Hanukkah comes early this year. Well, actually it doesn’t. It is always on the 25th of Kislev—it just seems early on the solar calendar. A few years ago it was even earlier. Remember Thanksgivukkah? Whatever the date, it is when Jews all over the world light a Hanukkah menorah (a hanukkiah) to commemorate the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE. But that is an explanation for the tradition of lighting the hanukkiah whose origins remain a mystery. In an article in Ha’aretz, writer Elon Gilad offered an interesting theory into this tradition and the development of the Hanukkah menorah itself.
No one really knows when exactly Jews started lighting Hanukkah menorahs. It is not mentioned in 1 Maccabees, the earliest known account of Hanukkah, nor does the text say anything about how it should be celebrated. Most likely it was marked the way all Jewish holidays were celebrated at that time – with animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple.
So where did the tradition of the menorah come from? Gilad asserts that “it was unlikely for a new tradition to have been created without a biblical reference. It is far more likely that Jewish households adopted the practice from a Babylonian ritual. It was a common practice for the Zoroastrians of Persia to celebrate the Winter Solstice with a festival of fire that fell at about the same time of year and predated Hanukkah. We should note here that it was common for many cultures to have “festivals” or celebrations” of light in the winter months when the days grow short and the nights long and dark. So it is altogether probable that the rabbis gave the practice a Jewish explanation.
Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, was the first to associate Hanukkah and fire. He calls the holiday “Lights,” though admits that he doesn’t know what the connection between light and the Maccabean victory is.
The Mishnah or Oral Torah, compiled about 220 CE doesn’t provide an answer either; it barely mentions the holiday. There are several reasons why the Mishnah redactors may have chosen to suppress the celebration of Hanukkah. One reason might have had to do with the disastrous Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Romans in 136 CE and any mention of military victory could have been a serious and deadly problem for Jews still living under Roman rule. Another reason could have been the disapproval of a celebration that may have had foreign influences, especially since the holiday had not been biblically ordained. And maybe, the holiday was simply not considered that important.
In any case, several centuries later, around 500 CE, the practice of lighting Hanukkah menorahs was firmly established in Jewish homes, but without specific textual sources the rabbis felt impelled to interpret and regulate the traditions as well as enact regulations concerning menorahs: what kind of oils were permissible and how the candles were to be lit.
Shammai said that Jews should begin Hanukkah by lighting all eight candles, each day lighting one less. Hillel disagreed and ruled that that Jews should light one candle on the first day, each day adding one until reaching eight. As most Jews know from experience, Hillel prevailed.
“The earliest hanukkiahs were lamps of clay or stone, with an opening on top to pour in olive oil, There was a small spout in the front for a wick. On Hanukkah, these lamps were placed at the entrance to the home on a specially constructed stand; people would add a lamp each day. Later, a smaller model appeared: a single lamp made of clay, stone, or, increasingly, metal with eight wick spouts instead of just one.
A new and improved model appeared in the Jewish community of 13th century Spain and spread from there to the rest of the Jewish world. These hanukkiahs were made of metal, and could be affixed to the wall of the home. It had a narrow tray on the bottom, with eight dimples for oil. It was in these menorahs that the shamash, the additional “candle” used to light the other ones, first appeared.
The hanukkiah we light today is basically a Babylonian Jewish invention that was created hundreds of years after—and hundreds of miles away from where—the Hanukkah story actually took place. Its invention and most of the halakha concerning it took place at about the same time and in the same location that rabbis invented the story about the miracle of oil. But like so many traditions, though the years, the holiday with its symbols have come to represent many things, often reflecting the condition and attitudes of the Jewish community—from the rededication of the Temple, and each of us to our traditions to the freedom of religion so many modern Jews celebrate today. So as we light our Hanukkah candles this year, let us treasure and reflect upon the creativity and adaptability of our people as well as the beauty and the blessings of our heritage.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.