The Hidden Story of Chanukah

On 20th October 2012, the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivered a keynote lecture at Bushey Synagogue about the story within the story of Chanukah. With thanks to Bushey Synagogue for use of their video footage.

Rabbi Sacks:

Let's do a little bit of Chanukah, because Chanukah is on the way. Should we do that? I want to tell you the story that you don't know about Chanukah, and here it is.

Does anyone know where the story of Chanukah is actually told? Anyone know? Yeah?

Student: The Maccabees?

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah. The story of Chanukah is actually told in two books, both of which are what are called ... they're in the Apocrypha. We call them Sefarim Chitzona’im. What do I mean by that? I mean this. What do we call the Hebrew Bible? What do we call it?

Student: Tanach.

Rabbi Sacks:

We call it Tanach, right? Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim. Torah: the five books of Moses. They're the holiest of our books. Then a little below that, the Nevi'im: the historical books like Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, plus all the prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the shorter prophets. Then Ketuvim, which include things like the Book of Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, the Megillot, and so and so forth.

The last writings to be canonised were the Ketuvim. There were a group of Rabbis who sat and decided which books are in and which books are out. Some books that are in Tanach nearly didn't get in. And some books that nearly got in didn't get in. The ones that nearly didn't get in, for instance, were: Kohelet - Ecclesiastes (I don't know if you've ever read Kohelet but it's slightly bolshie. It's a very challenging work); The Book of Esther (Apparently people were worried that if you had the Book of Esther in the Bible, it would create antisemitism. It's a book about antisemitism, and they thought that it might create antisemitism) so, some books nearly didn't get in.

And some books that on the face of it should have gone in, didn't get in. Two of the books that didn't get were Maccabees 1 and Maccabees 2. The Catholics for some reason, include them in their Bible, but we don't include them in ours.

So if you read Book 1 of Maccabees, it tells the story of the military victory of Mattityahu and his children, most famously Yehudah the Maccabee, and how they defeated the Greeks under Antiochus Epiphanes. and how they rededicated the Temple and celebrated for eight days.

In Maccabees 2, it has a very interesting explanation of why they celebrated for eight days. The answer is that that year they were unable to celebrate Succot, which is eight days in the month of Tishrei, because the Temple had been defiled and there was a war going on and they weren't able to celebrate Succot.

So on the 25th of Kislev, they celebrated the rededication of the Temple by keeping an eight-day festival the way Succot is an eight day festival with seven days of Succot, plus Shemini Atzeret. (Nobody had ever heard of Simchat Torah by then, Simchat Torah is a very late edition to the calendar, around the 8th to 10th centuries.)

So we have all of the story of the military victory, but there's one little piece that's missing. What piece do you think is missing?

Students: Miracle.

Rabbi Sacks:


Students: The miracle of the lights/ and the miracle of the oil

Rabbi Sacks:

The miracle of the oil, not mentioned at all!

In either Maccabees 1 or Maccabees 2, no reference to it at all. Says that the Greeks defiled all the stuff in the Temple and so they re-purified all the keilim, all the appurtenances of the Temple, among which was the Menorah. And they re-lit the Menorah and they established an eight day festival with Hallel, but no mention of the miracle of the oil.

The only story told in the book of Maccabees 1 and 2 is the story of the military victory over the Greeks. And that is, of course, the incredible story. What is incredible about it? Number one, it was a defeat by a handful of Jews of the greatest empire of the time.

You know Aristotle (I'm a philosopher so I love Aristotle. The Rambam – Maimonides loved Aristotle) and I rather like Aristotle because in the old days, antisemites in the second and third centuries, thousands of years ago, put out a malicious rumour that Aristotle was Jewish. So I think I always felt warm to Aristotle. What's more, Aristotle must have liked Jews because he had a Talmudai (disciple) called Theophrastus, and Theophrastus was a big admirer of Jews. The Greeks didn't understand the Jews at all and they asked Theophrastus, "Who are the Jews? What are they?" He replied - listen to this - he replied, "The Jews are a nation of philosophers." So, that's a wonderful compliment to be given.

