The Origins of Hanukka


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 humanistic celebration.

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 focus.

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, 248.478.7610).