The Feast of the Hanukkah, Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, McGraw-Hill, New York 1961.


Herodian Oil Lamp

Herodian Oil Lamp

Most modern translations call this feast the feast of the Dedication. Its Greek name, Τά ’Εγκαίνια, means the ‘inauguration’ or ‘the renewal’, and this is a more literal rendering of the Hebrew hanukkah, the name which was given to the feast by the Rabbis and by which it is still known among the Jews. Josephus calls it the feast of Lights, after the rite which was its principal feature.

(a) The origin and history of the feast. The story of its institution is told in 1 M 4- 36-59. Antiochus Epiphanes, after desecrating the Temple of Jerusalem and its altar, erected, over the altar of holocausts, a pagan altar, the Abomination of Desolation (I M I- 54; Dn 9- 27; II- 31), and there offered the first sacrifice to Zeus Olympios, on the 25th Kisleu (December), 167. Three years later, Judas Maccabee, after his first victories, purified the sanctuary, built a new altar and inaugurated it on the 25th Kisleu, 164, the third anniversary of its profanation (2 M 10- 5). It was then decided that the feast should be observed each year (I M 4- 59).

It is questionable whether the feast could have been regularly observed during the following years, for the Syrians occupied the Citadel and there was fighting in Jerusalem. The situation would have changed once religious freedom was regained, and once Jonathan was appointed high priest, in 152 B.C. The opening verses of the second book of Maccabees (2 M I- 1-9) contain a letter written to the Jews of Egypt in 124- in this letter, they are recommended to keep the Hanukkah, and reference is made to a previous letter sent in 143. This document bears all the marks of authenticity. It is followed, however, by another letter, for which the same claims cannot be made (2 M I- 10-2- 18)- this second letter is said to have been despatched at the first feast of the Dedication, in 164, and it already contains some legendary features. Like the first, it ends with an invitation to keep the Hanukkah. In the body of the book itself, all the first part (2 M 2- 19-10- 8) is an historical justification of the feast (cf. the author’s preface, 2 M 2- 19, and conclusion, 2 M 10- 8). The second part of the book is parallel to the first, and gives the events leading up to the feast of Nicanor, which was held on the 13th Adar in memory of the defeat and death of this Syrian general (2 M 15- 36). The feast of Nicanor was not observed for long, and we shall omit all further mention of it.

The feast of the Hanukkah, however, continued to be observed. It is mentioned in the New Testament (Jn 10- 22), under its Greek name (Τά ’Εγκαίνια) and in Josephus (Ant. XII, vii, 7), under the name of the feast of Lights. The Mishnah merely alludes to it here and there, but this can be explained by the hostility of orthodox circles to the Hasmoneans; the Rabbis had no desire to bestow their approval on a feast instituted by them. All the same, it remained a popular feast, and later rabbinical treatises give some casuistic solutions and some bizarre explanations of problems connected with it. The feast was originally in memory of the renovation of the Temple, but it survived the destruction of the Temple because the ritual of lights, as we shall see, made it independent of the sanctuary and allowed it to take on a new meaning. Even to-day, it is still one of the great Jewish feasts.

(b) The rites- the Hanukkah and the feast of Tents. The celebration of the feast lasted eight days from the 25th Kisleu (December), and it was a most joyful feast (I M 4- 56-59). Apart from the sacrifices offered in the Temple, thyrsus, green branches and palms were carried around, and hymns were sung (2 M 10- 6-8; cf. 1 M 4- 54). The title of Ps 30 says it was to be sung at the Dedication of the Temple, and it must have been used on this occasion. But the principal psalms sung were the Hallel (Pss 113-118), and the addition of v. 27 in Ps 118 probably refers to a rite of this feast- it can be translated as ‘Bring your procession (or, your dance, hag), palms in hand, close to the horns of the altar’.

Apart from this procession with palms and the singing of the Hallel, the feast was characterized by the use of lights (Josephus, as we have said, calls it ‘The feast of Lights’). The Mishnah and rabbinical writings tell us that lamps were lit in front of each house, and that the number increased by one a day until the last day of the feast. The oldest texts do not mention this rite explicitly- the lighting of lamps in I M 4- 50 refers to the reintroduction of the chandelier into the Temple, not to the inauguration of the altar. Nevertheless, there are allusions to the rite in the first letter of 2 M I- 8, which quotes a previous letter in the words ‘We have lit lamps’; the second letter (2 M I- 18f.) connects the commemoration of the sacred fire, miraculously preserved, and found by Nehemias, with the feast of the Hanukkah; and Ps 118- 27 has, just before the verse about the palms, ‘Yahweh is God, he is our light’.

The second book of Maccabees stresses the similarity between the Hanukkah and the feast of Tents. It was celebrated on the first occasion, ‘in the way they kept the feast of Tents’ (2 M 10- 6), and the letter of 124 B.C. calls it ‘the feast of Tents in the month of Kisleu’ (2 M I- 9). The first book of Maccabees does not make this connection, but the second deliberately underlines its relation to one of the great traditional feasts, in order to secure it a favourable reception in the Egyptian Diaspora. It is, of course, possible that Judas Maccabee himself wanted it to be like the feast of Tents, for this was the date on which Solomon’s Temple (I K 8- 2, 65) and the altar which was erected after the Exile (Esd 3- 4) had been dedicated.

