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Shedding New Light On Chanukah
Mon, 12/12/2011 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Judith Hauptman
Judith Hauptman

The cruse of oil story that explains the origins of Chanukah has fallen into disrepute. Many people feel that it appeals to children only, because Chanukah for adults is about a military victory against overwhelming odds. The Babylonian Talmud, they say, composed the story to downplay the Maccabean triumph. But they are wrong. If we read the cruse of oil story in context, we will see how “authentic” it is, and what purpose its authors intended it to serve.

After the Babylonian Talmud notes which oils and wicks are appropriate for Shabbat lamps, it segues into a discussion of Chanukah lamps and how they are used (Shabbat 21b). For example: each home needs to light at least one lamp on each night of Chanukah; the lamp must be placed outside the door or, if the dwelling is upstairs, in a window facing the public way; one may not benefit from the light of a Chanukah lamp; it must be lit during the evening “rush hour.” The Talmud then asks, “What is Chanukah?” and launches into the famous cruse of oil story: when the Hasmoneans overpowered the Greeks and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, they found only one cruse of ritually pure oil, sufficient to burn in the Temple menorah for one day only, but — miraculously — lasted for eight. And so we celebrate Chanukah for eight days.

If we continue reading the Talmud’s discussion of Chanukah, we are surprised to find, just one page later (22b), another menorah story. It first appears in Sifrei Bemidbar (sec. 59), a midrashic text that predates the Talmud. Unlike the cruse of oil story, this one is little known. The Talmud asks, “Why does God need a menorah burning continuously in the Temple?” and answers that it informs all inhabitants of the world that the Shechinah, God’s presence, rests upon the people Israel. How is this so? Because every night the designated kohen would pour the same amount of oil into all seven branches of the Temple menorah. By the next morning, six of the flames would have gone out. But the seventh, called the Western lamp, would remain lit until the following evening when the kohen would come back to light the menorah. He would use the one remaining flame to kindle the six others. That is, the oil of the Western lamp lasted twice as long as it should have.

It cannot be a coincidence that two such similar stories about the Temple menorah appear so close to each other in the Talmud. It seems much more likely that, with just a little tweaking, the “miraculous menorah” story morphed into the Chanukah story, which speaks of the same menorah and the same phenomenon of “burning on empty.” If the cruse of oil story is an altered version of an older one, then we now have to ask: why did the rabbis do this? Why did they adapt the older story and add it to the report of the military victory?

A very likely reason for the rabbinic rewrite was to fight assimilation. The Babylonian Jews lived among Zoroastrians and hence saw everywhere, in this darkest month of the year, Zoroastrian holy fire, a key feature of that religion. By consciously adapting the old Jewish legend of a continuously burning Western lamp, by requiring Jews to place their Chanukah lamps on public display, and by forbidding them the use of the lamps for a practical purpose, the rabbis gave Babylonian Jews a way to light their own holy fires, at a time when the Zoroastrians were kindling theirs. For these Jews, Chanukah assumed added importance.

This new understanding of the cruse of oil story should resonate with Jews living in a Christian culture today. There is no denying that Christmas, with its twinkling lights and exchange of gifts, exerts a strong pull on many American Jews. Ramping up Chanukah with presents, songs, a chanukkiah for each person in the family, and even an electric menorah in the window, are contemporary responses to living in an open society. Some look askance at these new practices. But taking our cue from the rabbis of the Talmud, we should celebrate, not denigrate, the transformation of Chanukah from a minor to a major holiday. The cruse of oil story, therefore, is as “true” today as it was back then. No need to be embarrassed to tell it to our children and grandchildren, of whatever age.

Judith Hauptman is professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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In the Northern Hemisphere, the 25th of the lunar "moonth" that comes closet to the winter solstice is the darkest time of the year -- and what do you know, our ritual is to light a growing number of lights! (Accident? I don't think so! I think the lights led to the story, not the other way around.)

We should indeed want haqnukkah to speak to grown-ups in our generation. How? --

There are three levels of wisdom through which Hanukkah invites us to address the planetary dangers of the global climate crisis – what some of us call “global scorching” because “warming” seems so pleasant, so comforting.

