Things You Might Not Know About Chanukah
Chanukah is the only major Jewish holiday that is not mentioned in the Tanakh. The story of
the recapture of the Temple from the Syrian-Greek army and its rededication are described in the
first and second books of the Maccabees, a part of the Apocrypha, but the holiday is not
specifically mentioned in these works. Neither is the story of oil lasting eight days; however, a
story similar in character to the Chanukah story, but obviously quite older, is told beginning in 2
Maccabees 1:18 about Nehemiah’s relighting the Temple’s altar fire as a result of a miracle that
occurred on 25 Kislev. This story appears to be the basis for the selection of this date as the date
of the Temple’s rededication by Judah Maccabee, which took place in 164 BCE. The holiday of
Chanukah began to be celebrated on the anniversary of that date.
“Chanukah is really early/late this year!” (Take your pick.) While the holiday usually occurs sometime during
December, it does infrequently begin in late November. But what’s the latest that Chanukah can occur? Before
I answer that question, let me point out that Chanukah 6791 will begin on December 13, 3030 (no typo), and
Chanukah 6792 will begin on (drum roll...) January 1, 3032. That’s right; there will be no Chanukah in the
civil year 3031! Now to the question: What's the latest civil date on which 25 Kislev falls? For the next
2,611 years, at least, the latest date is January 6. Chanukah begins on January 6 for the first time in 4286. And
beginning in 3450, starting dates in January occur more regularly: once every fifty years or so. Useless
information, but who cares?
The name of the holiday is Hebrew for “dedication,” and is derived from the Torah’s references
to the dedication of the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary: chanukat ha-mizbe’ach (Numbers 7:10),
and from the dedication of Jerusalem’s walls after the return from Babylonian exile: ba-chanukat
chomat Yerushalayim (Nehemiah 12:7). This name was given to the event commemorating the
rededication of the Temple after its liberation from the hellenistic Syrians. However, some have
pointed out that the name could be derived from the Hebrew “chanu,” meaning “and they
rested,” combined with the letters kaf and heh, the Hebrew representation of the number 25.
Thus, for this reason, it is said that Chanukah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev. But few people
take this interpretation seriously.
What’s in a name? Specifically the Maccabee name. Mattathias’ great-grandfather was a priest named Asamonaios
and was said to be a direct descendent of Pinchas, the high priest of the Torah. The family was known as the
Hasmoneans, so where did “Maccabee” come from? Some believe that the Hebrew word makkev, meaning
“hammer,” was used in referring to the brother Judah because of his supposed strength: “Judah the Hammer.”
Others say the word was derived from the verse in Exodus, Mi khamokha ba’elim Adonai (Ex. 15:11),
“Who is like you, Adonai, among the powers?” These words are said to have been written on the Maccabee
fighters’ shields, and the initial letters of the Exodus verse spell the name.
The festival celebrated by the Maccabees when they dedicated the Temple following their victory and
liberation of Jerusalem was Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret, the most important holiday of the second Temple
times. The Maccabees had been unable to celebrate this holiday during their years of guerilla fighting,
and were anxious to celebrate the festival properly. After the remnants of the idolatrous Greek worship
were cleaned out of the Temple, the Maccabees celebrated their victory and rededicated the Temple with
a late observance of the eight-day Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret festival. In the following year, even though
Sukkot was observed at its proper time, the celebration of a “late Sukkot” was repeated—and this became
the origin of the eight-day Chanukah celebration.
The link between Chanukah and Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret is also demonstrated in our liturgy. Since its earliest
observance, Jews have recited hallel on every day of Chanukah, just as we do on Sukkot—but no
hallel is recited on Purim, the other rabbinically ordained holiday. Even on Pesach, like Sukkot a
biblically ordained holiday, after the first day (or two in the diaspora) only a partial hallel is recited.
Was the Syrian-Greek repression really responsible for the Maccabean revolt, or were other
factors at work too? Actually, the political situation in Judea during the reign of Antiochus IV
Epiphanes was extremely complex. Antiochus was not a very modest man. He added the title of “Epiphanes”
to his name because it meant “god made manifest.” Like his Seleucid forebears, he wanted to unify the countries in his domain under a common culture, but unlike his forebears and Alexander the Great whose cultural policies simply encouraged assimilation, he decided to actively incorporate Grecian culture, Hellenism, which already pervaded the social fabric of the region, into all of the local governments and religious institutions in his realm.
