Rabbi Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli has served Masorti congregations in Israel for the past five years and has taught Talmud at the Conservative Yeshiva. In July 2012 he became the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Gothenburg, Sweden.
SourcesoftheHanukkahStory Today Hanukkah is perhaps the best-known Jewish holiday throughout the world. However, despite its popularity, Hanukkah is the holiday with the least textual basis. The story of Hanukkah does not appear in the Tanakh. And while there is a Talmudic tractate named for the one-day festival of Purim (“MassekhetMegillah”), only a few pages of the Babylonian Talmud (B. Shabbat 21b-23a) are devoted to Hanukkah, including one small paragraph describing the historical event, and a few pages dealing with the laws of lighting Hanukkah candles.
Hanukkah is often celebrated as the holiday of “religious freedom.” More accurately, it is a holiday celebrating our ability to practice Judaism unhindered, without pressure or influence to do otherwise. At the time, in the second century BCE, many Jews attempted to combine their ancient Jewish practices with newly popular Hellenistic ones; the Maccabees sought to put an end to this.
Originally, our Jewish calendar did not have a fixed number of days in each month. Each month had 29 or 30 days, depending on when witnesses spotted the new moon and reported this to the Sanhedrin (High Court). Around three hundred years after the destruction of the second Templeand the accompanying exile, Hillel II (4th century CE, Eretz Yisra’el) instituted a fixed calendar which we use until this day. The year has an average of 354 days, with the months alternating in length: Nisan has 30 days, Iyyar 29, Sivan 30, and so on. (Heshvan and Kislev sometimes have 30 and sometimes 29. These are set in such a way to prevent certain festival difficulties. For instance, according to our calendar system, Yom Kippur will never fall on Friday. We ensure these by altering the length of Heshvan and/or Kislev).
In the Torah, a date is prescribed for all of the holidays, except for one: Shavuot. The Torah (Lev. 23:15) commands us to count 49 days – seven weeks – beginning the second day of Passover. On the fiftieth day, we are to observe Shavuot. Shavuot is not connected to a date, but rather is always the fiftieth day of the Omer. Back when the months didn’t have fixed lengths, Shavuot could occur on the fifth, sixth, or seventh of Sivan. [See Source I.]