Hanukkah: The History, the Legend, and the Lights that Burn Today

by P.J. Schwartz

Jewish tradition tells a story where Alexander the Great, during his conquest through the known world, encountered the High Priest of the Temple of Jerusalem. As Milton Steinberg notes, this meeting is probably part of the numerous legends that are based in truth within Judaism. Yet, this story foreshadows what would be to come: the Jewish people would come face to face with the Greek militia and would ensure a future for the sacred Temple. History explains that when Judea became a Greek province, some Jews objected to the Greek way of life. They feared the prospects of being hellenized, completely immersing themselves in Greek culture and abandoning their Jewish heritage.

It is this backdrop that Hanukkah has its foundations. Judah the Maccabee, the “hammer,” fought the Greek Empire and challenged the policies that prevented Jews performing their religious obligations. The true miracle of Hanukkah, then, was the Maccabees’ success of reclaiming the Temple as well as Jerusalem. So, as many of us might ask, where does the miracle of the oil which lasted for eight nights come from?

For eight days the Jews celebrated and rejoiced their newfound freedom and rededicated the Temple that once was desacralized. The Hebrew word Hanukkah, in fact, means dedication. During our holiday every year, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, we relive this victory and the purification of the Temple. The miracle of the oil, however, has its origins in the Talmud:

When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils, and when the Hasmoneans prevailed and defeated them, they searched and only found one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. It contained only enough oil to light for one day, yet a miracle happened and they used it for eight days (B. Talmud, Shabbat 21b).

Therefore, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had been corrupted by the Greeks. Inappropriate sacrifices were made in the Temple that worshipped the Greek gods, whose idols were firmly planted in the sacred space. After the Greeks were defeated, the Temple needed to be cleansed and purified. The process of purifying the Temple involved sprinkling its interior with clean water that had been mixed with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer. Now cleaned, the Temple could be anointed with oil. Some traditions even suggest that it took eight days to make the oil that would seal the Temple’s purification.

Regardless of the legends that we have heard or the history Hanukkah is based in, one thing is consistent: Hanukkah is a dedication of holy spaces, holy places, and holy people. Every year, we are reminded of the sacred spaces that we gather in to be with family, friends, and loved ones. Every year, we are reminded of the miracles that existed around us that are both evident and not. And, every year, we are reminded that we all have the strength of a hammer – strong enough to develop the will within to be the best and holiest that we can be. I choose to believe that the recognition of all of these things is what truly enlightens this season. In some sense, we have become the oil – we anoint our personal temples every day. When we spend time in our communities, when we work hard in our professions, or when we simply smile – these are the things that make us holy. Our hearts are ignited like flames and burn bright. On this Hanukkah, let each of us shine and sprinkle ourselves into the world to make it an ever holier place.

For further resources, see:

  • Steinberg, Paul, ed. Janet Greenstein Potter. Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays (JPS, Philadelphia: 2007).
  • Zion, Noam and Barbara Spectre. A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah. (Devorah Publishing, New York: 2000).
  • Zion, Noam and Barbara Spectre. A Different Light: the Hanukkah Book of Celebration. (Devorah Publishing, New York: 2000).

P.J. Schwartz is in his final year rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH. In addition to his studies at HUC, he holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration with a Specialization in Jewish Education from Xavier University. Currently, he serves as a rabbinic intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple and Jewish Family Service. 

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!