The hellenization of the entire region, begun after Alexander’s conquests, included Judea in its sphere of influence. Many Jews had already enthusiastically embraced this new culture, which did not interfere with the temple rites or the early practices of Judaism. After Palestine came under the control of the Seleucids in 200 BCE, the position of the kohen gadol (high priest) became intensely political and a source of great wealth for the holder of the office. While some factions vigorously and actively opposed the high priests who were viewed as collaborators of the Seleucid kings, this opposition had little effect on the institution. There developed an intense rivalry to obtain the appointment as high priest; so in about 167 BCE, Menelaus, an opponent of the current high priest, Jason, visited Antiochus IV and successfully outbid Jason.
According to 2 Maccabees, Menelaus returned to Jerusalem, looted the temple to pay for his appointment, and then persuaded Antiochus to Hellenize the temple’s Jewish worship, thereby bringing about the uprising of the Judeans under the leadership of the Maccabees. This account is wrong. There is no evidence that Menelaus was anything more than an ambitious man. From contemporaneous documents it appears that the revolt was precipitated solely as a reaction against the implementation of the Syrian king’s policies pertaining to the worship of pagan deities and not as a reaction against the Greeks, against hellenism per se, or for any of the other reasons given in the books of Maccabees.
What is the miracle of Chanukah, really? Is it that a small quantity of oil, enough for one day,
lasted for eight? Or is it that a tiny rebel army was able to overcome crushing odds and win
political and military power over the region’s superpower? Although we light Chanukah candles
to commemorate the miracle of the oil, it would appear that the true miracle was the military
victory over the Syrians. But where did the miracle of the oil come from, since it isn’t mentioned
anywhere in the Books of Maccabees? Naturally, the answer turns on a political issue.
With the victory of the Maccabees, the political power passed to their family, the
Hasmoneans, which established a political dynasty of priests and kings, some of whom eventually
engaged in repression of the common citizens and the rabbis of Judea. The Hasmoneans
became quite corrupt, and eventually were supplanted by a new king, Herod. When subsequent political
unrest threatened Herod’s rule, he invited the Roman Empire to become the monarchy’s protector.
Herod thought that he could use Roman troops to help maintain public order, but his plans backfired.
Thus, the poor decisions of the Hasmoneans together with continuing political unrest eventually led
to Rome’s conquest of Judah and the subsequent destruction of the Temple. Because of this history, the
rabbis of the early first millennium were extremely ambivalent about Chanukah as a celebration of the
Hasmonean victory over Syria and first tried to ignore the holiday, and then sought to establish new
meaning for it.
The ambivalence of the rabbis of the first century CE toward the Hasmonean monarchy and the
custom of celebrating Chanukah (not to mention that, as a subject country under Rome, it would not
have been very intelligent to describe a holiday that celebrated a victory of the Jews over an
oppressor in one’s holy books), is the likely reason that the books of first and second Maccabees
were not canonized as part of the Tanakh. The books of Daniel and Esther were written during
the same period as 1 and 2 Maccabees; they were included in the canon even though they dealt with
events of dubious historicity while the story of the Maccabean revolt, written soon after the events
described in the books, was accurate. The first book of Maccabees contains the story of the revolt
and subsequent resistance after the Hasmoneans assumed the monarchy. The second book is a letter
that was written to the Jews of Alexandria that explained the events and encouraged them to observe
the new holiday of Chanukah to commemorate the Hasmonean victory. Not only were these books not
preserved by the Jews, they were suppressed, so the only copies that survived were those transmitted
by the early Church.
The historian Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century CE, mentions the eight-day festival
and its customs, but does not cover the origin of the eight-day lighting custom. Josephus does mention
that candles were lit in Jewish households and the popular name of the holiday was the “Festival of
Lights,” or in his words, “And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it
There’s an interesting theory that has surfaced about a possible origin of the term “Lights” for
Chanukah. Recent studies of the appearances of comets near earth have identified two comet passages between late 165 and 163 BCE. The first comet was probably not Halley’s Comet since its date of passage has been calculated to be in 163 BCE. If either of these comets passed close to the earth, a distinct possibility, it would have been very bright in the night sky. If either of their appearances coincided with the anniversary of the liberation of the Temple, it could have been viewed as a divine sign and could have been the origin of Chanukah’s first name, “Lights.”
When the Mishnah (the collection of rabbinic material that comprises the oral law) was being
prepared (150–200 CE), the rabbis included instructions about how the holidays were to be observed.