Of course, Aristotle's most famous disciple was Alexander the Great. Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, who created in his lifetime the greatest empire the world had ever known, the Alexandrian Empire.

As you know, after his death it split in two. The Ptolemies, who ruled from Egypt from Alexandria, and the Seleucids who ruled from Syria. In the third century BCE, Israel came under the rule of the Ptolemy's. In the second century BCE, it came under the rule of the Seleucids. One of whom was Antiochus IV, who was an extremely modest man and had everyone call him ‘Epiphanes’, which means ‘God Made Manifest.’ So, he fancied himself.

So Antiochus IV did a number of things which were absolutely unacceptable to Jews. Erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple, had people offer korbanot (sacrifices) to pagan gods, and various other things, and banned the practice of Judaism in public, among which Brit Milah on pain of death and they rose and rebelled. The fact that handful of dedicated Jews could beat the greatest empire of the ancient world was in itself an extraordinary event.

Secondly, Chanukah is the only festival in Jewish history - until we come to modern festivals - (like Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim) - believe it or not, it is the only festival you can read about in non-Jewish sources. Did you know this? We have lots of records of Egypt, of the Pharaohs, because they wrote their records in hieroglyphics on their temple walls, but there's no reference to the Exodus in all those Egyptian inscriptions.

There's a reason why there's no reference to Exodus, because the Egyptians, like most other nations known in history, only recorded the good news about themselves. They never recorded the bad news. We, lehakis, did the opposite, we only wrote the bad news. As Abba Eban once said, ‘We are the people who can’t take yes for an answer.’ Anyway.

So, there's no record of the Exodus in ancient literature. There's no record obviously of the giving of the Torah, because there were non-Jews there. There was no record, oddly enough, of the events of Purim, strangely, because the Megillah says,

halo haym ketuvim al-sefer Divrei Hayamim lemalchei madai ufaras? - [meaning] Are not all these events recorded in the Chronicles of the Medes and Persians.

Megillat Esther, 10:2

But we haven't yet found in the Chronicles of the Medes and Persians a reference to Purim.

However, all the ancient historians wrote absolute Chanukah. Why? Because it was an event that changed the history of the world. It was the beginning of the end of Greece and the beginning of the beginning of Rome. So it was an event not only of significance to Jews, but of significance to the world. And everyone knew it at the time. So that is the story as recorded in the book of books of Maccabees.

However, as I say, oddly enough, the books of Maccabees were not included in Tanach, and the question is, Why? Because it should ,on the face of it, be obvious that at least Maccabees One should have been included, because what do we have on Purim, we have a Megillah. We read the story. So we should have a Megillah on Chanukah, and it was written, it's there, it's called Maccabees One.

And yet it was never included in Tanach. So the question is why.

What is now fascinating is when we come to the second story of Chanukah. And I want to tell you where we find the second story. Anyone know where the second story of Chanukah appears? I'll tell you: There is a document which dates from Second Temple times called Megillat Ta’anit, the Scroll of Fasting.

It's actually a scroll of ‘not fasting’. You know that big rubric in the singer's prayer book of the days when you don't say Tachanun. (We should all be Chassidim, they have a lot more days where they don't say Tachanun.) There are certain days when you don't say Tachanun because they're happy days, and you don't say miserable things on happy days. So, days on which you don't say Tachanun. And basically they are days on which you are forbidden to fast. And that is the scroll called Megillat Ta’anit.

Now, Megillat Ta’anit recorded a lot of days on which you don't fast. And I'm now going to read to you the reference here in Megillat Ta’anit, which is quoted in the Talmud in Massechet Shabbat [21b], in the chapter called Bameh Madlikim. (Where we read the Mishnah that is said every Friday evening.) [Mishnah Shabbat 82]

And it says the following, listen to this:

"My Chanukah..." (This is what the scroll of Ta’anit says) - What is Chanukah? "D’tanu Rabbanam: De’chaf-hay b’Kislev yomai dachanukah temanya iynoon" - On 25th of Kiselv there begin the eight days of Chanukah. "Dela lemispad b’hon oode’la le’hitanot b’hon."

