How the rabbis turned swords into candles

Why Chanucah recalls a miracle in the Temple rather than the Maccabees' military heroics.


Oil lamps outside Orthodox homes light up a Jerusalem street at Chanucah

Oil lamps outside Orthodox homes light up a Jerusalem street at Chanucah

Chanucah, the festival of lights, is, in our own day, mainly the commemoration of a spiritual event. Its historical roots, however, as set out in the Book of Maccabees, were the celebration of a great military victory over the Syrian-Greek overlords.

The Talmud's description concentrates on the laws of keeping the Chanucah lights burning (Masechet Shabbat 21b-24a). When it does offer historical reasons, they are largely to do with the miracle that fell on the eight days of the initial festival. Compared to the Book of Maccabees, the idea of a light that lasted eight days is a complete fabrication of the sages. No mention of such a light exists in the account of the rebellion of the Maccabees against the enemy. Josephus concurs with the reading of the Book of Maccabees.

Among other things that Judah Maccabee did was to "rebuild the sanctuary and the interior of the Temple and consecrate the courts… Early on the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month…they offered sacrifices, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offerings that they had built. At the very season… that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals " (I Maccabees. 4: 48-54).

Lots about work in the Temple. Not a word about the miracle of the light! The Maccabees were not a subtle lot. A story told of their battles against their enemies appears in both the Book of Maccabees as well as in the post-biblical, rabbinical text, Megillat Ta'anit, which records the extra days on which people in the second Temple period celebrated. None of these days, apart from Chanucah and Purim, have survived.

On the thirteenth day of Adar, it is written that Nicanor Pulmarchus, who was the head of the Greek army, shook his fist at Jerusalem and against the Temple and swore to destroy it. "When the Maccabees attacked and destroyed his soldiers, they cut off their heads, they cut off their big toes and thumbs, they reached his carriage, they cut off his head, and cut away his limbs and hung them against the Temple. They said: 'A mouth that spoke against Jews and Jerusalem with such arrogance, and a fist that shook against it, should have a revenge taken against them.' They made this day into a holiday" (Megillat Ta'anit, Adar).

The Maccabees' version adds to this list of gruesome features: "When the action was over… they recognised Nicanor, lying dead in full armour… and he [Judah] cut out the tongue of the ungodly Nicanor and said he would give it piecemeal to the birds and hang up these rewards of his folly opposite the sanctuary… And they all... blessed the Lord" (II Maccabees 15: 28-34).

It is perhaps unsurprising that these Maccabees and their descendants came into conflict with the sages. Such behaviour, however difficult the circumstances, was not to be countenanced by the people of Israel, whose life revolved around the concept of all men being made in the image of God.

By the time the Maccabees took upon themselves the role of sovereigns as well as priests, the sages had become outcasts in their own society. They were often forced to flee into a neighbouring country to save themselves from death at the hands of the ruling Maccabees.

In this book Pirkei Avot: A New Israeli Commentary, Professor Avigdor Shinan suggests that the early sages mentioned in that Mishnah - from Yossi ben Yo'ezer to Shimon ben Shetach - were all people who were pursued by the Maccabee kings, particularly Jochanan Hyrcanus and Alexander Yannai.

These sages, not to mention those who came after them, were aware of the dangers of mixing politics and religion. For this reason, the sages emphasised the idea of bringing Torah into your house, since learning Torah by the sages in a public place, was banned.

The lessons that the sages learnt from this episode was clearly one in which the separation of powers was essential if there was going to be a society motivated by the words of Torah.

A similar lesson is to be learned today if the light of Chanucah is not to be doused by the flood of fanaticism, religious or political, and this festival not given over to a show of extreme nationalism.

Last updated: 11:32am, December 15 2011