Friday, December 23, 2005

The True Meaning of Chanukah by Mis-nagid

I found this interesting post by Mis-nagid explaining the origin of Chanukah. I asked him if I could repost it here, and he agreed. Of course, it was written by Mis-nagid, so it goes without saying that if you are charedi and easily insulted, you may want to skip this post.

Thus spoke Mis-nagid:

Frum Fantasy or How a Legend Spawned an Industry

The frum world is thoroughly suffused with fantasy and ignorance. Frum people know pathetically little about their own history and practices, and what they do know is usually wrong. In general, frum institutions never teach any history at all, or at least nothing that deserves the name. Most yeshiva bochurim have no idea what was going on in the world at the same time as any Jewish event. All "history" is seen through the gauze of fantasy. The frum view of the history of world revolves around Jews and includes lots of myths, which makes for a witch's brew that has little to do with real history.

The root cause of this lack of rigor in understanding the past is the need for ignorance. After all, if you ask "What was going on in the rest of the world during Noach's Great Flood?" you may be surprised to find out that great (undisturbed) civilizations in Egypt and China were already writing stuff down, and never mentioned any flood. As the frum dogmas are not grounded in reality, so too the history must be kept floating above the ground, never attached to anything of substance, lest it come tumbling down to earth.

Chanukah, one of the few Jewish holidays based on a true historical event, is, ironically, no exception to this. Grab a frum person and quiz him or her: In what year was Chanukah? Who was Antiochus? Who were the Yevonim? Who were the Chasmonoyim? How long did the war last? You'll get the most pathetic answers (if you get any), because frum people have no sense of history. Shoot, most frum people don't know what the word "frum" means, or where it comes from! [*]

There is one aspect of frum Chanukah that truly brings this sense of ahistory into sharp relief. Case in point: the Bais Yosef's Kasha. To those of you lucky enough to be uninitiated in the frum cult, this peculiar obsession of frum Chanukah takes the form of a question. The Bais Yosef asked, "If the oil could have lasted for one day, but lasted for eight, only seven of them can be termed miracles. So why celebrate eight (rather than seven) days?"

This "difficulty" occupies a special place in the frum universe; it's a "true" classic. Gallons of ink were poured to answer this stupid question. Virtually every frum commentator since his time has had a crack at it. There's even a very large sefer consisting of nothing but answers to this one question. However, every single one of those answers is wrong -- completely, utterly, and totally wrong.

Before I get to the correct answer, let's understand why they're wrong. Don't worry, I don't have to refute them all, one at a time. The reason they're off-base is simple: it's a legend. The story of the miraculous oil was made up approximately six hundred years after the events of Chanukah. Of course the rabbinical legend has inconsistencies -- it's fiction. There's no point in trying to "fix" them. It's like reading Curious George and trying to explain how so few balloons could lift a monkey of George's heft.

Now, to the real answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha.

Due to their aforementioned lack of history sense, most frum people have no idea that there are books written from the era of the Maccabees. Nor do they know that these books make no mention of any miracles. Ask a frum person what is says in the two[**] Books of Maccabees, and they'll say "Books of Maccabees?" I'll not get into why those books are invisible from the frum world, but I'll note one piece of irony. Virtually every frum child knows the Chanukah story of Channah and her seven sons. Where's the story from? The Book of Maccabees 2.

Were you to read the actual history of Chanukah, when you get to the part about the rededication [chanukah] of the Temple, you'd find the following:

10:5 Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu [Kislev].
10:6 And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts.
10:7 Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also [lulavim, hadassos, aravos], and sang psalms [Hallel] unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.
10:8 They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.

That's right, the very first Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot. Sukkot traditionally required going to the Temple, but on the correct date for Sukkot, the Temple was still under Seleucid control, so it was not celebrated properly. The Maccabees cleverly scheduled the Temple's grand reopening on the anniversary of its sacking, and celebrated Sukkot like it's supposed to be. It was especially poignant due to the fact that the transient and ephemeral living embodied in the story of Sukkot was so resonant with them, having just spent so long hiding in mountains and caves.

Furthermore, the book opens with a letter to the Jews in Alexandria, telling them to celebrate this new holiday:

1:9 And now see that ye keep the feast of tabernacles [Sukkot] in the month Casleu [Kislev].

That is the correct answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha. The reason Chanukah is eight days (instead of seven) is because it was a delayed Sukkot, which has eight days. It was always eight days, and the rabbis made their legend match the extant practice, leading to the slight inconsistency noted by the Bais Yosef.

Before I close this post, I'd like to add a piece of speculation. The Mishna nevers discusses Chanukah, even going so far as to give a grave warning against reading the Books of Maccabees (Sanhedrin 10:1). In the only Gemara to discuss Chanukah, history gets three lines, while ritual minutaie get more than three pages. However, there is one interesting link in this rabbinified version of Chanukah that may hint at their knowledge of its true origins.