There are tractates for Pesach, Sukkot, the High Holidays, minor holidays, and even Purim
(Megillah), which is a rabbinic holiday and not based on laws found in the Torah.
Chanukah, a holiday created the closest in time to the rabbinic period and widely familiar to
Jews as Josephus observed, was curiously ignored. What happened to Chanukah? In mishnaic times,
Judea—now Palestine—was a province of the Roman Empire, and the rabbis who were compiling it
were likely silent about the holiday since it celebrated the military victory of the Jews over
the Greek empire, and the rabbis didn’t want to provoke the Romans or encourage any speculation
that the rabbis were encouraging another rebellion. After all, the Jews had suffered greatly at
the hands of Rome in two prior revolts, the one that resulted in the destruction of the Temple,
and the Bar Kokhba revolt of about sixty years later. After the Mishnah was completed, the rabbis,
commenting on its text in the Gemara (composed between 200 and 500 CE and which, combined with
the Mishnah, forms the Talmud), realized that it contained no laws concerning the lighting of the
Chanukah candles, a custom which had been practiced for at least 300 years. So how was Chanukah to
be dealt with? There was no tractate in the Mishnah to discuss the laws of Chanukah, so the rabbis
added their comments in the Gemara to tractate Shabbat, where the Shabbat candle-lighting
laws are discussed. Thus, in the middle of reading about Shabbat in the Talmud, we come across the
question, “Mai Chanukah?” This means, approximately, “So what about Chanukah?” This is how the
Gemara goes on to describe the holiday:
As our rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev Chanukah commences and
lasts eight days, on which lamenting [in commemoration of the dead] and fasting
are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil
that was found there. When the government of the Hasmoneans prevailed and
conquered them, oil was sought [to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary] and only
one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained
sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp
eight days in succession. (Shabbat 21b)
Thus, in explaining the holiday, the rabbis essentially wrote the Hasmoneans’ victory out
of the Chanukah story, substituting the miracle of the oil for the military victory. But the story of
the military victory never completely disappeared from Chanukah observance. The amidah prayer, which
is among the earliest prayers in our liturgy, during Chanukah includes the al ha-nissim prayer
(also recited in the grace after meals—birkhat ha-mazon), which stresses the military
victory while not mentioning the miracle involving the lamp and oil.
Why does Chanukah last eight days? As mentioned above, it originally was modeled after the
Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret festival, which lasts eight days. But the number eight has special
significance in Jewish theology. The number seven was considered to be the perfect number,
representing fulfillment and completion. It stood for the divinity in nature, as in the days
of the Creation plus Shabbat, the number of days in the week, and the number of
classical planets, and for the completion of divinely ordained cycles, such as sabbatical years
and the omer (7 X 7). Eight, the number one greater than seven, is one better than completion,
the Infinite or absolute perfection. Eight signifies the eternal. Thus the ceremony of brit milah,
ritual circumcision, is performed on the eighth day after birth to signify that the Covenent with God
is eternal, the dedication of the Mishkan in the wilderness lasted eight days, and Shemini Atzeret,
the Eighth day of Community Assembly, is an additional day added to Sukkot when God invited
his people to remain with him for an additional day. The special significance of the number eight
remained attached to the Chanukah celebration of dedication, and the holiday’s length was maintained
in practice until it was codified into Jewish law in the Talmud.
Why doesn’t Chanukah have an added day of celebration in the Diaspora
as the other multiple-day holidays do, making it nine days long? The extra day, called yom tov sheini
shel galuyot, literally “the second day of the holiday in exile,” only applies to holidays
mandated by the Torah. The extra days were instituted by the rabbis to ensure that holiday
celebrations took place on their proper day.
Actually, if the miracle was that the oil, which should have only lasted one day, lasted eight
days, then the only miraculous event involved days two through eight! There were only seven
days of miracle involved. Think of all the years we’ve been getting it wrong.
Why do we light an increasing number of Chanukah candles during the holiday’s eight days?
After all, during the other multiple-day holidays of Pesach and Sukkot, we only light two
candles—and don’t light every night of those festivals. The answer comes from the Talmud:
The rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp
for himself and his household. Those who seek to fulfill it well have a lamp lit for every
member of the household. Those who seek to fulfill the law in the best possible manner
should light according to Beth Shamai the first night eight flames, and every following
night one flame less. And according to Beth Hillel the reverse—the first night one lamp,
and be increased by one on each succeeding night. Said Rabba b. Hana in the name of R.
