The Origins of Hanukka
By RABBI SHERWIN T. WINE
Hanukka started out with another name. Before the Maccabean
triumph it was called Nayrot
(Lights). It was the winter festival that celebrated the rebirth of light. At
the winter solstice, darkness ceases to expand, and the day begins to grow
longer. Since darkness is death and light is life, the reversal is a dramatic
moment in the year.
As an eight-day festival, Nayrot conformed to the two other seasonal holidays,
Sukkot and Pesakh. Fires were lit on each of the eight days to imitate the
change and to encourage nature, by suggestion, to continue its good work.
Ultimately, the fires were confined in each household to a board of eight
lights. The eight days and the lights were part of Jewish life long before the
legend of the holy oil made its appearance.
Like many folk festivals, Nayrot never made its way into the priestly Torah.
The priests were wary of sanctioning any practice that could not easily be
identified with Yahveh and the Exodus experience. Nayrot flunked its entry
test, leaving Judaism devoid of a decent winter festival.
With the conquest of Israel by the Greeks and the subsequent rebellion against
Greek rule, the Maccabee family rose to power. Of priestly origin, the
Maccabees became the military leaders of the rebel forces and pursued their own
independent road to political power. Having defeated the Greeks and captured
Jerusalem, Judah Maccabee decided to rededicate the temple shrine to Yahveh. He
chose the folk festival of Nayrot as a perfect vehicle for the continuing
commemoration of his victory. He renamed the holiday Hanukka (Dedication) and elevated it to official importance. But
the Maccabees had a run-in with the rabbis because of their pretentious
assumption of the royal title. When the rabbis came to rule under Roman
guidance, they wrought their vengeance. Hanukka was demoted to minor status,
since, as a popular folk festival, it could not be easily eliminated. The other
Maccabean victory celebration, Nicanor’s Day, was replaced by Purim.
In later centuries, the rabbis sought to diminish the importance of the
Maccabees by attributing the victory to Yahveh. The talmudic legend that
focuses on holy oil lasting for eight days has a political purpose. It shifts
the emphasis from the brilliant skill of the Maccabees (who are barely
mentioned) to the magic tricks of Yahveh.
By the dawn of the secular age, Hanukka was one of several minor celebrations
of the Jewish calendar. The possibility for a winter festival with grandeur had
been stymied by political hostility.
However, secular emancipation in a Christian world provided a revival. The lure
of Christmas, the Roman-Christian version of a winter solstice festival, was
very strong. In its new secularized form, many Jews were finding it irresistible,
especially since they had no decent dramatic winter holiday of their own.
In North America, in particular, the competition of Christmas rescued Hanukka.
It was taken from its theological mothballs and elevated to a status that event
he Maccabees never imagined. Suddenly, candles, dreidels, potato pancakes, and
the story of a minor military victory were dressed up to compete with Christmas
carols, Christmas trees, the birth of a god, and the excitement of a new year.
The quick rise to fame was, to say the least, less than satisfactory.
Nevertheless, for many North American Jews, Hanukka has become the
holiday—especially if there are children.
Even if we dispose of the Talmudic legend about holy oil, the Hanukka story
remains uncomfortable for secular and humanistic Jews. While the Maccabees did,
indeed, arrange for national liberation from Greek tyranny, they were no more
tolerant of dissent than their Greek enemies. The concept of personal freedom
was as foreign to them as it was to any of their contemporary competitors. If
Antiochus was unwilling to allow Torah Jews to practice their religion, the
Maccabees were equally unwilling to allow the Hellenists the option of their
preference. As we know from present events, national liberation, the removal of
foreign rulers, does not guarantee personal freedom. It may simply replace a
foreign dictatorship with a domestic one.
However, secular and humanistic Jews recognize that the roots of Hanukka
precede the intolerant fanaticism of much of priestly and rabbinic Judaism. The
old holiday of Nayrot, and its fascination with fire, has a strong connection
to the story of human survival. It provides a better basis for a secular and
As the Feast of Lights, Hanukka is the preeminent holiday of fire. The kindling
of fire is part of almost every festival. But, with Hanukka, it becomes the
The taming of fire is the major human revolution that preceded agriculture. It
enhanced human survival in dramatic ways. Wild animals could be held at bay.
Cooked food made eating less time consuming and opened the daily routine to new
activities. Heat made cold places accessible to our tropical bodies and allowed
humans to inhabit the earth. Without fire, we would have been confined to the
safe environment of central Africa.
As the guarantor of survival, fire became the symbol of life. In all early
cultures, the “sacred” fire took on a special importance, especially before our
ancestors learned how to make fire. “Captured” fire seemed to possess a supernatural
power beyond the ability of human beings to manufacture and control.
Maintaining the fire and never allowing it to be extinguished became the
passion of communal activity. The extinction of the flame meant death. Shades
of Eternal Lights, Menorahs, and Hanukka legends!
Although much of religion has preserved this early anxiety, the fear has been
inappropriate for over eighty thousand years. The fire revolution took a major
turn for the better when our human ancestors discovered how to make fire. No
longer dependent on thievery from available flames, they changed fire-finding
into fire-making. The evolution of metalworking, technology, and human
self-confidence flows from that event.
The story of fire is the story of the discovery of human power. Man and women
discovered that they did not have to be passive infants waiting for parental
nature to give them the things they needed and wanted. Making fires was the
first step in the harnessing of the energies of the universe for the
enhancement of human dignity.
In Jewish history, this growing maturity and self-reliance is part of the
Jewish experience. Waiting for Messiahs to rescue the people from foreign
adversaries may be the official line. But the Maccabean resistance did not
wait. Nor did the Zionists of the twentieth century.
If Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are testimonies to the assumption of human
responsibility for human life in the face of an absurd and indifferent
universe, if Sukkot is the witness to the power of human ingenuity and creativity;
then Hanukka is the celebration of human power, the increasing power of people
to use the world to enhance the quality of human life.
We do not have to wait for fortune’s gifts. Like the Maccabees, we can
manufacture our own.
This essay is
excerpted from Judaism Beyond God by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, a publication of
the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Milan Press (Farmington Hills, MI:
1995). It is reprinted with permission from the publisher (Society for Humanistic Judaism,