02 January 2006

What the Dillyo with Hanukkah?

With this question, the Babylonian Talmud ponders the holiday of Hanukkah, to which we will be saying goodbye in a matter of minutes.
Up until last year, I had believed that the holiday was about some oil lasting eight times as long as it was supposed to last. When one ponders that, it seems silly. However, the problem is that the Sages weren't stupid! How do we answer this, then?
Last year, our yeshiva was blessed, for a few months, with the presence of the talmid hakham and humble Rabbi Dr. Zvi A. Yehuda. I got my hands on a little four-page article (I don't know where or if it was published.) entitled "What is the Miracle of Hanukkah? The Sybolism of the Jar of Oil Legend". Therein, he brilliantly and beautifully explains the language of נס (commonly translated as miracle, but that's not the precise translation). He says (on p. 3) that
Judaism does not celebrate an event just because it appears to be a "miracle" of the jar of oil, is utterly erroneous and blatantly blasphemous - distorting the very essence of Judaism.
... the term nes in rabbinic parlance does not exactly mean miracle. More precisely, in the context of sacred liturgy and worship, "nes" refers to an extraordinary event, entailing of a profound redemptive quality, causing deliverance of people from oppression and death to freedom and life.
Taken literally, the jar of oil episode does not qualify as "nes" (miracle) in its profound sense. What was its redemptive purpose or outcome? We applaud divine intervention when it saves human lives, but not when it just comes to provide more light in the Temple. ...
The jar of oil fable is indeed a captivating aggada, suggestive of innumerous and fascinating symbolisms which transcend its plain literal surface. It must not be approached lightly or crudely, but rather earnestly and respectfully. This aggada does not aim to replace the traditional, historical meaning of Hanukkah so eloquently expressed in liturgy.

He goes on, but I've shown here the highlights of his paper. It tremendously altered my perception of Hanukkah forever, and in a beautiful way, too!
I would have left things at that, were it not for a presentation by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on Thursday 15 December, a few weeks ago.
Before I go into his <i>shiur (lecture), I think it's important now to point out a problem with Rabbi Dr. Yehuda's article. The wording of the locus classicus (found on bShab 21b) is "בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים " - "They checked and they only found one jar of oil that had the high priest's seal on it, except to light it for only one day. A nes was made with it and they lit from it eight days." The problem is that the language of nes is clearly located within the context of the jar of oil(!).
Now I can return to Rabbi Katz' understanding.
He went through certain of the various מחלוקות (disagreements) throughout the Hanukkah pericope to show us some parameters of the philosphical dialectic occurring. He went through them, without anything particularly new. But then, he got to the conclusion and had a phat hiddush (novellum) to show to us.
The main source, from bShab 21b, goes as follows:
תנו רבנן בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה

While I'm not bothering to translate this passage, it's rather unimportant to the present point I am making. What is important is that the language used for the first half of this beraisa is in Aramaic, and not middle Hebrew! How could this be? At first, I thought maybe there was an editorial interpolation threaded into this Tannaitic text, but then realized that may happen sometimes, but not when it's part of the main body of the text!
Rabbi Katz revealed to us that this is a quote from מגילת תענית (Megillat Ta'anit), an early Tannaitic work, where there were Aramaic headings for certain days of the year, and a later person came and described those days in Hebrew in the work. (Okay, that's a start, but it'll now get exciting...)
Although the holiday of Hanukkah was instituted due to the military victories, re-establishing of Jewish political autonomy, and re-dedication of the Temple, the Rabbis were concerned about seeming too strong to the Romans, who would have suspected them of possibly rising up against them. Such is it that the military victories were on the DL and the "religious" sense was imported to this holiday in the form of the oil in order to contribute to a sense of benign-ness of this holiday.
Although the latter explanation, provided by Rabbi Katz is informative to our understanding of the text, I still appreciate Rabbi Dr. Yehuda's approach to the holiday, as well.


Anonymous said...

Interesting -- the maskilim said precisely the same thing, that the holiday was instituted due to the military victory and the "jar of oil legend" invented later by the sages.