In the discourse on how to light the Chanukah candles, two opinions are proffered. One says to start with one candle on the first night and add one each night, until you are lighting eight on the final night. The other says to start with eight and remove one each night. Where it gets interesting is the reason offered for the latter position. The justification given is that the candles represent "parei hechag," the bulls of the holiday. By this he means the bulls offered on Sukkot. As recounted in the Torah, those bulls were offered in decreasing number each successive day.

The commentators struggle to explain why that Sukkot practice is relevant to Chanukah lights. Some of them are almost amusing in their tortured logic. I'd like to offer a possibility; that this could be a partial remnant of the earlier explanations for the custom of the Chanukah lights.

email me: [mis-nagid_AT_hush_DOT_com]

[*] It's a Yiddishization of the German "fromm," meaning pious. Admit it, you didn't know that.
[**] The other Books of Maccabee aren't about Chanukah, and are somewhat misnamed


Ok, so now that you are feeling warm and fuzzy and in the Holiday spirit, I wish you all a Happy Holiday.

27 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also to remember,

The Mechilta (excerpted in Megilath Tanith) asks why we light candles and answeres because the Hasmonean made a Menorah out of their spears, so to remember this event we light the menorah. No mention of a miracle of lights.
Joshephus writes the story of Channukah and says that this Holiday is for some reason called the Holiday of Lights, he doesn't know why 'maybe because lights symbolize freedom'. now if he knew anything about a miracle of lights then this statement of his sounds quite stupid.

The Gemara gives us the Halacha of lighting the candles in a fashion of relating to us a folks tradition, "some light like this, others like that, still others light it another way". It's not something that the Rabbis started, it seems like folklore.

In the Hanieros Hallolu and in Al Hanisim there is no mention about the miracle of lights.

This miracle story happened in a time where there are many different historical evidence so that we have a clear picture on what really happend.
We should assume that the same is true about all other miracle stories even if it purportedly happend in a time where there is no extrabiblical documents etc. to disprove it.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Great, great post.

11:38 AM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

If you think that Channukah is problematic, you should look into Purim. - JF

8:59 PM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

I don't have a problem with either Chanukah or Purim. I can separate the historical origins from the meaning that was later put into it.

Chanukah has become a holiday which represents the appreciation of wisdom and knowledge (Ner Mitzvah, Torah Ohr). That's something which I can definitely appreciate, even if the 'miracle' of Chaunkah is not historically accurate

10:38 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

I thought Chanukah has and does celebrate a military victory and the founding of an independent Jewish kingdom free from Seleucid overlordship and oppression. (The holiday is much bigger in Israel.)It also represents the effort to counter assimilation.

Your wisdom/knowledge thing is new, I think.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

To add, in my mind, Chanukah is one of the few Jewish holidays which I have the least need to reinterpret the meaning of the day. I may not agree with everything that people tack onto Chanukah, but it has enough meaning in itself to satisfy me.

Shavuous, for example, is a holiday which I try but cannot seem to justify much of a reason to celebrate.

12:20 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

Orthoprax,

>Your wisdom/knowledge thing is new, I think.

I don't think it's that new. I believe I read it in Maharal's book, Ner Mitzvah. I think that the custom of lighting the menorah and the legend of the oil, has something to do with the Rabbi's wanting to add a spiritual meaning to the tale of the Maccabee's fight for independence

12:31 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

Orthoprax,

what do you think the custom of lighting the menorah means? Why is the war remembered with the lighting of the menorah of all things? if Mis-nagid is right the rabbi's should have instituted waving of the lulav or something like that.

I think the light of the menorah represents Jewish wisdom, so they wanted to celebrate not only the physical victory but also the spiritual victory

12:51 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>Shavuous, for example, is a holiday which I try but cannot seem to justify much of a reason to celebrate

Shavuos had some agricultural meaning originally, but once the Jews lost the land of israel, that meaning was lost, so the rabbi's had to add some spiritual meaning to it, in order that it would be relevant to the jews in golus.

Likewise, with Chanukah, after the jews lost independence of their land, other meanings had to be added to it.

1:03 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"I don't think it's that new. I believe I read it in Maharal's book, Ner Mitzvah."

Ok then. If that's true than I stand corrected. I thought that it was your idea.

"what do you think the custom of lighting the menorah means? Why is the war remembered with the lighting of the menorah of all things?"

I think the lighting of the menorahs are to directly commemorate the re-establishment of the Menorah lighting in the Beit Hamikdash. And besides being a religious item, the Menorah is actually a symbol of Jews and Judaism too.

Lulav would have been inappropriate after the holiday was established on its own regard, though the eight days come directly from the length of Succos.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"Shavuos had some agricultural meaning originally, but once the Jews lost the land of israel, that meaning was lost, so the rabbi's had to add some spiritual meaning to it, in order that it would be relevant to the jews in golus."

Yes, I know that. But I don't find the Rabbinic additions very appealing. The holiday has turned into a celebration of the Ten Commandments. That may be good and all, but it hardly seems like enough.

