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Community BlogThe Truth(s) about Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah all about? There are many possible answers to this question; here are just a few to consider:

Hanukkah celebrates the military victory of Judah Maccabee and his small band of Jewish freedom fighters over the mighty Syrian Greek Empire

Hanukkah recounts the discovery of the miraculous tiny pot of oil the Maccabees used to rededicate the ancient Temple in Jerusalem

Hanukkah was introduced as a make-up holiday for Sukkot since the Jews couldn’t get to the Temple at harvest time while battling Antiochus and his forces

Hanukkah is a Jewish version of an earlier Zoroastrian holiday that celebrated light and warmth during the darkest and coldest time of year

Which of these answers is “true?” All of them!

In my studies at Hebrew College, my classmates and I have been exploring the notion of myth, and its relationship to truth, and how calling a story a “myth” does not mean that a story is false. A myth is a story that teaches us particular lessons.

My favorite example is the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and responding to his father’s questions with the famous words, “I cannot tell a lie.” Did Georgie really say these words? Probably not. So why do we continue to tell this story? Because (ironically) we want people to believe in the honesty of our founding father, we want people to strive to live honestly.

In myths like this, the truth of the value matters more than the historical accuracy of the events. Honesty is real whether George Washington told the truth or not.

What is “true” in the case of Hanukkah? Were Judah and the Maccabees freedom fighters, yes, but they also acted violently against other Jews who opposed them. Did the legendary jug of oil really last for eight days? We have no evidence to corroborate this claim. Was Hanukkah actually a new holiday based on more ancient celebrations? Yes, but why is that important? What does that teach us today?

I want to suggest that we think of Hanukkah as a kind of mythological tapestry with several theological and ethical lessons—as distinct from historical facts—that remain compelling and challenging today.

What can we learn about bravery from the legends of Judah Maccabee? How does the story of the cruse of oil teach us about what we consider miraculous? Why do so many religious traditions have light ceremonies and rituals, particularly in the depths of winter? How does this help us think about issues of religious similarity and difference?

For me, among the most powerful lessons of Hanukkah is hope. One classical Jewish source that shapes my thinking on this subject comes from the tractate of Shabbat (21a) in the Babylonian Talmud. There, we find a debate between the academies of Hillel and Shammai about the preferable way to light the menorah on Hanukkah.

The House of Hillel argues that we begin lighting with one candle on the first night and add a candle each subsequent night, whereas the House of Shammai teaches that we start with eight candles and decrease by one each night. Ultimately, the House of Hillel won this debate. The Jewish community was convinced by the argument put forth by the Hillelites that we add to the beauty of this mitzvah by increasing the light each night of the festival.

In reading this text, I view it not only as a fitting way of celebrating the miracle of the oil, but also as a source of hope: by adding a candle each night of Hanukkah we articulate our faith in a better future; our hope in the face of personal, communal, and even global darkness, confusion, and pain.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes in his book The Jewish Way that redemption is the central paradigm of Jewish ritual life. In this case, we reenact the ancient lighting ceremony and in so doing demonstrate our hope that salvation is possible. The story of the triumph of Judah Maccabee and his rag-tag army over the great Syrian Greek monarchy provides us with a vivid and concrete example of this possibility. It is an example that also stresses the need for human action coupled with faith in God.

I think it is fascinating to sort through the layers of the Hanukkah story, both historical and mythical. Bravery and hope are “true” values that we need to embody and to teach future generations. These important lessons can sit side by side with the facts of Hanukkah. I am not bothered when I learn about historical facts that challenge or even contradict elements of the myth, because the truth of these mythological lessons endure.

Allison Lee Poirier is a  second-year student at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School.