Drew_Kaplan said...

Yeah, maybe they were onto something. I agree with you, it is interesting that they also thought that.

Shmarya said...

What makes you think Chazal thought that? It is far more likely the miracle story was added in because of two factors: 1. Chazal weren't exactly on the front lines fighting the war. In fact, read Maccabees 1 & 2 and Josephus – they're not mentioned at all. 2. Chazal detested the latter Hshmonaim, whom they considered wicked. Yet here was this holiday that celebrated … the Hashmonaim! So Chazal invented the miracle of oil, added it onto Hanukka and, because they controlled Jewish education after the Churban and Bar Kokhba, their legend grew in prominence. By the time the Gemara was codified, more than 600 after Hanukka, those codifiers knew the legend as FACT. And that is how it was taught for 1400 years.

The "miracle of oil" is not a beatiful aggadata with deep meaning or a ruse to throw off the Romans. It's a political fairy tale, plain and simple.

Read all about it here.

Anonymous said...

Make sure to read the comments there, too, where Shmarya is summarily raked over the coals.

I'm confused by your response, Drew - this is an association you're comfortable with?

Hinda said...

So many words...I wish I was educated! Too bad I go to the school that I go to...


(No, I didn't really giggle)

In the Lee of the Wind said...

a follow-up would be that bentching does not mention 8 days of light miracle explictly.

Btw, I am requesting a font change of the hebrew/aramaic...if that is at all possible. It is in the harder to read catagory of fonts, becuase it is tiny and the acharacters are close together.

Anonymous said...

It's no kashya why the nes shemen isn't mentioned in davening, nor bentching -- the insertion in both places is in the beracha of hodaa, for which a mention of this particular aspect of Channukah would be inappropriate. Compare it to, say, Hallel. No one would suggest that one say Hallel if the only miracle was that of the oil, so, too, the nes shemen isn't of the type to merit inclusion in the blessing (I believe this is the position of the Maharal).

Shmarya said...

" Make sure to read the comments there, too, where Shmarya is summarily raked over the coals."


I think any unbiased reader would disagree, if by "raked over the coals" you mean "proved incorrect." If anything, commenters added strength to my argument.

The "miracle of oil" did not happen – get over it.

Drew_Kaplan said...

As to your first point, Hazal weren't yet really around, though, if

anything, were only starting up, so there's a good reason they're not

mentioned - the Rabbis weren't around yet.
For your second point, Hazal were not fans of the Hashmonaim making

the power play to take the kingship as well as the high priesthood,

but they did not detest them, nor did they were not that petty.
Megillat Ta'anit was a tannaitic text, composed well before the

editing of the Talmud, so it was two or three centuries after the

Hashmonaic rebellion, not six.
I think that the "miracle of oil" may very well be a ruse to throw off

the Romans, and not a political fairy tale - inasmuch as the Rabbis

sometimes had inaccurate visions recollections of historical events in

centuries preceding them, this is one where they are not that far off.

A big part of Rabbi Dr. Yehuda's article is talking about the

liturgical omission of the light miracle and focusing, instead, on the

military victories, suggesting the latter as the nes.
I'm sorry about the fonts, I was unaware of the issue - I don't mean to be rude, but is there any way you can toggle your browser's settings for text? Can your bf help you?

I think that if the oil was truly significant enough, it would have merited liturgical insertion, so it is not as central as the military victories. It may very well be the position of Maharal, but....

Anonymous said...

Your nonchalant dismissal of the Maharal is pretty much a machlokes acharaon/tachton, Drew.

Read for content, though, friend --the nes shemen by it's nature would have been absolutely inappropriate for inclusion in either benching or davening; it's ommission there is proof of nothing (other than a poor understanding of the liturgy).

Drew_Kaplan said...

How would "the nes shemen by it's nature would have been absolutely inappropriate for inclusion in either benching or davening"? What about its nature is so inappropriate if it is supposed to be a central part of the festival?

Anonymous said...

