Talmudic Debates on the holidays: 2 Hanukkah

As I mentioned in my last posting, I am going to use my blog to summarize the 7 session class I am teaching on sections of the Talmud relating to the holidays. The class meets most Thursday evenings at 8 pm. at Beth Israel (please check the website at bethisrael-aa.org  for dates of the class).

I know that not everyone can attend so I am hoping these summaries will at least pass along the information from the class even if it doesn’t provide the “experience” of studying Talmud in a group.
Our second class dealt with Hanukkah and we began by looking at one of the most famous Talmudic texts regarding Hanukkah, found in the tractate of Shabbat. The first sentence in this section says that the commandment relating to Hanukkah involves: ner, eesh ubayto, which is translated as one light for a person and his home. In other words, the original ritual of Hanukkah lights consisted of each individual lighting a light in the home each night, one light each night. The Talmud then says that the “mehadrin”, those who wish to observe in a more zealous way, will light one light for each member of the family and the ‘mehadrin min hamehadrin”, the most zealous, will light  a different number of lights each night. Bet Shammai says you light 8 the first night and decrease in number, Bet Hillel says you light 1 the first night and increase in number.

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So, the obvious question is how Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai arrive at their customs. One teaching is that Bet Shammai wishes that we note the number of days remaining in the holiday while Bet Hillel wants us to note the number of days that have passed.

But, another interpretation is then offered. Bet Shammai, it is said, is connecting the holiday of Hanukkah to the holiday of Sukkot by reflecting the fact that on Sukkot, the number of bulls which were offered as sacrifices in the time of the Temple decreased each day of the festival. This is not as obscure as one might think because there is a definite connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah in that the earliest record of the holiday, in the book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha notes that the Maccabees celebrated the festival of re-dedication of the Temple for 8 days since they had missed out on the holiday of Sukkot a few months early due to the fact that they were involved in the war against the Greeks.

Bet Hillel, it is said, instructs us to light candles in an increasing number each night because “in matters of holiness, we always increase rather than decrease”. The end of the holiday, says Bet Hillel, should be brighter than the beginning. This is, of course, the tradition that we follow today.

Then, we turned to the section of the Talmud which actually contains the story of the oil which burned for 8 days. It is told in the way that we tell it today; the Maccabees found one jug of oil still sealed with the seal of the high priest and it had enough oil only to burn for one day but a miracle occurred and it burned for 8 days.

This is the earliest record of this story and clearly the Rabbis wanted us to see in Hanukkah a divine miracle. Only God can make one day of oil last for 8 days so the Rabbis wanted us to focus on that rather than on the military victory which was dependent on the courage of the Maccabees. Even if one believes that God helped the Maccabees win the war, there was a significant contribution by the soldiers themselves.  It seems clear that the Rabbis of the Talmud wanted us to connect Hanukkah more clearly with the Divine.

I then offered an idea that perhaps the story of the oil is meant to be viewed as a parable concerning the Maccabees. They were kohanim, priests who were loyal to the Temple and to the faith. Perhaps the parable is that this small group “sealed with the seal”, in other words still loyal and not polluted by adherence to any other faith should not have been sufficient to win the war but a miracle happened and they were able to win the battle. I wonder if the small jug of oil which burned longer than expected is meant to reflect the story of the Maccabees winning the war.

Finally, we looked outside the Talmud to a great question of Jewish custom. If there was already one day’s oil in the jug, then the miracle really was only a 7 day miracle and we should only celebrate Hanukkah for 7 days. Of course, this is just a fanciful question since the original celebration was 8 days but the question is a good opportunity to think about what is important to us in the holiday.

Some claim that the extra night is to honor the Maccabees’ military victory. Some say that the fact that the Maccabees found even one jug of oil was a miracle in itself and should be honored with an additional day of celebration. Others say that the Maccabees, knowing that it would take 8 days to produce more oil, divided the oil up into 8 parts and hoped that 1/8 would be enough for each day. That opinion is generally rejected because, it is said in our tradition, you can’t depend upon a miracle taking place, which is of course what would have been assumed if you put only 1/8 of a day’s oil in each cup of the menora.

That question remains for each of us to answer. In the meantime, as we look forward to Hanukkah this year, it is a good opportunity to review some of these traditions relating to the holiday.

Our next session will discuss laws relating to Yom Kippur.

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