You don't say a hesped (like if God forbid there is a funeral, you don't make a hesped [a eulogy], like how on Erev Shabbat, or Rosh Chodesh, or various days when you don't make a hesped.) And you don't fast on them.

And this is what it says, "shekeshenichnesu yevonim lahaychil" – When the Greeks entered the Temple, "timu kol hashmanim shebahaychal" - they defiled all the oils in the Temple. And when the Hasmoneans prevailed over the Greeks and defeated them, they searched and they could only find one cruse of oil which had the seal of the High Priest unbroken. And there was only enough oil to last for one day. And there was a miracle and they lit the Menorah for eight days. And the next year they fixed eight days on which to have a festival with Hallel and special prayers.”

Shabbat 21b:10

Now, do you notice something odd about that sentence? The entire victory over the Greeks is turned into a subordinate clause. "When the Greeks came in, and when the Jews beat them, then they discovered this single cruse of oil."

So they turned this whole incredible, world-changing military victory into a minor detail, and the major story is the oil that lasted for eight days. And the question is, what happened between these two stories? And it's very interesting.

I'll tell you what happened. The first thing that happened was, when the Maccabees won, they became Kings of Israel. They were not descendants of King David, they were known as the Hasmonean Kings. And one of the strange things is this, they became rather Hellenised themselves. They fought against the Greeks, but then you know what happens you mix with the [Yiddish phrase] you become like the [Yiddish phrase]. So they became also themselves very assimilated people.

They also did one thing, which the Rabbis were very, very upset about. You know, we think it was America that first invented separation of Church and State. That was Thomas Jefferson's great achievement, the First Amendment. However, way back in the days of the Bible, there was already a fundamental separation between Shul and State. (Except they didn't have shul in those days.)

So what was it? There was the political authority, who, in ancient times was...? [Asking the audience] It wasn't the Prime Minister, it was...? The King. And the religious head of the community was...?

Student: The High Priest

Rabbi Sacks:

The High Priest, the Kohen Gadol.

So these were two separate functions. A King couldn't be a Kohen Gadol, and a Kohen Gadol couldn't be a King. You had separation between the political arena and the religious arena. That is the basis of separation of powers in Western civilisation. It came back into the West in the 18th century with somebody called Montesquieu, who wrote a book called De L'Esprit Des Loix. Also a very philo-semitic guy. And eventually from Montesquieu it came to Jefferson, then et cetera.

The Hasmonean Kings did a very mischievous thing. The first Hasmonean King, whose name was like mine, he was called Jonathan, made himself King and High Priest at the same time. And the Rabbis did not like this at all. They said to him, Ha yesh lecha malchut - You've got the royal crown. Kahuna? You also want to be High Priest as well? One should be either one or the other. So, the Hasmonaean Kings not only became assimilated, but they did the Greek thing, because the Greek thing was, and even more so the Roman thing was, to turn the political head, the king, to a kind of quasi-religious hero.

In fact, the Romans were worse. Why do we call July, ‘July’? Because of Julius Caesar. Why is August, ‘August’? Because of Augustus. See, they turned them into demigods. They made statues and everyone had to bow down. And that was something Judaism was utterly opposed to. And that is one of the reasons why the Sages did not include their account of their own victory, which they wrote in the Books of Maccabees one and two. They didn't allow it to be included in Tanach. Because for them, the Hasmonaeans, who started so well, nonetheless went off into the wrong direction.

How long did the military victory last?

Well, the trouble is, it didn't last for all that long. In the year 69 BCE, already Pompey invaded Jerusalem, entered the Beit HaMikdash, and by then Jews came under Roman rule. So their independence only lasted less than a century. So by then, already we can see in Megillat Taanit that by then the Rabbis and the Sages at the time said: You know what? The most important thing about Chanukah is the spiritual thing, not the military and political thing. And something that had been a minor detail of the early story suddenly took on its great significance.