Drew, please try to follow. Where is the Channukah inclusion in bentching and davening? In the beracha of hoda'ah. Now, while ther have been countless miracles performed for Klal Yisrael, few of them merit a special inclusion in this beracha. Why? The standard for inclusion (established by the Sages) is the same as that for Hallel - a miracle by which Klal Yisrael is delivered from destruction. Certainly you wouldn't have an issue with our not saying Hallel for the nes shemen (if we weren't otherwise saying it for the military victory), so why is it an issue that it's not included in bentching and davening when the standard for inclusion is the same?

Drew_Kaplan said...

the difference b/t Hallel and the insertion is that we do not insert things into Hallel, but the Sages did create the nusah for the Al HaNissim - the nissim being the military victories, and not the pakh shemen.

Anonymous said...

No, no, no. We're not talking about inserting things in Hallel at all. Go back and reread for content.

The criteria for an insertion in the beracha of hodaa in bentching and davening is the same as the criteria for including Hallel as a part of Shacharis. Just like the nes shemen wouldn't alone justify saying Hallel by its very nature (not being a nes which delivered rov of Klal Yisrael from harm), so, too, it doesn't make it into the berachos of hodaa. That's not at all remarkable, rather perfectly understandable when one understands that they (Hallel and insertions in hodaa) share a criteria.

Anonymous said...

I'm not hearing the diyuk from Megillat Ta'anit. There are clearly two "layers", but the fact that the miracle of the oil isn't mentioned in the first "layer" doesn't prove much - neither is the military victory, merely that it is a day upon which we do not fast. Was the military victory also a later addition?! For that matter, take a browse through it yourself, here:


You'll see that in no place does the first "layer" offer a reason for the observances which it lists - that is left to the second "layer". Treating this as if it's unique in the case of Channukah and then attempting to draw conclusions is simply poor scholarship.

Drew_Kaplan said...

Last Anonymous,
Rabbi Katz was not "treating this as if it's unique in the case of Channukah and then attempting to draw conclusions".
What he was trying to show with the two layers of Meg. Ta'an., was that the oil was not part of the original version, rather that, at a later point in time, say during the Roman occupation, they adapted it.

Anonymous said...

"Rabbi Katz was not 'treating this as if it's unique in the case of Channukah and then attempting to draw conclusions'.
What he was trying to show with the two layers of Meg. Ta'an., was that the oil was not part of the original version, rather that, at a later point in time, say during the Roman occupation, they adapted it."

Your two sentences here contradict each other entirely. First you say that he wasn't drawing conclusions and then you share with us the conclusion that he drew ("...at a later point in time...").

The fact that the "why" of Channukah was later added to megilat Ta'anit proved nothing as the "why" of every day listed therein was added at a later date. See for yourself. The military victory also wasn't listed (neither in the first nor second layer, actually. The "why" for every single date wasn't added until later. To then use this to claim that the miracle of the oil was "invented" later is poor scholarship. It might not hbe on his part, rather yours, but as it's presented here, it's poor scholarship plain and simple.

Drew_Kaplan said...

I admit to not being a great writer, oftentimes also not that great in presenting ideas, either, in writing/typing. However, aside from me liking his approach, I suppose the way it reflects poorly on my scholarship is that I am not well-versed enough in the authorship of Megillat Ta'anit. That having been stated, I don't think this, in any other way, reflects poorly on my scholarship. If you have questions about Rabbi Katz' approach, you can e-mail him at ysoscher@aol.com to get a better handle on his perspective.
I do not contradict myself in saying that (now read closely) he wasn't drawing conclusions from the uniqueness of this passage in MegTa'an (especially as it is not unique(!)), and then drawing a conclusion. You present it as a contradiction, because you don't include all of my wording - be careful when quoting others....
BTW, the military victories were listed there, but not as the nes - I hope that's what you mean, because that would be a big gaff otherwise on your part.

Anonymous said...

No, the military vistories wer not listed in the first "layer" of Megillas Ta'anis (neither were the reasons for any of the days where observances were noted. None of this information was included until the second "layer".

