The Bible Says… Absolutely nothing about Chanukah!

The Bible Says… Absolutely nothing about Chanukah!

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers delves into Jewish texts to find out why the festival of lights is... absent!

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers

The first record of the story of Chanukah is found in the Book of Maccabees, written around 135 BCE – as little as 30 years after the Maccabean revolt.

That was too late to make it into the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), so while Chanukah might feel like the festive highlight of the year to some, it’s actually one of the least important festivals.

So where do we find the Book of Maccabees? It was preserved by our Christian friends in what is known at the Apocrypha, or the Intertestamental Books. For some Christians, this selection of texts made it into the official scriptures, for others they are seen as valuable and interesting historical texts.

Maccabees preserves for us the story of a great military victory won by a tiny guerrilla army. It teaches us that the first Chanukah was a rededication of the Temple and a celebration of Succot, which they had missed celebrating because of the fighting.

This isn’t in the Bible, but it’s the oldest version of the story we have, and it is preserved in someone else’s Bible. More shocking, perhaps, is that there absolutely no mention of oil. The menorah is lit at the rededication of the Temple, but there’s no mention of only one day’s oil being found and an eight-day process to get more!

The story of the oil doesn’t appear until the Talmud, around 500 to 700 CE. This is no bad thing; it’s what happens to keep Judaism alive.

Post-Temple, the rabbis found many ways to continually deepen and reignite the meaning of our festivals.

And today this is our task too – to ensure that Chanukah, and all our festivals, are opportunities to create a deeper meaning and greater light for people in their encounter with Judaism.

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at
Reform Judaism

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