1. The Talmud’s legend about using one day’s oil to meet eight days’ needs: a reminder that if we have the courage to change our life-styles to conserve energy, the Breath of Life (YHWH pronounced with no vowels) will sustain us.

2. The vision of Zechariah (whose prophetic passages we read on Shabbat Hanukkah) that when the Temple would be rebuilt, the Menorah would itself become a living being, uniting the world of adam and adamah, “human earthlings” and earthy “nature.” For Zechariah prophesied a Menorah that was not only fashioned in the shape of a Tree of Light, as Torah teaches, but was flanked by two olive trees that fed olive oil directly into it.

3. The memory that a community of “the powerless” can overcome a great empire, giving us courage to face our modern corporate empires of Oil and Coal when they defile our most sacred Temple: Earth itself. And the reminder (again from Zechariah) that we triumph “Not by might and not by power but by My Spirit [b’ruchi — or, “My breath,” “My wind!”], says YHWH, the Infinite Breath of Life.”

We are taught not only to light the Hanukkah menorah, but to publicize the miracle, to turn our individual actions outward for the rest of the world to see and to be inspired.

So we invite you to join, this Hanukkah, in The Shalom Center ‘s Green Menorah Covenant for taking action – personal, communal, and political – to heal the earth from the global climate crisis.

And here is how we can encode these teachings of Hanukkah into actions we take to heal the earth, one action for each of the eight days. We begin at home and enlarge the corcle of action step by step, to the national level: See our article on Hanukkah on our Home Page at for 8 days of action.

Thanks you for this thoughtful post. As a Jewish Educator, I have for years decried teaching only "pediatric Judaism" to our children and campaigned openly to rid even our childhoods of the fabricated miracle of Hanukkah, and replace it with more stories (age appropriately, of course.) Your post poses a challenge to my philosophy for which I am grateful. I would still argue that when we teach the story of the oil as "true" we must do it in a way, for even the youngest age, that helps them to understand the quotation marks around the word "true" as best they can at their ages. In a sense, nothing has essentially changed here. It remains a reasonable understand that the story of the miracle of the oil at Hanukkah is a fabrication, albeit one that can be taught not as fabrication out of whole cloth, but from a pre-existing tale (whose veracity remains no less questionable than anything else in our tradition.) The rationale of the rabbis was, in both stories, based on current historical circumstances. I will admit that I do find the rationale of the rabbis in creating the "Western lamp" story a bit more admirable than I do their rationale for creating the hanukkah story-it has a generally more positive spin.

So I can and will embrace the idea that, just as the rabbis worked to help Judaism survive and feel comfortable in Babylon and its Zoroastrian culture, so too can we, in our time, copy and borrow from the culture of those with whom we live and not feel shame about it. On the other hand, my crusade against pediatric Judaism will still compel me be sure students understand that the victory of the Maccabees led to the despicable rule of the House of Hashmon, not a proud time in Jewish history as seen through our modern lenses. There's still no divorcing of the Hanukkah story from its political and military aspects. Doing so remains disingenuous.

Chanukah is the festival that added one more law to the 613.

pikuach nefsh

so we end up 613+1

that is the main message of chanukah



One major problem with this bizarre hypothesis is that issue of lighting outside of one's home is not Babylonian nor Amoraic, but Tanaitic from Eretz Yisrael.

The Mishnah Bava Kama 6:6 mentions the custom of lighting the Hanukkah lamp outside in the street or opening to a shop. The custom of lighting and placing the lamp outside clearly existed in a Roman Palestinian milieu. It may have taken on more meaning in the Babylonian context, but did not originate as an anti-Zoroastrian polemic.

I appreciate many things that Prof. Hauptman has written, but this one is just off the mark.

Please note that the story of the miracle of the cruse of oil predates the Talmud and is recorded in "Megillat Ta'anit" from which the Talmud quotes that story. Thus, it is not an adaptation or a morphing from another story or miracle relating to the Menorah, but stands on its own as the authentic tradition that Jews have celebrated and recounted throughout the ages. While there are other early sources of the story of Chanukkah that indeed do not include the story of the miracle of the cruse of oil, there are other explanations for that omission that are beyond the scope of this brief comment.