See for yourself:


The poor scholarship is to bring the lack of inclusion of the nes shemen in the first "layer" of Megillas Ta'anis as some sort of "prrof" that it was a later invention, when no such information is included in the first "layer" regarding any date. Your conclusion (that it was a later invention) is not suppored by the premise (that it was a later addition to Megillas Ta'anis) since all explanatory information was a later addition to Megillas Ta'anis. In other words, it's entirely plausible that the nes shemen was the cause for the institution of the holiday from the beginning and the reason it wasn't mentioned initially in Megillas Ta'anis is the same as the reason the military victory wasn't mentioned - the author didn't include any explanatory information initially.

Anonymous said...

And if I'm guilty of a "big gaff" by asserting that the military victory isn't mentioned in the first "layer" of Megillas Ta'anis in any way, shape, or form (clear enough?), kindly point me to the relevant passage.

The text is online here:


Drew_Kaplan said...

The point that Rabbi Katz raised - not I - was not that since the pakh shemen is not mentioned in the first layer, it must be dubious, but rather that since, at that later time, they wanted to downplay their military might and political autonomy in face of their Roman occupiers, the author of Megillat Ta'anit inserted the pakh shemen story - thereby making the holiday/festival to take on more of a "religious" feel to it, rather than a political/cultural understanding.
I apologize for not making this point more clearly earlier.

Anonymous said...

That sounds great and all, Drew, but it's simply not supported by the facts. There was no explanation for the observance in the first "layer" of the Megillas Ta'anis either way - no mention of the military victory and no mention of the oil. Bottom line - there was nothing to "downplay" when the second "layer" was written because there wasn't any reason listed for the observance in the first "layer".

Further, if the lack of mention of the nes of the oil isn't being used as a proof for this theory, what is?? He's offered an observation about the Megillas Ta'anis from which no conclusion one way or the other can be drawn and made an unrelated contention about the miracle of the oil with no real support.

What is he basing this contention upon? What is the logical construct which results in this conclusion?

You seem to have an aacademic bias, Drew - anything which examines the text from an academic perspective and draws conclusions which differ from the normal understanding must be right. Hey, that's great and all if that's your thing, but you need to apply critical thinking skills a bit, too. What is he basing this conclusion upon? What is the logical progression from premises to conclusion??

Drew_Kaplan said...

First off, the original question stems from the problem that in neither 1 nor 2 Maccabees is there any reference to a "miracle" of a single jar of oil or anything similar. There is a reference to them lighting the menorah, but that's it. So, thus, it would seem that if this pakh shemen was supposed to be such a significant thing, then one would have expected it to have been reported in either 1 or 2 Macc.
The common response one hears (or can clearly see by other commentors earlier on this posting) is that the Rabbis made it up as a "political fairy tale," or other such things, which is hard to take if we are basing this holiday on something that never happened.
I think that on a simple level, I like the explanation in those early ספרים that חנוכה has to do with this being like a Sukkos sheni, as that, from those earlier sources, this seems to be the most accurate explanation of the holiday.
However, there seems to be a problem when we introduce this beraisa on Shab 21b about this nes of the pakh shemen. This is a problem(!).
This is the starting point: How can the rabbis be stating this when an earlier (and reliable, too) text seems to omit what seems to be an important part of this holiday? Or, perhaps, how can the rabbis seem to be coming up with this "invention" of theirs about this pakh shemen?
His logical progression was that it was no mere "invention" on their behalf, but rather something that was meant to divert attention from the other stuff, placing more of a "religious" bend to the understanding of the holiday, thus downplaying the obvious message of political autonomy sought by military might, which very much was an issue during, for instance, tannaitic times, where there were attempts to throw off the Roman occupation out from ארץ ישראל.
Again, if you want a more detailed and precise understanding of how he worked it, please e-mail him at ysoscher@aol.com, as this is a neat theory, but one on which I am not yet completely sold, but it is the best theory for me so far as to understanding this beraisa on Shab. 21b.