"Likewise, with Chanukah, after the jews lost independence of their land, other meanings had to be added to it."

No, I think Chanukak is different. A historical commemoration can never lose all its meaning as long as the historical event remains relevant, which I believe the story of Chanukah has.

1:16 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>A historical commemoration can never lose all its meaning as long as the historical event remains relevant, which I believe the story of Chanukah has.

Now it may have relevance, since the Jews reclaimed the land of Israel. But back in the days of Chazal, the Jews were in golus, without any hope of going back any time soon, so, I believe, another spiritual element was added to the holiday of Chanukah to make it more relevant to them

1:48 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>I don't find the Rabbinic additions very appealing. The holiday has turned into a celebration of the Ten Commandments. That may be good and all, but it hardly seems like enough.

correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression is that you don't appreciate the religious/spiritual element of Judaism as much as you appreciate the nation/peoplhood of Judaism

1:58 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"Now it may have relevance, since the Jews reclaimed the land of Israel. But back in the days of Chazal..."

True enough, I supppose.

"correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression is that you don't appreciate the religious/spiritual element of Judaism as much as you appreciate the nation/peoplhood of Judaism"

I also appreciate the intellectual, moral, and socially advancing elements of Judaism. The Ten Commandments, while it is usually regarded as a purely religious artifact, also has all of those things. Though that statement does not come without any caveats, of course.

2:49 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

what do you think the custom of lighting the menorah means? Why is the war remembered with the lighting of the menorah of all things?

The other thing to remember is that Chanukah is a winter holiday. Like the Christmas tree and lights, the menorah brightens the long winter. Humans have had festivals of lights in the winter for a long, long time.

11:03 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

JA,

that's a good point

11:25 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

Let's keep in mind that none of these opinions are mutually exclusive. They can all be correct to some degree or another

Elu v'Elu Divrei Elohim Chaim

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it seems mis-nagid has proved that sukkos predates chazal.

did it get introduced kwanzaa style when the torah was written in ezra time? or does it predate it?

8:09 AM  
Blogger happywithhislot said...

did some research
i see aish.com refers to the two books, and there is a discussion that the first book was written by sadducees (so no wonder rebbe banned it!)

8:35 AM  
Blogger happywithhislot said...

re the discussion referenced above, i meant it takes place in the jewish encyclopedia, not aish

8:36 AM  
Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Great, great post.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous sukkah | sukkot said...

The Sukkah mitzvah
 
Dwelling in the sukkah is one of the mitzvahs of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
It is a mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah for seven days.
It is written in the Torah (Vayikrah / Leviticus 23:42) "You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; every inhabitant of Israel shall dwell in sukkot. In order that your generation shall know that I caused the Jews to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your G-d." In commemoration of this we are commanded to build a sukkah in order to remember the great and wondrous deeds of G-d
 
When should you build your Sukkah ?
 
Optimally, one should start to build the sukkah immediately after the Yom Kippur fast in order to fulfill the commandment "Yilchu michayil le chayil – “They go from strength to strength" (Tehilim/ Psalms 84) - From the mitzvah of Yom Kippur to the mitzvah of sukkot.
Don't forget "Zrizim makdimim le'mitzvot" (Psachim 4) – It's good to be an early bird for a mitzvah!
 
 
Where should you build your Sukkah?
 
The sukkah should be built under the open skies. If it is built under a porch, tree or roof, it is not considered a kosher sukkah
 
The size of the sukkah
There are no limitations on how big a sukkah can be. However, the schach should not be higher than 20 Amot, or approximately 30 feet from the floor. On the other hand, the minimum size of the sukkah is 24.5"x24.5"x35" (length*width*height).

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone bother to read the cited quotes? If one would simply read their copy of Megilas Taanis they would see how full of it this poster is because Megillas Taanis OPENS the Chanukah discussion with the miracle of the Oil.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Mishna nevers discusses Chanukah, even going so far as to give a grave warning against reading the Books of Maccabees (Sanhedrin 10:1)."

seforim chitzonim doesnt equal macabbees.

9:54 PM  
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1:30 PM  
Blogger Mark Silverman said...

"Does anyone bother to read the cited quotes? If one would simply read their copy of Megilas Taanis they would see how full of it this poster is because Megillas Taanis OPENS the Chanukah discussion with the miracle of the Oil."
Someone help me out on this, because I only stumbled on this post and am not nearly as educated on this subject as everyone here. Is the Book of Maccabees part of the Megilas Taanis? Or, rather, is it merely discussed in the Megilas Taanis? The post is saying that there is no such miracle discussed in the Book of Maccabees. Are you saying that, even though it's not there, it is in the Megilas Taanis? If so, which authority is to be given the greater weight? Thanks

10:12 PM  
Anonymous B.spinoza said...

Mark, please email the author at [mis-nagid_AT_hush_DOT_com] if you have any questios. Thanks

4:12 AM  

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