Now, I want us to move forward to the year 66 of the common era. The year 66: Israel has been under Roman rule now for 130 years. And all of a sudden, Rome is becoming repressive the way the Greeks were. You know, people think the Romans were very tolerant, the Greeks were very tolerant, forget it. They were tolerant except to Jews. So, as you know, Jews rose up in rebellion. It was called The Great Rebellion against Rome.

And they thought they would do what the Maccabees had done two centuries earlier. But unfortunately, by then Jewish life had become much more divided and the Romans were pretty ruthless. And in the year 70 the Temple fell. Vespasian and then Titus besieged the city and the Temple fell. Something happened that I don't know if you know about, which is some Rabbis decided to abolish Chanukah - did you know this? They decided to abolish Chanukah. We have the debate recorded in the Gemara in Massechet Rosh Hashanah, and some Rabbis held, “batlah Megillah Ta’anit” [Rosh Hashanah 1b]. Every event that was celebrated as a festival and listed in Megillat Ta’anit, including Chanukah, is now null and void.

Can you see why somebody might say Chanukah should be abolished? Why did they celebrate Chanukah? Because they rededicated the Temple. Are you supposed to celebrate the rededication of the Temple when you have no Temple? Are you with me? It had all vanished into dust. And therefore there were certain people who said, all these festivals, including Chanukah, are abolished.

And we know that in the town of Lud, near Ben Gurion airport today with lots of orange groves, in the town of Lud, some Rabbi decided to decree a fast. You know, in Israel, they fast for it to rain. (You know, in England we fast for it to stop raining) If rain hasn’t fallen, they ordain a public fast, and somebody had ordained a public fast in Lud on Chanukah, which meant that the official Rabbinate of Lud was abolishing Chanukah. And some other Rabbis got very upset about this. Rabbi Yehoshua and, who was it? Yehoshua and, anyone remember? Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, that's right. They sent Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua to Lud. And Rabbi Eliezer went for a swim in the public swimming pool, in public baths, and Rabbi Yehoshua had a haircut. Why? Because there are two things you don't do on a fast: you don't swim in a swimming pool and you don't have a haircut.

So, it wasn't enough for them to say: Guys, you are wrong for abolishing Chanukah. [They decided] we're going to show you how wrong you are, because we're going to do some things that you just don't do on the fast.

So, in the end, Chanukah was saved. But go figure, why was Chanukah saved? How was Chanukah saved? The answer is that Chanukah was only saved because in the course of a century and a half, the Jewish people had decided that that first story was not the primary one. The second story was the real one.

Let me explain: There were two battles against the rules. Number one was a military battle fought by armies. But number two was a cultural battle. Exactly Rabbi Richard's point. Are we prepared to stand up and wear a yarmulka? Are we prepared to stand up and say, "We're not like everyone else"? Are we? The Greeks were fantastic guys, you know. They invented the Olympic Games. (It was a wonderful Jew, Ludwig Guttman, who invented the Paralympic Games, but the Greeks invented the Olympic Games.)

Their architecture was magnificent. Have you've been to Athens, you've seen the Parthenon, it's gevaldig. Their painting was magnificent, their philosophy was good. Yeah. Their theatre was brilliant stuff. Absolutely brilliant. But yidden were not like that, you know? Sorry, I know it's changed since the State of Israel, but I'm a real ‘Jewish boy’, you know. Says on his report, "not good at games."

So, the Greeks were physical. We were spiritual. The Greeks looked at the visual arts, where we thought, we were much more verbal than visual. We were talking and listening and arguing. And we were different cultures, there's no question that the West was based on these two cultures, Ancient Greece, Ancient Israel, the culture of Athens, the culture of Jerusalem, but they were different cultures. And in the end, the Rabbis looking back over history said the real battle was not the military one. It was the cultural one. And we can see now how right they were because the military victory lasted 100 years, but the spiritual victory has lasted more than 2000 years.

