On Chanukah we celebrate two prominent miracles. One was the great the
military victory of a small band of Jewish fighters against the more
numerous, more experienced, better trained and better equipped Seleucid
(Syrian-Greek) army. The other was the extended burning of the menorah
lights for eight days.
Yet, our observance of Chanukah focuses exclusively on the lighting of
candles, which commemorates the second miracle alone. Only in our prayers
do we acknowledge the miraculous military successes. One explanation for
this is that whereas these military victories strongly suggest Divine
Intervention, the undeniable miracle of one cruse of oil burning
uninterruptedly for eight consecutive days points directly to it.
What is the reason of Chanukah? … For when the Greeks entered the
Temple, they defiled all the oils contained there. When the Hasmoneans
defeated them, they searched and found only one jug of oil that possessed
the seal of the High Priest. It contained only enough oil for one day’s
lighting. A miracle occurred and the lamp burned for eight days.
(Talmud, Shabbos 21b)
I would like to suggest another reason, one rooted in the great
ideological divide that existed between Judaism and Greek culture. In the
ancient world, no nation was more foreign to the Jews than the Greeks, who
differed on every level, including such key areas as religious beliefs and
Belief in a Higher Authority – The Jews were (and are)
monotheistic, believing in one all-powerful, omniscient God. The Greek
were polytheistic, worshiping multiple deities.
Nature of God-- – The Jewish God was incorporeal, possessing
no physical attributes or limitations. He was perfect and holy. Greek gods
were human in form, behavior, and interests.
Source of the Good – Jews: Knowledge of the good comes from
God and His Torah. Greeks: Man’s Intellect provides such knowledge.
Virtue – The Torah teaches virtuous behavior. The Greeks
maintained that virtue comes from one’s knowledge.
Reward & Punishment – The Jews believed that God is interested
in human affairs. He rewards good behavior and punishes misdeeds. The
Greeks maintained that the gods were not interested in human behavior and
left people to their own devices.
Fate & Human Action – Judaism saw a strong correlation between
human behavior and their relationship with God. Greek ideology argued that
Fate is predetermined and human actions cannot impact its forces.
Afterlife – Judaism: Souls of the righteous live eternally.
Hellenism: The Master of Knowledge will be united with a person’s Active
Government – Judaism: Theocracy. Hellenism: Democracy.
Morality – The Torah imposes strict guidelines for public and
private behavior, with a strong emphasis on modesty and refined social
behavior. Greek culture saw no need for such limits. On the contrary, they
argued that openness and exposure promoted the beauty of the human
To the Jews, human beings were created in the image of God. Greek deities
were fashioned in the image of human beings. In the Jews’ mind, the
physical world was something to be refined and elevated. The Greeks viewed
the physical world as faultless, needing no further perfection.
Hellenism introduced a concept known today as Humanism, which places the
human being as the center of all things. Hellenism showcased Man’s many
physical and intellectual talents, and glorified the human body. It
positioned the discovery of truth and life’s deeper meaning squarely on
the shoulders of the intellect, rather than the Divine.
For a Jewish nation bent on preserving its religious purity, the Greek
gods, with their wanton, capricious behavior, were wildly offensive. In a
Jewish society firmly opposed to public indecency, Greek indiscretions in
this area were shockingly distasteful. For a Jewish religion that singles
out homosexuality and deviant sexual relationships as a crime, the Greek
liberal attitude towards such matters was inconceivable.
Where the rest of the world saw Greek social, political, cultural and
scholarly achievements as illuminating, our sages saw only spiritual and
“The earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the
deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water”.
(Genesis 1:2) Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish applied this verse to the foreign
powers. ‘Now the earth was empty’ symbolizes Babylonia… ‘Astonishingly’
refers to Persia / Media… ‘Darkness’ symbolizes Greece. (Genesis
The military triumph that we commemorate with the celebration of Chanukah
was incomplete when the menorah burned for those eight days. A great deal
of fighting and bloodshed waited ahead. The power of the Hellenists
remained formidable. Much of the Judean countryside was still under Greek
control. Why then did our sages proclaim this relatively early date as one
The answer is that Chanukah does not ultimately recount a physical
scuffle. The Jews had previously shouldered the burden of foreign dominion
without incident, and would continue to do so peacefully for much of the
balance of the Second Commonwealth. Their struggle with the Greeks was
primarily a spiritual one, to rid the land of Hellenistic ideology and
culture. Once the initial objective of restoring spiritual freedom was
realized, the rabbis proclaimed a day for celebration.
Had Chanukah been about the military triumph, it would have soon faded far
into our distant past, together with many other military successes
throughout Jewish history. What has secured its timeless and eternal place
amongst our people has been its emphasis on the Jews’ spiritual conquest.
Now Yehuda celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices
of the Temple for eight days… He feasted them upon very rich and splendid
sacrifices, and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms.
They were so glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long
pause, they unexpectedly 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”.
(Josephus, Antiquities 12:325)
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website, www.rabbihoff.com.