Johanan: “...according to the school of Hillel, ... holy actions should show increase and
not reduction. (b. Shabbat 21b)
We are told to light a new candle for each day of Chanukah, but that only accounts for a
maximum of eight candles. So what’s the purpose of that additional candle holder on the
chanukiyah? We all know it’s for the “shamash,” or “guardian” candle that’s used to kindle the
other candles. But you really don’t need to use a candle to light other candles—in fact, when the
Chanukah lights were made of wicks in oil, it was difficult to use this ninth lamp to light the
others. The reason for the shamash light is actually not to help in lighting the other candles.
According to the Talmud, unlike the Shabbat and festival candles, it’s forbidden to make use of
the Chanukah light for a secular purpose such as reading or illumination. Their light can only be
used as a reminder of the holiday, and that’s where the shamash becomes important. The light of
the shamash, becoming combined with that of the ritual candle(s), through a legal fiction, would
prevent the light from being used improperly.
The legend of the single jug of oil that lasted eight days is not the only story told about the
Temple rededication performed by the Maccabees. First is from the early rabbinic work Megillat Ta’anit, a
text composed in the mid-first century CE.
Why did the rabbis make Chanukah eight days? Because ... the Hasmoneans entered the
Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils.
They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? Because ... when the
Hasmoneans entered the Temple there were eight iron spears in their hands. They covered
them with wood and lit candles on them. They did this each of the eight days. (Megillat
Ta’anit ch. 9)
A second midrashic source, the Pesikta Rabbati, composed around 845 CE, relates the following:
Why do we kindle lights on Chanukah? Because when the sons of the Hasmoneans, the
High Priest, defeated the Hellenists, they entered the Temple and found there eight iron
spears. They stuck candles on them and lit them. (Pesikta Rabbati ch. 2)
There’s a special relationship between the Torah and Chanukah—well, probably not special, but
nonetheless interesting. The twenty-fifth word of the Torah is “or,” light. Chanukah is the
Festival of Lights, and begins on 25 Kislev.
Candle-lighting facts for Chanukah can be the subject of a whole treatise just by themselves. Here are just
a few items.
- On Friday afternoon, the chanukiah should be lit just prior to lighting the Shabbat candles. This
is done at least eighteen minutes before sundown. To satisfy the mitzvah, the Chanukah candles need to burn
for at least thirty minutes after sundown. Thus, the candles used on Friday can’t be the tiny Chanukah candles
that typically only burn for a half-hour; one should use longer burning candles for Friday evenings.
- According to the Talmud, the candle lighting was originally intended to be performed outside, in one’s
doorway or courtyard, opposite the mezuzah, at sunset. This was specified so that passers-by would
see the festival lights and be aware of the holiday.
- Jewish law prescribes that the person who performs a mitzvah is the one who is obligated to recite
the corresponding blessing, and one who observes the mitzvah has no such obligation (responding “amen” is the
usual acknowledgment). Chanukah provides a unique exception. If one observes another person performing
the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah lights (and if no one is doing it for him), he or she makes
a blessing just on seeing the lighting. Upon seeing the Chanukah candles burning, one makes a blessing
“on the miracles that were done for our fathers.” The rabbis considered that in this case, the sight of
the burning candles was sufficient to consider that the mitzvah of lighting was fulfilled, and thus
a blessing of thanks to God was appropriate.
The practice of giving gifts at Chanukah is a very modern one, arising in the United States
during the 1940s. The custom grew out of the Jewish practice of giving tzedakah, or charity.
According to the Talmud, every Jew is told to light a candle on Chanukah; if a person is too poor
to afford candles, they must depend upon tzedakah to observe this mitzvah. Some say that the
custom of giving Chanukah gelt (Yiddish: money) arose from the desire to protect poor people
from the embarrassment of begging.
