A note on Hanukkah 5776

I have to admit to some mixed feelings about Hanukkah this year.

The holiday commemorates a military victory, specifically a Jewish military victory in defense of Jewish religious practice. As we celebrate Hanukkah in 5776/2015, we’re surrounded by images of religious violence in our world, and every military victory is inevitably violent. Of course there’s a vast difference between a war that is necessary and even right—like the Jewish resistance to the imperial domination of Antiochus in the days of the Maccabees—and the wanton violence of today’s terrorists. But what’s remarkable in the celebration of Hanukkah is that the emphasis isn’t on the military dimension as much as on the miraculous dimension.

The distinctive prayer for Hanukkah in the prayer book is Al Hanisim—“for the miracles.” The letters inscribed on the four sides of the dreidel stand for four Hebrew words, nes gadol haya sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” We kindle eight lights to remember the miraculous provision of oil for eight days when the temple was rededicated after the victory of the Maccabees.

Everyone knows about the miracle of Hanukkah, but you might be amazed to learn that the miracle of the oil wasn’t mentioned in the original accounts of the Books of Maccabees, or anywhere else, until hundreds of years after the events. The first reference is in the Talmud, Shabbat 21b, and what’s even more striking is that it cites the miraculous supply of oil to answer the question, “What is Hanukkah?” The military victory is mentioned in passing, but it’s the miracle of the oil that now defines the holiday.

Jewish tradition shifted the focus from military to miracle, and it’s a vital reminder for us today. Military action might be necessary, and those who serve in the military deserve to be honored, but Hanukkah reminds us (in the distinctive reading for the holiday): Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts (Zechariah 4:6).

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