The Miracle of Chanukah

December 4, 1999
Chanukah Menorah image created by the Rabbi Sacks Legacy

The article was written by Rabbi Sacks in December 1999 and published in The Times

There are times, rare but unforgettable, when you know you are living through a page of history. That is what I felt when, back in 1991, I lit Chanukah candles together with the Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.

He was on a visit to Britain, and we had arranged a reception for him in the crypt of London's Guildhall. His stay coincided with Chanukah, so we lit the Menorah, the eight-branched candelabrum that is the symbol of the festival, and sang the traditional songs. He had not been briefed beforehand about the significance of Chanukah, so he asked me through an interpreter to explain it to him. It was then that I was able to tell him that unknowingly he had played a role in a modern drama uncannily like the events that had happened more than two thousand years before.

I told him that, two centuries before the birth of Christianity, Jews had fought for their freedom to live as Jews. They won, and ever since, the Chanukah lights had been our symbol of the inextinguishable human spirit. The same thing had happened in the twentieth century in Eastern Europe. For seventy years, following the Russian revolution, Jews had been unable to practise their religion in public. They too had fought for freedom, not with weapons but with the same stubborn resistance, and it had been President Gorbachev himself who, through perestroika, had given it back to them. "You, Mr President, are part of the Chanukah miracle of our time," I said. He smiled. So did I, realising that an ancient symbol of hope had become a modern one as well.

The story of Chanukah began in the fourth century before the Common Era. It was then that Alexander the Great extended the rule of Greece throughout Asia and the Middle East. Never before or since has a single culture so dominated the world. Wherever Greek power reached, so too did the influence of Hellenistic art and architecture, science and philosophy. Stunning then, they remain today one of the two formative influences on Western civilisation.

But Hellenism had a darker side, and Jews experienced it. Israel came under Greek rule, first under the Ptolemies in Egypt, then under the Seleucids based in Syria. At first their rule was benign. But in the second century BCE, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, together with some Jewish sympathisers, began to force the pace of cultural assimilation. Funds were diverted from the Temple to public games and drama competitions. A statue of Zeus was erected in Jerusalem. Jewish religious rituals such as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath were banned. Those who kept them were persecuted. Jews were tolerated but Judaism was not. It was one of the great crises in Jewish history. There was a real possibility that the religion of the covenant would be eclipsed.

It was then that a group of Jewish pietists rose in rebellion. Led by a priest, Mattathias of Modiin, and his son Judah the Maccabee, they began the fight for liberty. Outnumbered, they suffered heavy initial casualties, but within three years they had secured a momentous victory. Jerusalem was restored to Jewish hands. The Temple was rededicated. The celebrations lasted for eight days. Chanukah, which means "rededication", was established as a festival to perpetuate the memory of those days.

The story did not end there. Initially Chanukah was the commemoration of a military victory. It meant the overthrow of imperial Greece and the recovery of Jewish independence. That is how the tale is told in our earliest record of those events, the First Book of Maccabees. But the state of affairs did not last. Greece declined and imperial Rome rose to take its place. Again the Jews of Israel faced repression. There was a second rebellion, but this time it went disastrously wrong. Jerusalem was conquered. The Temple was destroyed. Resistance was ruthlessly suppressed. It was the beginning of a period of Jewish powerlessness and dispersion which lasted almost two thousand years until the birth of the modern State of Israel in 1948.

In despair, there were Jews in the first century who called for the abolition of Chanukah. The victory had turned to dust. Fortunately their view did not prevail. Instead, the festival underwent a transformation. A minor detail of the original story now became its major theme. Tradition told of how, when the Maccabees entered the precincts of the Temple, they found a single undefiled cruse of oil. With this they were able to relight the candelabrum. Miraculously it burned for eight days instead of one, until fresh oil could be prepared. It is this we recall when we light the menorah in our homes.

Chanukah became a different kind of celebration, not of military power but of spiritual strength. It stood for the truth of which the prophet Zechariah spoke when he said, "Not by force nor by might, but by My spirit, says the Lord." The menorah came to represent the Jewish spirit which, like the cruse of oil, kept burning as if by a miracle. Jewish faith survived, even after the destruction of the Temple and some of the harshest trials ever faced by a people.

Looking back on this story as we near the end of the second Christian millennium it is hard to overestimate the significance of those events long ago. Had the Maccabees not resisted the power of Greece, not only would there be no Judaism today. There would be no Christianity either. For it was in the aftermath of the confrontation with Greece and Rome that two dreams were born. Jews believed, against all probability, that though they faced defeat and dispersion they would stay loyal to their faith. One day they would return to Zion and see Jerusalem rebuilt. The early Christians believed, equally improbably, that their faith – an offshoot of Judaism – would one day transform the world. They would bring God to many peoples and build Jerusalem in many lands.

Today both dreams have come true. Christianity, once a small sect, has become the faith of almost half of humanity. Judaism, which in Auschwitz stood face to face with the angel of death, once again thrives in Israel and Jerusalem. As we light the Chanukah candles on the threshold of a new age, I am moved by its ancient and still compelling story. Faith proved stronger than empires. Judaism and Christianity live. Imperial Greece and Rome have long since disappeared. Civilisations built on power never last. Those built on care for the powerless never die.

What matters in the long run is not political, military or economic strength but how we light the flame of the human spirit. That, for me, is the Chanukah message to a new millennium.