The Real Meaning of Chanukah

What is the meaning of Hanukkah? There are many answers. Some are filled with the myths that entertain children; some are scholarly treatises on the history of the Greco-Assyrians and the Kingdom of Judea. No matter the comprehensiveness of the answer, every year I am asked by adults and children if the oil really lasted for eight days.

I have been discussing the real meaning of Hanukkah with our religious school students and wanted to share what they have been learning with our entire congregation. Rabbi Hara Person, the editor of the URJ Press, has written a wonderful synopsis of this topic. I share it with you in its entirety below.

Shalom and Chag Hanukkat Sameach,

Rabbi Joseph M. Forman

Will the Real Hanukah Please Stand Up

by Hara Person

Hanukah can be a confusing holiday. There are two basic versions of the story of Hanukah, at opposite ends of the spectrum. There is the nice kid’s story about brave heroes, miracles, good guys and bad guys. And from the history books, there is a story that involves violence, warfare, Jew fighting against Jew, and lots of ugly politics. So what do these two stories have to do with each other? What is the real story of Hanukah?

Both stories are the real stories of Hanukah. One is the historical story, the version that got recorded in both eye-witness accounts and second-hand by the next generation in first century BCE sources like the Book of Maccabees I and II, and in the writings of Josephus. It is a bloody account filled with politics, rebellions, violence and vengeance. It is a holiday that enters the repertoire of Jewish festivals at a relatively late period in Jewish history, and is not mentioned anywhere in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. The focus is on historical events, and not, in its origins, on God.

The other version, the one about miracles and oil and righteous warriors, is not a conflicting story, but a later story, another layer added on by the rabbis to the original Hanukah story to meet different needs at a later point in Jewish history. In the earliest versions of the Hanukah story, God is not part of the picture. But the next mention of Hanukah, in Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of material compiled sometime after 200 CE, stays true to the military theme of the story while attributing all the victories to God.

By the next mention of Hanukah, in Shabbat 21b of the Babylonian Talmud, compiled around 500 CE, suddenly a miracle has been written into the story. What is emphasized here is not the military victory at all, but God’s victory in making the oil last for eight days. The politics are no longer important. In this later period of history, God is the central issue. Politics, self-rule, and military prowess are not the glue holding together Judaism any longer. In the diaspora world in which the Jews were then living, God is the glue. The story has been transformed by the rabbis to meet the needs of a different time.

The historic setting of the story of Hanukah is one of instability and insecurity. By 198 BCE, the Greek-Syrians controlled the Jews of Judea, and while the Jews had not had political freedom since Judea had become part of the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great, they were still able to experience a degree of religious freedom.

However, the situation drastically changed in 167 BCE Antiochus IV, the Greek-Syrian ruler, abolished religious freedom for the Jews of Judea. With very dramatic gestures and decrees, he banned Jewish worship and the reading of the Torah. All Torah scrolls were to be destroyed. It became illegal to observe Shabbat and the rite of circumcision. The price for disobeying any of these new laws was death. And, in an act that was perhaps the most hurtful of all, his soldiers took control of the Temple in Jerusalem, where, under his orders, pigs were to be sacrificed to the Greek god Zeus.

All of this was going on at a time when within Judea itself there was a great deal of unrest. The Jews themselves were not in agreement over how to respond to what was going on around them. It was to a certain extent a class war, as well as an argument over politics and tactics. One group was made up mostly of urban-dwelling Jews, for the most part middle class and wealthy, as well as some of the Temple priesthood, who welcomed Greek culture and customs. The opposing group was mostly made up of rural, agriculturally-based Jews, who opposed the adoption of any aspects of Greek culture and saw it as antithetical to Judaism.

The point of dispute between these two groups was essentially the question of assimilation. How much could the Jews become like the Greeks without actually abandoning Judaism altogether? This was not a theoretical issue. Fighting erupted in the streets between these two groups, and the spectre of civil war loomed.

Meanwhile, Antiochus IV instructed his troops to deal with the civil unrest in Jerusalem by massacring Jews. He commandeered the money in the Temple treasury, which had served as a bank for the populace. And perhaps worst of all, Antiochus entered the Holy of Holies, the part of the Temple which only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and even then only on Yom Kippur. Antiochus’ army then entered Jerusalem on Shabbat, set the city on fire, and tore down the walls.

Antiouchus insisted that all Jews swear their loyalty to him. The way to do this would be to give up Judaism and Jewish life, and become like the Greeks. They would have to worship Greek gods, participate in Greek culture, dress in the Greek manner, study Greek subjects, and take on Greek names. The only other option was death. In 167 BCE Judaism was officially outlawed. Most Jews, afraid of the consequences of rebellion, complied with the new laws.

However, in the village of Modi’in, outside of Jerusalem, a man named Mattathias decided to rebel. Taking his five sons with him, he fled to hills surrounding Jerusalem. There they formed a small band of guerilla fighters. Others joined them. Mattathias soon died and his son Judah took over leadership of the group. Though they were a small group, they managed to hold their own against the soldiers and cause real damage to the ranks. Judah’s military prowess earned him the nickname Maccabeus, which means “the hammer.”

Judah wanted the Jews of Judea to be free to practice Judaism once again. But his first goal was to restore a Jewish presence in the Temple in Jerusalem. Finally, in 164 BCE, Judah and his rag-tag army were able to retake the Temple.

Much of what happened at this time is recounted in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. The First Book of the Maccabees was written in Hebrew around the time of the events that it describes. The Second Book of the Maccabees was written about sixty years after the events that took place. The book was written in Greek for the Jews who lived in Alexandria and other parts of the Greek Empire. Both books discuss the same events, but from different perspectives. These books were not included in the Hebrew Bible, but they are part of the Apocrypha, a group of Jewish writing from this period that were preserved by the Christian Church.

According to the Second Book of Maccabees, Judah and his band purified the Temple and rid it of all traces of Greek desecration. The date was the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The celebrations of rededication and renewal lasted eight days, as a kind of delayed commemoration of the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot had occurred two months earlier, but they hadn’t been able to celebrate it properly because they hadn’t had access to the Temple. And it was decided that every year at the time, for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev, the Jews should celebrate the rededication of their Temple. The new holiday was called Hanukah, which meant “dedication.”

Antiochus IV had died before Judah’s victory in Jerusalem. He was succeeded by his son, Antiochus V. The new ruler allowed the Jews to have religious freedom. They were once again free to practice Judaism.

Sounds great, right? But of course nothing is so simple, and the story does not end there. What it meant to practice Judaism continued to be a source of contention between Jewish groups. And there was still no peace in the region. While the Maccabees had gained the right to control the Temple and to it restore Jewish ritual, they had not managed to maintain military control of Jerusalem. What Judah and his followers now wanted was to have an independent Jewish state. After much fighting, and after the deaths of both Judah and his successor, his brother Jonathan, the last surviving brother, Simon, was able to regain Judea’s independent status.

Nowhere in the early accounts of Hanukah does a miracle of oil occur. That aspect of the story was written in later by the rabbis of the Mishnah who were uncomfortable with the emphasis on politics and violence. But perhaps the real miracle of the Hanukah story is that what began as a struggle for religious freedom and self-determination on the part of a small group of people on the fringe became a large and successful movement that won not only its initials goals but ultimately the larger goal of political freedom. They fought for and won the right of self-rule, which lasted for one hundred years until Judea was conquered by the Romans. It was not until 1948 that there was once again Jewish self-rule, when in another battle of the few against the many, the State of Israel declared its independence.

text sources of Hanukah story

Rabbi Hara Person is the editor of, as well as editor of the UAHC Press. She was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1998.