Adapted from the Overview of 'Chanukah - Its History,
Observance and Significance'
Published by Mesorah Publications. Brooklyn, New York
The holiday of
Chanukah commemorates the famous miracle of lights that took
place in the era of the Second Temple when a one-day supply
of pure olive oil burned for eight days in the Menorah of
the Holy Temple and the miraculous victory of a small band
of Jews defeated the great Syrian-Greek army regaining
control of the Temple.
The miracle of Chanukah is
one of the great events in Jewish history. The only miracles
singled out by the Sages for commemoration through festivals
are Chanukah and Purim. When it occurred, however, it was
not absolutely clear whether a miracle had indeed taken
place or not. Only through the spiritual perspective of the
Sages of that time could that be determined. Those
connoisseurs of the eternal understood the factors
underlying the heroics of the Jews and the sadism of the
Syrians; they knew the inner dynamics of the struggle
between Greek culture and Jewish sanctity.
Secular historians would
have interpreted the events differently - and certainly
would have proclaimed a different national holiday. They
would have put gaudy markers on many trees, but the Divinely
inspired Sages saw the forest.
The Talmud (Shabbos 21b)
asks, "What is Chanukah?" and in answering the question, the
Talmud goes on to relate the 'miracle of the lights'. This
is the only miracle that the Talmud mentions in its brief
description of the Chanukah events. It does not mention the
defeat of the Syrian-Greek army. However, the AI HaNissim
liturgy, which we recite throughout Chanukah recounts the
festival's origin and tells a different tale. There, the
eight-day miracle of the oil is not even mentioned. There,
the emphasis is on the miracles of the military triumph. AI
HaNissim tells how the Syrian-Greeks conquered the Jews and
sought to wrest them from the Torah and commandments and how
G-d came to Israel's defense, enabling them to overcome 'the
strong, the many, the impure, the wicked, and the wanton,'
bringing about 'a great victory and salvation' to the
Maharal (Chiddushei Aggados), a popular commentary on the
Talmud, notes the discrepancy between the Talmud's emphasis
on the oil and the liturgy's emphasis on the war. He
explains that even at the time of the miracle it was
necessary for Divine intervention to show the victorious
Jews that their military triumph had indeed been miraculous.
As we read of the Maccabean victories over the
Syrian-Greeks, we can marvel at their faith in G-d and at
their courage in the face of impossible odds. A band of
devout Jews defeated one of the superpowers of the day. But
one who reads the history without knowing from faith,
tradition, and study that G-d was in their ranks might be
forgiven if he wonders. Even in modern times we have seen
mighty armies of apathetic mercenaries defeated by bands of
rebels, fighting for their own homes and to defend the
dignity of their wives and children. If guerrillas can
defeat huge armies equipped with twentieth century
armaments, why couldn't an ancient Jewish force do the same
against Syrian horsemen with spears? Surely the triumph was
immense, but was it a miracle? Yehudah the Maccabee, who
succeeded his father, Mattisyahu, as leader of the revolt,
was a master tactician as well as a devout and righteous
tzaddik - couldn't the victory be attributed to his tactics
and the bravery of his men? The Sages of the time asked
these same questions. Jewish tradition does not proclaim
festivals easily; communities and individuals have the right
and obligation to thank G-d and celebrate their salvation
from death or danger, but only Scripture, prophecy, or some
other Divine message allows us to proclaim that a day has
been invested with holiness.
For the Sages who exulted at
the liberation and purification of the Temple but wondered
how miraculous it had been, G-d performed an unmistakable
miracle to prove that the entire process had occurred only
through His intervention. A lone flask of pure oil was
found, still bearing the unbroken seal of the Kohen Gadol.
How did it happen that the Syrian-Greeks failed to
contaminate it? Why did it have the Kohen Gadol's seal when
it had never been the Temple practice for him to seal or
even supervise the flasks of oil? Strange. Extraordinary.
But still not necessarily miraculous. Then they lit the oil,
and it burned and burned and burned. For eight days it
burned until fresh oil could be prepared and brought.
This was undeniably a miracle.
To the Jewish Sages, trained
in perception and refined in spirit, the glow of the Menorah
was a Heavenly answer to all their doubts. Yes! Miracles had
taken place. Not only for eight days, but throughout the
three years that old Mattisyahu and then his loyal, vigorous
sons fought and defeated the best generals and the most
daunting forces that Antiochus could hurl at them. True,
similar victories might have been won by the strong right
arm of man., but this war was won by the Supreme Warrior.
We celebrate the oil because
it was G-d's means of showing us what we would otherwise not
have known - that it was He Who delivered the strong, many
and wanton into the hands of those who were weak and few but
who fought for the sake of G-d's Torah.