Chanukah is not the only Jewish holiday that commemorates the triumph of a Jewish minority
over a superpower. Pesach recalls the delivery of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and Purim
celebrates the defeat of Haman, the powerful Persian minister who sought to have the Persian
Jews exterminated. However, the primary mitzvah of Chanukah, lighting the candles to
commemorate the miracle of the lights, has no counterpart in the other holidays, as the Kedushat
Levi (Rabbi Levi of Berditchev, an eighteenth-century Chasidic figure) observes. Even though
the other two holidays recall a miraculous deliverance, no visual symbol representing the miracle
corresponding to lighting the chanukiyah has been preserved. And the legend that the rabbis of
the Talmud constructed concerning the miracle of the oil lasting eight days is inconsequential to
the story, since the Hasmoneans had won political power whether or not there was sufficient oil
to keep the Temple menorah lit until more oil could be obtained. So, suggests the Kedushat Levi,
lighting the chanukiyah does not recall either miracle—military or oil. For him, lighting the
Chanukah lights serves more of a sign of the relationship of the Jewish people to God and our love for the
observance of the holidays and festivals than commemorating a miracle.
The fifth day of Chanukah is said to be the darkest day of the holiday because it is the only day
that can’t fall on a Shabbat. Is this true, and if so, how come?
The fifth day of Chanukah is 29 Kislev. The rules for determining whether certain calendar days
can occur on any particular day of the week were set in the Talmud and fine-tuned until the
medieval centuries. The rules are well established, but the primary rule of calendar calculation
was made to ensure that Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabba would not fall on certain weekdays.
Every month of the year has a fixed number of days, except for three: Cheshvan, Kislev, and
Adar, which have variable lengths. Adar in normal years has 29 days, and Adar I and II (in leap
years) collectively have 59 days. Cheshvan and Kislev can have either 29 or 30 days depending
on that year’s calendar calculation; the Hebrew calendar allows for three possibilities for the
lengths of Cheshvan and Kislev: both 29 days, both 30 days, and Cheshvan 29, Kislev 30. (The
fourth possibility of Cheshvan being longer than Kislev is not allowed.)
The rules that set the permissible days for holidays are:
- Hoshanah Rabba (21 Tishrei) cannot fall on Shabbat (because worshipers would be
unable to make the hakafot with the lulav).
- Yom Kippur cannot fall on a Friday or Sunday (because of issues with Shabbat and the
These rules result in Rosh Hashanah being unable to fall on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday; the
rule is called “Lo ad’u Rosh,” (ad’u = aleph, dalet, vav; the Hebrew day numbers). This rule is
found in the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashanah 20a; also see Rambam’s Hilchot Kiddush ha’Chodesh
Using this rule and others derived from its consequences,
If Cheshvan is 29 days, then simply counting calendar days will show that
29 Kislev cannot fall on a Shabbat since the previous Rosh Hashanah would have been on a
Wednesday, which is not allowed.
If Cheshvan is 30 days, then Kislev must be 30 days as well (as mentioned
above). If the year is not a leap year, then some serious date counting will show that 29 Kislev
cannot fall on a Shabbat without making the following Hoshana Rabba fall on Shabbat, which is
also not allowed according to the above rule.
If Cheshvan and Kislev are both 30 days and the year is a leap year,
and we assume that 29 Kislev is on a Shabbat, this requires that the Rosh Hashanah of that year be a
Tuesday. However, when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Tuesday and the year is a leap year, the technical
calendar calculations require that Cheshvan can only be assigned 29 days, not 30—so there is no
possible calendar that will have a leap-year Rosh Hashanah fall on Tuesday with both Cheshvan and
Kislev having 30 days each, making our assumption false.
Thus, 29 Kislev cannot fall on a Shabbat in either normal or leap years. In a related observation,
not only is 29 Kislev the “darkest day” of Chanukah, it’s also the darkest day/night of the year.
This is because it is always the day before the Rosh Chodesh—the new moon—that is closest to the
winter solstice. Agreed, this is not the solstice itself; but the combination of close to minimum
sunlight during the day and no moon at night certainly makes this date among the darkest of the year. It’s
somehow fitting that we celebrate Chanukah at this time and can fill this darkest time of the year
with the lights of the holiday candles.
The last day of Chanukah, in some circles, has special significance. Since this day is marked by the
culmination of the holiday, with all eight candles burning, it is known as “Zot Chanukah,” literally,
“This is Chanukah,” because these words are part of the Torah portion read on this day:
Zot chanukat ha’mizbeach, “This was the dedication of the altar” (Numbers 7:84). The eighth day
of Chanukah is what it’s all about—its culmination, marking the victory against improbable odds, the
eight days of the miracle of the oil—eight is the number beyond perfection. The Torah was given
on an eighth day: the day following the end of the seventh week of counting the omer. To mark
this special day, Chasidim and some other traditional Jews hold celebrations and special meals.