Misconceptions about Hanukkah



Many people have wrong ideas about the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. The following are a few examples:


Hanukkah does not celebrate a victory over Greeks. The Greeks ruled many kingdoms as a result of Alexander’s conquests in the third century BCE, such as Egypt and Syria. Judea, the name Israel had at that time, had good relations with the Greeks but was persecuted by the Syrians, who were Syrian Greeks. For political reasons, to unify their kingdom, they tried to force Judeans to worship Syrian gods. They profaned the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Judeans waged war against the Syrians beginning in 165 BCE and after exactly three years, on the very day the temple was profaned, they were victorious and rededicated the temple.


The miracle of Hanukkah was not, as currently taught, that the Judeans lit the temple candelabrum with oil that could only last one day, but lasted eight days. The miracle, if we could call it that, was that a small Judean army was able to beat the Syrians. The book Maccabees, written about the time the events occurred, states that the Judeans celebrated their victory for eight days because they were unable to observe the eight-day holiday of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret during the war, so they did so when they were victorious. No mention is made about a miracle that oil that should have lasted only one day lasted eight days. The battle and its success were natural events.


The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in his Antiquities 12:2 between 70 and 100 CE, does not mention any miracle, and states instead that the Judeans celebrated because they “had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights.”


The rabbis disliked this holiday called Lights because it celebrated a natural military victory without divine involvement. Centuries later, during the mid-first millennium, the rabbis changed the holiday’s name to Hanukkah, meaning “dedication,” to emphasize that the holiday was not celebrating a military victory, but the purification and dedication of the temple and they invented the story of the miracle of the lights.[1] They also took three additional steps. (1) In 161 BCE, the Judeans fought, beat, and killed the Syrian general Nicanor and his army. They instituted a holiday called Nicanor Day on 13 Adar, which is described in the book Maccabees and in Josephus. The rabbis discontinued this holiday because of its secular nature and substituted in its place the Fast of Esther.[2] (2) They emphasized their view by decreeing that on Hanukkah, Jews should read Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit, said the Lord of hosts.”[3] (3) They further emphasized it by developing a prayer during the middle ages called Al HaNissim, “Concerning the miracles,” which speaks about the miracles they felt occurred during Purim and Hanukkah. They instructed Jews to recite this prayer during these two holidays in the three-time daily prayer Amida and in the grace recited after meals.


Many Jewish children play with a dreidel during Hanukkah even though the dreidel has nothing to do with Hanukkah. The Yiddish name dreidel, sevivon in Hebrew, the design, and the way people play with it are copies of gambling with such a toy in many ancient cultures. The several attempts to give the dreidel a Jewish significance were inventions long after the Jews first played with the dreidel. The earliest mention of the ancient toy is in the early 1500s when it was called totum or teetotum, meaning “all,” referring to the chance that players could win everything during the game. By 1800, the totum had four letter: T = the spinner Takes everything in the pot. H = the player only gets Half. P = the spinner needs to Put money in the pot. N = the spinning player gains Nothing from the spin. In Germany, where the Jews apparently copied the toy, its design, and method of play, the toy was called torrel or trundle, “spinning,” which the Jews translated into Yiddish as dreidel. Thus, while Hanukkah celebrates a victory over assimilation, one of the items many Jews use during the holiday, is an example of assimilation the ancient Jews were trying to avoid.



[1] The technical rabbinical laws concerning the lighting of candles in homes, an invention to recall the miracle of the oil burning for eight days, is in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21a-23b.

[2] Nicanor Day is mentioned in I Maccabees 3:57, II Maccabees 15:36, Megillah Taanit 12, Babylonian Talmud Taanit 18b, and elsewhere. The first mention of the Fast of Esther is around 800 CE.

[3] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 31a.