One of the difficulties in learning about the meaning of Hanukkah is
that there is no biblical text. There are only three pages in the
Talmud dedicated to Hanukkah, and they focus primarily on the
technical laws of lighting the hanukkiyah (Shabbat 21a–23b).
Why are there so few sacred texts for Hanukkah? This question becomes
more pressing when we consider that the Maccabees and their supporters
composed four Books of the Maccabees. These books describe the heroism
of the Maccabees and God’s role in the victory.
Amazingly, the Talmud never mentions the Books of the Maccabees. Why
would the Sages ignore them? Why did they exclude the Books of the
Maccabees from the Bible?
Some argue that the Sages turned against the Maccabees once their
descendants embraced Hellenism and persecuted the rabbis.
Additionally, the Maccabees abused their religious authority and
became corrupt (see Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Angel for Shabbat, vol. 1,
2010, p. 36).
Another possible dimension emerges from a closer reading of the Books
of the Maccabees. One of the greatest heroes of the Maccabees was
their putative ancestor Phinehas (I Maccabees 2:26), the grandson of
Aaron the High Priest. In Numbers chapter 25, we learn of Phinehas’
religious zealotry as he killed the leading participants in the
idolatry of Baal Peor. God approved of his actions, stopping a plague
and granting Phinehas a covenant of peace (Numbers 25:12).
The Maccabees viewed Phinehas as a religious role model and sought to
apply his teachings to a Hellenized society. According to the Books of
the Maccabees, the Maccabean revolt began when a Hellenized Jew was
about to sacrifice to the Greek gods. Mattathias (Judah Maccabee’s
father) killed him and proclaimed, “Whoever is on God’s side, come
with me!” (I Maccabees 2:27). This expression derives from Moses’
battle cry against those who served the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:26).
Although the Torah prohibits idolatry, Jewish Law does not allow Jews
to take the law into their own hands and harm or kill violators of the
Torah. However, the Maccabees believed that they had acted correctly
like their ancestor Phinehas and like Moses. They claimed that the
victory and miracles enumerated in the Books of the Maccabees were
proof that God had sanctioned their actions.
On his deathbed, Mattathias instructed his children to continue to act
in the manner of their ancestor Phinehas:
When the time drew near for Mattathias to die, he said to his sons,
“…my children, be zealous for the Torah, and be ready to give your
lives for the covenant of our fathers…Phinehas, our ancestor, through
his act of zeal received a pact of priesthood for all time.” (I
Maccabees 2:49–50, 54)
Although the Maccabees idealized the religious zealotry of Phinehas,
the Sages drastically curtailed the application of his behavior. A
passage in the Jerusalem Talmud poignantly captures the paradox facing
the Sages. On the one hand, they were uncomfortable with Phinehas’
taking the law into his own hands. On the other hand, God explicitly
approved of his actions:
Phinehas did not act in accordance with the Sages. Rabbi Judah b. Pazi
said: the Sages wanted to excommunicate him, were it not for the
divine spirit that jumped in and said that he and his descendants
shall have an eternal covenant of priesthood. (J.T. Sanhedrin 9:7,
The Sages conclude that Phinehas himself acted appropriately, and God
attested to the absolute purity of his motives. However, the Sages
deeply circumscribed the applicability of Phinehas’ actions to others.
Two generations after the Maccabean victory, Hillel preached that we
should be students of Aaron—loving peace and pursuing peace, loving
people and bringing them closer to Torah (Avot 1:12). Hillel
represents proper Jewish teaching. We should emulate Aaron, not
Perhaps Hillel also learned this lesson from his mentors, Shemayah and
Abtalion (see Avot 1:10–11). They were the rabbinic leaders of the
previous generation and were either converts of descended from
converts (see also Gittin 57b). The Talmud relates a story where the
High Priest was jealous over their popularity and denigrated them for
being converts whereas he was nobly descended from Aaron the High
Priest. Shemayah and Abtalion retorted that they truly reflected the
peaceful values of Aaron whereas the High Priest—the biological
descendant of Aaron—did not:
It happened with a high priest that as he came forth from the
Sanctuary, all the people followed him, but when they saw Shemayah and
Abtalion, they forsook him and went after Shemayah and Abtalion….The
high priest said to them: May the descendants of the heathen come in
peace! They answered him: May the descendants of the heathen, who do
the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron, who
does not do the work of Aaron, he shall not come in peace! (Yoma 71b)
The Sages rejected the Books of the Maccabees from the biblical canon
and ignored them in their literature. The Sages also recast the
holiday as a spiritual festival, downplaying the military victory and
focusing instead on lighting candles and the beautification of the
mitzvot (hiddur mitzvah). The Talmud describes one miracle associated
with the Hanukkah story, namely, the miracle of the oil lasting for
eight days (Shabbat 21b). Although the Books of Maccabees report
several miracles, the miracle of the oil is conspicuously absent. By
ignoring the miracles in the Books of the Maccabees, and by focusing
on a miracle that the Maccabees did not consider important, the Sages
effectively deprived the Maccabees of the divine sanction they had
claimed for themselves.
The Sages also selected a Haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah that preaches
a message in opposition to that of the Maccabees (Megillah 31a). The
prophet Zechariah envisioned a Menorah, and told Zerubbabel, “This is
the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by
My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). It appears that the
Sages chose this passage to take a stand not only against the
Hellenists, but also against the overzealous approach of the
In medieval times, Jews often were persecuted and powerless.
Consequently, the military heroism of the Maccabees against the Greek
enemy (and not against assimilated Jews) was brought to the fore and
celebrated. The Al HaNissim prayer that we recite in the Amidah and
the Grace after Meals appears to have been introduced during these
times and represents a response to persecution.
During this period, a book entitled “Megillat Antiochus” that related
the military victories of the Maccabees was composed and widely
circulated. The Maoz Tzur hymn also was composed, celebrating God’s
victories over the enemies of the Jews. This medieval model of Jewish
pride in the Maccabees’ strength sustained our people through
difficult times and became an additional layer of meaning for
Although that medieval recasting of Hanukkah is important, the core of
the talmudic observance of Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the
spirit of the Sages against both assimilation and religious zealotry.
We celebrate peaceful dialogue, and transmission of the Torah to
students and children. We should again be reminded of Hillel’s
teaching: Love peace, pursue peace, love people, and bring them closer
to the Torah.