Hanukkah: Part II—The Miraculous

By Jean Gerber

The source for the Hanukkah story of military triumphs comes largely from Maccabees I, written in Judea in the last third of the second century BCE. Please see Part I of this series to learn more.

From where, then, do we learn of the miracle at the heart of our Hanukkah celebrations? For that we look at Maccabees II, written in North Africa about the same time as Macc. I, and at the Talmud. The whole affair was passed over in the Mishnah, written by the rabbis living in Roman Palestine, who knew the sad end of the story. These scholars did not want to attribute the Judean victory over the Greeks to human strength and prowess. Military might had become tarnished in their eyes because they blamed the ultimate Hellenization of the Hasmonean descendants for the loss of Jewish sovereignty to Rome.

Enter, the miraculous.

According to Maccabees II, Hanukkah was a Sukkot Sheni, a second Sukkot of dedication. The reasoning? Celebration of Sukkot had been delayed by the battle over the Temple Mount, at that time controlled by the Hellenists. In this view, Hanukkah became a festival that commemorated the purification of the Temple and resumption of its sacrifices in a House where God would dwell perpetually.

Maccabees II speaks in the language of piety, prayer, and angelic participation. When Judah was in trouble, “there appeared to the enemy from Heaven, fierce resplendent men on horses with golden bridles, and they were leading the Jews.” Divine protection of Judah deserved the credit for the slaughter of the enemy. Later, as the Judean army approached Jerusalem, “a horseman appeared at their head, clothed in white and brandishing weapons of gold.”

Here, then, resides the miraculous: an army with God leading it and one day’s worth of sanctified oil that burned for eight days.

Hence, the oil that lasted for all eight nights manifested God’s—not man’s—control over history. That miracle became a symbol of God’s power and influence in human affairs, as reflected in the Hanukkah haftarah: “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”