You seem to have an academic bias, Drew - anything which examines the text from an academic perspective and draws conclusions which differ from the normal understanding must be right.
I don't know if I would characterize my approach to things as being "academically biased", per se. I think my bias (and, yes, I think here it is appropriate) is to always question, and not just assume that what is common is The Thing. For instance, in fashion, just because "everybody" is wearing a certain thing, I question as to why people are doing that and, if that's for me, etc. I think I could make a whole posting on my approach to things which are common, etc. However, I do not necessarily say that my way "must be right".
Furthermore, if you want to speak in terms of textual approaches, you could call mine, perhaps, an academic approach, but I have already suggested why this is probably inaccurate. Nevertheless, I think a critical approach might better describe mine towards texts.

Anonymous said...

"earlier (and reliable, too)"

I'd question that asessment of I & II Macabees, actually, seeing as though we don't even have the original text, rather a pre-Christian Greek translation.

As for an explanation of the baraisa on Shabbos 21b, you've confused form for substance. The mixed language is indeed because it is a quote of Megillas Ta'anis which has headings for dates in Aramaic and descriptions of those dates in Hebrew. That doesn't really relate to this house of cards that's you've described here about a supposed later invention of the nes shemen. The mixed language shouldn't even give someone with a passing familiarity of the Megillas Ta'anis a moments's pause.

In sum, what do we have? A less than reliable text (Maccabees I & II) which don't mention what you would like to see them mention (I've yet to hear a convincing argument why they should be concerned with the nes shemen at all), some confusion about the purpose of inclusions in the beracha of hodaa in davening and bentsching, and a mention of the nes shemen in the Megillas Ta'anis. How this adds up to anything approaching what you think it does (a "neat theory" indeed), is beyond me.

Drew_Kaplan said...

II Macc. is probably less reliably accurate than I. Macc. due to its jingoistic bend, but I. Macc. is an ancient, reliable Jewish text.
Why do you think they should mention the oil stuff?

Shmarya said...

"(Maccabees I & II) which don't mention what you would like to see them mention (I've yet to hear a convincing argument why they should be concerned with the nes shemen at all)…"

Funny. They tell the detailed story of Hanukka, are written by two different Jewish authors close to the time of events, and neither mentions the "miracle of oil."

Josephus – who was kohin who actually served in the beit hamikdash – doesn't mention the "miracle of oil."

And nobody else does, either, including early rabbinic sources.

You have to get to the gemara to find it mentioned, and there it is done in minor way.

Again, to paraphrase Marc Shapiro, you cannot argue facts with fundamentalists. Anonymous BELIEVES the "miracle of oil" happened, and therefore, in his mind, any evidence to the contrary, no matter how compelling, is disregarded.

Our problem today is that Judaism is controlled by fundamentalists and their apologists.

Anonymous said...

"You have to get to the gemara to find it mentioned, and there it is done in minor way."

Actually, this is not true. Drew has kindly pointed out that the gemara is quoting the second "layer" of the Megillas Ta'anis which predates the gemara by some time.

Shmarya said...

Yes. But NOBODY serious without a frum agenda believes that. And, if it it were true (which it clearly is not) it would still date to 300 years or more after the event.

But, hey, it's always good to see big time religious folk like yourselves deny reality for the cause – it only ensures more Jews with brains will drop out, now or in the future. And that is what you want, right? A smaller, more cohesive, more thought-controlled community?

Shmarya said...

"In an old baraita (Shab. 13b) the question as to the authorship of the work is answered as follows: "Hananiah b. Hezekiah of the Garon family, together with a number of others who had assembled for a synod at his house, compiled the Megillat Ta'anit." According to an account in the "Halakot Gedolot, Hilkot Soferim" (ed. Vienna, p. 104; ed. Zolkiev, p. 82c), the members of this synod were the "Ziḳne Bet Shammai" and "Ziḳne Bet Hillel," the eldest pupils of Shammai and Hillel. The Megillat Ta'anit must have been composed, therefore, about the year 7 of the common era, when Judea was made a Roman province to the great indignation of the Jews (comp. Schmilg, l.c. pp. 20-36). This calendar of victories was intended to fan the spark of liberty among the people and to fill them with confidence and courage by reminding them of the victories of the Maccabees and the divine aid vouchsafed to the Jewish nation against the heathen.

