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Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b: The Significance of Hanukkah

The holiday of Hanukah, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Seleucids and the rededication of the Temple in 164 B.C.E., was observed by the lighting of lamps, symbolizing the relighting of the Temple menorah. The Babylonian Talmud explained the significance of the festival and detailed its observance.

Our Rabbis taught- “The commandment of Hanukkah is [to light] one candle for a man and his household. Those who are more exacting—one candle for each and every person. And those who are the most exacting—the House of Shammai say- ‘On the first day one should light eight; from there on, he reduces [the number of candles] as the holiday progresses.’ But the House of Hillel say- ‘On the first day one should light one; and from there on, he should add as Hanukkah continues.’’’

Ulla says- “Two amoraic sages argued about this in the west (the Land of Israel), R. Yose bar Avin and Yose bar Zevida. One says- ‘The reason of the House of Shammai is [that the number of lights] corresponds to the days that are still to come. The reason of the House of Hillel is [that the number of lights] corresponds to the days that have already passed.’ And one says- ‘The reason for the House of Shammai is that [the
decreasing lights] correspond to the bullocks of the festival (of Sukkot) [which decrease day by day], 103 and the reason of the House of Hillel is “We increase in holiness, and we do not decrease.”’”

Our Rabbis taught- “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah light at the entrance to one’s house outside. If he lives in an upper chamber (second storey), he should place it in the window closest to the public thoroughfare. But in a time of danger 104 he should place it on his table, and that will be sufficient.” Said Rava- “It is required that there be an additional lamp, the light of which may be used. 105 But if there is a fire (in the fireplace), it is not necessary. But if he is a distinguished man, even if there is a fire, an additional lamp is still required.”

What is [the significance of the holiday of] Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught- “[From] the twenty-fifth day of Kislev are the days of Hanukkah, which are eight, on which eulogies and fasting are forbidden.” 1006 When the Greeks 107 entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Sanctuary. But when the Hasmonean House grew mighty and defeated them, they searched and could find but a single cruse of oil which was sealed with the seal of the high priest. And in it there was sufficient [oil] for but a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit [the menorah] from it for eight days. The next year they established them and made them festival days with Hallel 108 and thanksgiving. 109

99. Psalms 120-34.

100. Early in the morning, indicating that the new day had begun.

101. A quivering musical sound.

102. Trans. S. Berrin.

103. According to Num. 29-12-31 where the number of bullocks starts with thirteen and decreases every
day.

104. A time of persecution during which the holiday of Hanukkah might be outlawed.

105. It is forbidden to make use of the Hanukkah lights for any purpose other than for publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah. Hence, an additional lamp is lit along with the Hanukkah lights so as to provide light which may be used for other purposes. It later became customary to use that additional light to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

106. The Talmud quotes the Megillat Ta‘anit (Scroll of Fasts) and then continues by explaining it.

107. The Seleucid Syrians, termed “Greeks” since they were successors to the empire of Alexander the
Great.

108. A designated group of joyful psalms (psalms 113-18) inserted into the daily prayers on special occasions such as festivals.

109. Fulfilled by the recitation of the‘AI Ha-Nissim prayer.

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