukah at all.

The Gemara, the later Rabbinic material that was added to the Mishnah and together called Talmud, mentions the miracle of the oil in relationship to Hanukah (Shabbat 21b).

Hanukah was 1st celebrated as a reminder of the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks and for the rededication of the Temple
Later, due to Rabbinic influence, the miracle of the oil came to “outshine” the military victory of the priestly family and its supporters.

Lighting the Hanukiah (Hanukah Menorah)
The Hanukiah is placed in a spot where it can be seen by passersby such as outside the house and in front of a window. Halacha has it that it should be placed on the left side of the door (as you are entering) across from the Mezuzah, on the outside of the door. The only exception is when there is a fear of persecution. Then the Hanukiah can be placed out of sight of the passerby.

Procedure for lighting:
Candles (or oil lamps) are placed in the Hanukiah from right to left and lit from left to right.
Two blessings are repeated each night (the Shehehiyanu on the 1st night).

People get together for parties.

One of the Dreidle games is played. The dreidle is a four sided top with the letters NUN, GIMEL, HAY, and SHIN. The letters stand for the words NES GADOL HAYAH SHAM, which means “A great miracle happened there”. In Israel the Dreidle (called Sivvon) has the letter Peh instead of Shin and means “NES GADOL HAYAH SHAM” which means a great miracle happened HERE”. There are many betting games that can be played with the Dreidle.

Some people try to bring together people who have had arguments for a meal of reconciliation.

In the United States (and other places where there has been a strong Christian influence) gifts are given on each night of Hanukah.


Hanukah, the holiday that celebrates regularity.
How do you Jew?

When we look at the traditional rationale of a holiday it does not always fit the historical events that created that holiday. Yet they may compliment each other and bring the Sod, the mystery of the holiday to light (pun intended).

Historically it is the celebration of a war fought for religious freedom. We did not revolt when the Seleucids, the Assyrian Greeks conquered us and demanded tribute. We did not revolt when they instituted Hellenistic customs in our land. We rebelled only when they forbade our way of worship, our belief system, our spiritual path and demanded that we accept theirs.

Historically, the holiday commemorates the struggle for religious rights. That, in itself, is unique in that time period and even in our own. But historically, our festival of lights does not celebrate, is not even aware of the story of the miracle of the lights.

In the books of Maccabees, we do not see any reference to the miracle of lights. In the books of Josephus, we do not read of the miracle of lights. The first time that the miracle of the single cruse of oil that lasts for 8 days is mentioned, is in the Talmud. It was composed at least 200 years after the historical holiday.

The Talmud in Shabbos 21b states: “When the Yevanim entered the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple, they defiled all of the oil there and rendered it ritually impure. When the House of the Chashmonaim strengthened and was then victorious over the Yevanim, they searched and found only one flask of oil that had the seal of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in tact, enough to last one day. A miracle occurred and they were able to light with it for eight days. The next year they established and made these days into a holiday, for saying songs of praise and thanks.”

That is the earliest reference to the miracle. And that is the Remez, the hint to the hidden Light of Hanukah.

Our historical holiday of Hanukah (the word means dedication) refers to our need to be involved Jews. As Reb Zalman might put it, we demanded the right to be allowed to Jew. We fought for our right to Jew on a regular basis in our regular sacred space in our regular way. The Remez question might bubble up: How do you Jew?


The story of the miracle of the oil that we teach to our children and in which we sometimes forget to find meaning in our own lives, teaches the same point from a beautifully symbolic place.

The Maharal (Ner Mitzvah) discusses the tradition of the miracle of Chanukah. In it he takes from the statement of the Talmud that Chanukah was established in commemoration of the miracle of the oil. The Menorah in the Temple was supposed to be lit every day, and thus this consistency was threatened by the lack of pure oil. A miracle occurred, and the one-day supply of oil lasted eight days.

The Temple Menorah was lit daily. Everyday it was relit and kept lit all day. Indeed Ner Tamid does not need to be translated as we were taught it, “ the eternal light”. It could just as easily be translated as “the regular light”, “the consistent light.” The miracle was needed to keep us consistent. The miracle allowed us to continue our Jewish practice. The miracle kept a little light focused on our spirit path.

The Lamp that our people lit in the Holy Temple every day was the 7-branched Menorah. Today we find a remnant of it in every Synagogue in the world. We call it the Ner Tamid. That term, usually translated as “eternal Light” really means the regular light or the light of consistency. The sacred Menorah of the Temple is the oldest of all Jewish symbols. The Menorah was lit daily and with the sacred oil. It is the symbol of Shabbat, a symbol of creation and the symbol of the Jewish people. A depiction of it can be found on the Arch of Titus in Rome.

The Hanukiah that we light every year was made by simply adding another branch to the Menorah. In a sense, it was adding a little light to our history and our spiritual dimension. Therefore the Hanukiah is a symbol of our desire for spiritual consistency. We are all inconsistent beings. But we strive for consistency within our inconsistency. That is the lesson of the Hanukiah.

As our days are reaching their shortest and the darkness seems to be growing in the world around us, that children’s tale of the miracle of consistency looms large, to light our way through the darkness. We live in a pretty remarkable place. Our religious right is not overtly challenged by the ‘religious right’. Yet the challenges are still out in the world and in our hearts. The story of a war fought for the right to Jew fills us with pride but it also challenges us to practice. The tiny story of the tiny cruse of oil lights up our challenge to discover ways to Jew more often, to Jew more intensely, to Jew with more consistency.

And when we recognize and accept the challenge to Jew, this holiday serves to light up our lives.

When our ancestors added the extra branch, the total number of lights equaled 9 not 8. So one was raised and called the Shamash. Shamash means efficient, minister, attendant, in other words helper. And it also is the word for sun.

In Breashit (Genesis) it says that G created the sun to help us with Mo’adim, the holydays and to delineate the Shanah, the year. Mo’adim also means sacred meeting times with G and Shanah also has another meaning; it means to grow, to change through learning.

The Hanukiah sheds light on the sacred meeting time with G that we call Hanukah. In this interpretation, Hanukah reminds us to create for ourselves sacred meeting times on a regular basis with G and within ourselves. By so doing we create the Shanah of sacred changes that we must make ‘consistently’ (tamid) in our lives. That is one of the reasons why we are not to use the Hanukiah for any mundane purpose. It is there to give light and joy, not to be used to find the car keys.

4. SOD

I challenge us that when we light the Hanukah candles this year, let us take a moment to think of it as a Mo’ed, a sacred meeting time for us to set aside in hopes of making the changes that we want to make, seeking the growth that we want to attempt to build into our lives.

I bless us all that we can seek the consistency in our spiritual growth, in our constant learning and in the changes that make our lives whole.