The scholium to Megillat Ta'anit, xii., end, evidently quoting an old baraita, says: "Eleazar b. Hananiah of the family of Garon together with his followers compiled the Megillat Ta'anit." This Eleazar is identical with the Zealot general Eleazar, who took a noteworthy part in the beginning of therevolt against the Romans, vanquishing the garrison at Jerusalem, as well as Agrippa's troops, and Menahem's Sicarian bands. According to this account, therefore, the Megillat Ta'anit was composed by the Zealots after the year 66 of the common era, during the revolution (Grätz, "Gesch." iii., note 26), although it is not necessary to correct the Talmudic account to agree with the scholium, and to read, as does Grätz, in Shab. 13b, "Eleazar b. Hananiah," instead of "Hananiah." On the other hand, the view of Schmilg (l.c.) that the scholium is incorrect is erroneous, since there is both internal and external evidence in favor of its authenticity. The account in the Talmud and that in the scholium may both be accepted, since not only Hananiah the father, but also Eleazar the son, contributed to the compilation of the work. Eleazar, one of the central figures in the war against the Romans, endeavored to strengthen the national consciousness of his people by continuing his father's work, and increased the number of memorial days in the collection, to remind the people how God had always helped them and had given them the victory over external and internal enemies.


Eleazar did not, however, complete the work, and several days were subsequently added to the list which was definitely closed in Usha, as is proved by the fact that the 12th of Adar is designated as "Trajan's Day," and the 29th of that month as "the day on which the persecutions of Hadrian ceased" (comp. Brann in "Monatsschrift," 1876, p. 379). Furthermore, R. Simon b. Gamaliel, who was nasi at Usha, says in the baraita Shab. 13b: "If we should turn all the days on which we have been saved from some danger into holidays, and list them in the Megillat Ta'anit, we could not satisfy ourselves; for we should be obliged to turn nearly every day into a festival" (comp. Rashi ad loc.). This sentence clearly indicates that the work was definitely completed at Usha in the time of R. Simon, in order that no further memorial days might be added."

So, it was finished c. 150 CE and written at the earliest (and this is highly suspect) in 7 CE, over 170 years AFTER the event. Maccabees 1 & 2 were written w/in 5-10 years of Hanukka – i.e., at least 170 years BEFORE MT, and probably more like 250 years before it. And the work was added to for many years after that.

Okay, enough reality. Go back to your comfortable world of fiction.

Anonymous said...

So what you're saying, Shmarya, is that the Gemara was not the first mention of the miracle of the oil - precisely my contention.

Shmarya said...

No. What I am saying is, giving Drew's shita the **most** weight possible, MT was written about 200 years after Hanukka. Further, it is preceded by several earlier sources, none of whom mention the miracle.

But the problem for Drew's shita is nobody serious w/o a haredi agenda believes it to be true. The vast majority of experts would place MT much later. They would also dispute the idea that the "earlier layer" was written any earlier than, say about 200 CE, and would further argue that the "miracle of oil" can date no earlier than that. But they would also argue the "miracle of oil" belongs to a second layer, added in even later.

But none of this matters. No rabbinic rext from before about 200 CE mentions this "miracle." Further, the earlier texts do not mention it. Neither does 1 & 2 Maccabees, or Josephus or Philo or others.

And since the recapture of the Temple and the rededication was witnessed by tens of thousands of Jews, and **NOT ONE OF THEM**, including thousands of kohanim were inside working, wrote any thing about this "miracle," and no celebration was ever held to commemorate it – until a fable invented (probably for political as well as theological reasons) hundreds of years later **GRADUALLY** became accepted as the "truth."

And this is what you cannot handle.