And the symbol of that spiritual victory was not a book about battles won and fought and won. It was a story about the symbol of the Jewish spirit. That one little cruse of undefiled oil that just keeps on burning and keeps on giving light. The Jewish spirit that is not extinguished. And that became a real story.

And because of that, when it came to the destruction of the Temple, and the Rabbis sat and said, "Shall we continue Chanukah, or shall we not continue Chanukah?" They said this, "The building, the Temple, may have gone, but the hope hasn't gone. We still have the hope."

I once saw some teachers with some five year old kids. It sounds like a bit of a savage thing to do to five year old kids, but they wanted to teach the kids a lesson they'd never forget. So they had the kids make a model of Jerusalem and they had the kids listen to a tape. In those days, before we had MP3s, (back in the Jurassic Age, do you remember that?) they played a tape for the kids with a song about Yerushalayim and the kids learnt the song.

And at the end of the day, the teacher did something to shock the kids. The teacher smashed the model and pulled out all the tape and shredded the tape. And she said to the kids, "Kids do we still have the model?" And they said "No.” And then she said, "Do we still have the song?" And they said, "Yes." Are you with me? You lose the physical thing, the model, but the song, the spiritual thing engraved in your mind and your memory, you never lose, and that way she taught the kids, those five year old kids, the difference between a physical possession and a spiritual possession. You can lose the physical possession. You can't lose the spiritual possession.

And that is why the Rabbis were able to say, we may have lost the physical Jerusalem, but we haven't lost the Jerusalem in our mind and in our heart. And we haven't lost hope. Because of that, Jews came back to Israel and because of that, Jews came back to Yerushalayim. And that is the story of Chanukah that you didn't know. That second narrative. Because of that, we have the festival. And now today Baruch Hashem we have Yerushalayim.

I want to say one last thing in closing. And I say that in the context, has there a ceasefire been agreed? Not quite...

I want to tell you this. There is one little halachah, one little item of Jewish law. It's the last paragraph in Maimonides’ code of laws of Chanukah, and it is a law I want you never to forget, even though you'll never have to use it.

You know that we light on Chanukah, one light the first night, two the next night, three the third, but all of that is called Mehadrin min hamehadrin, that's the best way of doing it. But if you're really stuck, what is the essential mitzvah, anyone know?

The essential mitzvah is one candle per night. We all do the deluxe version, but the basic, vanilla, Tesco's own-brand version is one candle per night. If you light one candle each night for eight nights, you’ve fulfilled the mitzvah. Ditto on Shabbos. We all light two candles, but the essential mitzvah is one candle. So the question is raised in Jewish law: If, on Friday afternoon of Shabbos Chanukah, you only have one candle...what do you light is as, a Chanukah candle or a Shabbos candle?

Now, everything in your mind says you've got to light is as a Chanukah candle. Chanukah only comes once a year, Shabbos comes 50 times a year. And besides which, Chanukah is a big sign of a miracle and Shabbos is just regular life, but the truth is, the law is, and with this, Maimonides ends with this idea. If you're faced with that choice, you light it as a Shabbos candle. Why? Mishuv shener Shabbat umishoom shalom Bayit - Because the Shabbos light represents peace in the home. Says the Rambam, gadol hashalom - great is peace, shekol haTorah nitnah la’assot shalom ba’olam because the whole Torah was only given to make peace in the world. [See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Chapter 4]

Now go figure. Here is the greatest military victory our people ever had until modern times. And yet when faced with a choice, which takes priority? One little bit of peace or the greatest victory of them all? One little bit of peace takes priority over the greatest victory of them all.

Why did Jews win their battles? Cause they only fight them not because they love the war, but because they seek peace. And that is why Israel today is the great nation it is, and why all the countries around Israel, who spend their time fighting one another are living sadly in poverty. Which, if they would only learn from Israel, Israel would help them find their way to hope and to a future for their children.

Friends, we are the people who only fight when we need to, to defend our lives and our country. But our deepest hope is for peace. May Hashem send shalom al Yisrael bimheira b’yameinu.