Today, we know of the historical events surrounding Hanukkah because they are described in several texts, including the two books of Maccabees and the writings of Josephus. However, these books were either written in Greek or originally written in Hebrew but transmitted only in Greek translations. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud do not know of these books and therefore could not have learned of the story of Hanukkah through them. Rather they learn of the events of Hanukkah from a work called Megillat Taanit and the commentary on this work, called the Scholion.
Megillat Taanit, which was written in Aramaic and was composed in the first century C.E., contains a list of dates of events that occurred mostly during the Second Temple period and on which a Jew is not supposed to fast or mourn. In other words, these are celebratory days, and therefore signs of sadness are forbidden.
The meaning of many of these days has been lost over the centuries. The commentary on Megillat Taanit, which was written during the Talmudic period (2nd-6th centuries), already seems unsure what many of the days commemorate. To this day, scholars argue over the meaning of the various dates, as well as over the historical reliability of the explanations found in the commentary.
More importantly, by the Talmudic period the observance of these holidays had been annulled, according to most opinions (sources 1 and 2). There are however two exceptions—holidays familiar to us and still very much observed throughout the Jewish world: Hanukkah and Purim.
It is easy to understand why Purim is still observed, for the story of Esther and Mordecai is commemorated in a biblical book. However, when it comes to Hanukkah, the answer is more complicated. There are no books in the Jewish Bible that discuss the events of Hanukkah. (The books of the Maccabees are not in the Tanakh, they do appear in Catholic Bibles, and in some Protestant Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.) The latest books of the Tanakh describe events that took place hundreds of years before the events of Hanukkah, which occurred in the middle of the 2nd century, B.C.E. Therefore, we must ask why Hanukkah has become one of the most successful holidays on the Jewish calendar.
Below I suggest several answers to this question. I would also like to use this question to reflect more deeply on the meaning that Hanukkah does and can have in our lives, and finally use this question as a window to some larger issues in Judaism.
The first answer is the simplest and has to do with the historical events themselves. While the victory of Judah Maccabee and his forces over the Greeks was not the final event in the war against the Greeks, it was more memorable, since it was accompanied by the purification of the Temple and was not just a military victory. Indeed, both books of Maccabees accord special significance to this event. In I Maccabees there is a long description of Judah’s purification of the Temple and the chapter ends by stating that by the following year Jews were already celebrating the anniversary of this event with an eight day festival (source 3). In II Maccabees, chapter 1, we even read of a letter from the Jews of Jerusalem to the Jews of Alexandria imploring them to adopt the holiday of Hanukkah to commemorate the restoration of the altar in the Temple (source 4). An eight day holiday would clearly be more memorable than the other holidays mentioned in Megillat Taanit which are mostly only one day long.
Second, the historical events of the purification of the Temple occurred at a fortuitous time of year, a time in which many Northern Hemisphere cultures celebrated a holiday associated with fire. Scholars have long noted that before the existence of Hanukkah there were pagan holidays celebrated at that time of year, most famously the Greco-Roman Saturnalia. Even the Talmud itself may note this when it mentions that Adam established an 8 day festival at this time of year when he saw that the sun was not dying (source 5). The Talmud notes that the pagans took over this holiday and adopted it for their own purposes. While the Talmud does not state that the Jews “retook” the holiday and called it Hanukkah, it is likely that this is at least part of why Hanukkah survived as a holiday. It was likely easier to convince Jews to celebrate a festival when others in their surrounding culture were celebrating a holiday at the same time.
Expanding upon this, we can note that a large reason that Hanukkah may have survived and thrived was that it was particularly adaptable to foreign customs. Other than the Hanukkah menorah (the Hanukkiyah), the symbols most associated with Hanukkah are the foods (sufganiyot—jelly donuts, and latkes), the toys (the dreidel or sevivon) and the gelt or gift giving. All of these customs were adopted in various ways from the surrounding cultures in which Jews found themselves over the centuries and originally had no connection to the content of Hanukkah itself. While some may have a negative attitude toward such a process, in my opinion this is a positive and inevitable step in Jewish development. Jews have always been a mix of the cultures in which they live and their own unique heritage. The prominence of Hanukkah in America where Christmas is the reigning holiday of the majority Christian culture is not a negative feature. Rather it is a healthy means to emphasize the positive aspects of our own culture, while at the same time learning from other cultures as well.
There are two more reasons that I believe have contributed to the ongoing success of Hanukkah and explain why it “beat out” the other holidays in Megillat Taanit. These reasons also afford us a glimpse into why Judaism has survived to this very day, and what will help it survive in the future. First of all, Hanukkah has a ritual—the lighting of the Hanukkah candles—which has accompanied the holiday from a very early period (at least from the first century C.E.). In contrast, the holidays in Megillat Taanit which were lost did not (see source 2). Ritual is the way in which human beings ensconce and physically record meaning. Meaning is internal, we find it in our brains and metaphorically, in our hearts and bones. But without ritual, some external and physical action, we do not have anything tangible to concretize that meaning. The lighting of the candles, and subsequently the other rituals that accrued to Hanukkah over the centuries, contributed to Hanukkah’s survival. In its entirety Judaism is a religion heavily dependent upon ritual. While the actions and rituals are not, at least in my opinion, essentially important in and of themselves, without them we would lose contact with the meaning that they imbue in our lives.
Finally, Hanukkah is a mix of a religious celebration and a national/military/ethnic celebration. One popular message that has emerged from Hanukkah is that of religious freedom. On the 25th of Kislev the Jews won the right to worship as they wished to at their Temple. Hanukkah celebrates our return to worshiping God in the ways that our ancestors did, according to the laws of the Torah. And it is even, according to tradition, accompanied by a miracle, the miracle of the oil (source 6). We can turn our eyes to God and thank God for bringing salvation, when none seemed to be in sight.
But Hanukkah is also a nationalistic holiday, one where we celebrate the military over the Greeks. As we state in the Al HaNisim prayer—we were the few and they were the many. We won our political freedom and eventually the Hasmonean dynasty was able to establish a quasi-independent state, the last Jewish state to be ruled over by a king. Through the strength of our own hands we scored a victory over the mighty Greek empire. The story of Hanukkah resonated with early Zionists who tired of waiting for a miracle from Heaven and it still resonates with modern Israelis, surrounded by countries sworn to our destruction.
In sum, Hanukkah seems to be a near-perfect combination of all of these aspects. Those looking for deep religious meaning can find it in the restoration of the monotheistic worship of one God. Those looking to remember Jewish history can commemorate the glory won on the battlefield. Those looking to nature can think about the time of the year, when the world is in the deep slumber of winter and yet the days, slowly and nearly imperceptibly begin to get longer again. And those looking simply for some fun can light their Hannukiyot, eat some latkes and sufganiyot, spin the dreidel and give or get gifts. Hanukkah—the holiday that truly has it all.