In fact, the two feasts both lasted eight days (if we include the closing day of the feast of Tents, Lv 23- 34-36), and palms were carried both at the Hanukkah and at the feast of Tents (according to the ritual then in force, Lv 23- 40-41). But this is where the resemblances end. Psalms were certainly sung at the feast of Tents, but there is no evidence that it was the Hallel; it seems rather that the Hallel was first sung at the Hanukkah and later extended to the feasts of the Passover, of Pentecost and of Tents. During the Hanukkah, no-one lived in huts, and the lights put out in front of the houses are only remotely connected with the illumination of the Temple on the nights of the feast of Tents. Josephus (Ant. XII, vii, 7) says the lights of the Hanukkah symbolized that freedom had ‘shone’ upon the Jews in a way that could never have been hoped for; in later times, they became the symbol of the Law, which, in Pr 6- 23 and Ps 119- 105, is called a light. We still have to explain, however, why one more lamp was lit on each succeeding day of the feast, and this brings us to the question of pagan influences on the festal rites.

(c) Was there any pagan influence in the origin or the rites of the Hanukkah? The Hanukkah is the only Jewish feast whose institution is recorded in a late text, and which is also connected with an undeniable historical event. For some scholars, this seems too simple, and they have tried to show that the feast originated outside Israel. They say it is the Jewish adaptation of a feast of the winter solstice, and that the ‘Hanukkah’ should be connected with Henoch, who lived 365 days (Gn 5- 23), i.e. the number of days in a solar year. Other writers, leaving Henoch aside, have maintained with less improbability that the feast corresponds to that of the Sol invictus, which was celebrated at Rome on the 25th December. Others again recall that during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jews were ordered to wear crowns of ivy and to take part in a procession in honour of Bacchus (2 M 6- 7), and that an old man from Athens (2 M 6- 1) was sent by the king to instruct them in the new rites- they add that the assimilation of the Nabatean god Dusares and Bacchus could have made these rites less foreign to the Jews. But they forget to prove (and it cannot be proved) that the Dionysiac rites took place on the 25th Kisleu at Jerusalem- we shall see that the text of 2 M 6- 7 implies rather that they fell at a different time. Lastly, other writers maintain that an extra light was lit each day to symbolize the lengthening of days after the winter solstice.

The objections which can be raised against these theories seems to be decisive. We cannot admit that this Jewish feast was of pagan origin, because all the information we possess about it shows that it was instituted, and thereafter observed, only to commemorate the purification of the Temple after it had been defiled by pagan customs, and the restoration of lawful worship. Further, even if this most unlikely possibility were accepted, it is impossible for a feast of the winter solstice, which is tied to the solar calendar, to be a feast fixed on a definite day of a lunar year, however many corrections one may introduce- the 25th Kisleu would fall on the day of the solstice only on rare occasions.

Nevertheless, there may have been a connection between the Hanukkah and certain pagan usages, but it is an indirect and an adverse connection. Judas Maccabee inaugurated the new altar on the precise anniversary of the profanation of the old one, the 25th Kisleu. Now Antiochus Epiphanes had deliberately chosen this date for the first sacrifice to Zeus Olympios. It has been suggested that in the year 167, the winter solstice fell on the 25th Kisleu, but attempts to prove this by calculation have not yielded any certain results. The texts themselves, however, indicate the answer- according to 2 M 6- 7, the Jews were obliged to take part in the monthly sacrifice, on the king’s birthday; according to I M I- 58-59, attacks were made every month on recalcitrant Jews, and on the 25th of each month, a sacrifice was offered on the pagan altar. In this last verse, both the grammar and the con¬text show that the reference is not merely to the sacrifice of 25th Kisleu, 167 but to a sacrifice which was repeated on the 25th of each month, i.e. to a monthly sacrifice offered for the king’s birthday, as 2 M 6- 7 says. There is evidence of the custom in the Hellenistic East, and it continued in vogue in these same regions until after the establishment of the Roman Empire.

The feasts of Dionysus, in which the Jews were ordered to wear ivy crowns, are distinguished from this monthly sacrifice in 2 M 6- 7 and this is yet another reason for denying that the branches carried at the Hanukkah were connected with the cult of Bacchus. Nevertheless, brandishing these branches in honour of the true God may have been intended to do away with the memory of the pagan rite which faithful Jews had been forced to follow, and which Hellenizing Jews had freely adopted- the custom followed on the feast of Tents would provide a justification. The lighting of lamps in front of the houses could be intended to replace the incense which, under Antiochus Epiphanes, had been burnt at the house-doors and on the squares (I M I- SS). Why one more lamp should have been lit each day we do not know- there is no evidence of it in the earliest documents; but neither is there evidence to show that it was connected with the rising of the sun from its solstice. The rite may indicate merely the increasing solemnity of the feast, or it may merely mark its passing from day to day. Popular customs and liturgical rules love these gradations- to take one example in the Jewish ritual, the sacrificial code in Nb 29- 13-32 prescribes that from the first to the seventh day of the feast of Tents, the number of bulls sacrificed should be one less each day, until, on the seventh day, seven victims were offered. If these secondary contacts with pagan customs are well-founded, and if our interpretation of them is valid, then the fundamental character of the Hanukkah is thereby confirmed- it was a feast for the purification of all the defilement contracted under the domination of the wicked (cf. I M 4- 36). Hence 2 M 2- 16 and 10- 5 call it simply the day of ‘the purification of the Temple’.

Pages 510-515

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website