Who doesn’t know the story of the miracle of Chanukah? It’s a trick question. Everybody knows the story of the miracle. And even if some of the story’s details may be a bit obscure (and its historical background even more so), the one thing about the story that absolutely everybody does know is its much vaunted happy ending: the oil for the great menorah that only should have been enough for a single day somehow ends up lasting for a full eight days, Jerusalem rejoices, and the Jews agree to commemorate the miracle with an annual eight-day holiday. How many times have you heard that story? And it’s always about the oil! How else can cholesterol-conscious people like ourselves justify eating all those pan-fried latkes and deep-fried doughnuts? But it turns out that it’s also about something else…something unexpectedly interesting.
It’s true, as some readers may know, that the story of the miracle is mysteriously absent from the ancient Books of the Maccabees, both the one written in Hebrew towards the end of the second century BCE commonly called First Maccabees and also the contemporary, but unrelated digest of a much longer work by one Jason of Cyrene originally written in Greek and commonly called Second Maccabees. (Both cover the events of the 160s BCE that led to the rededication of the Temple, but neither mentions the oil story or appears to know of it.) Nor, even, is there any clear reference to the miracle even in the Al Hanissim prayer we add to our recitation of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals during the festival. (That passage, ancient in its own right, concludes just a bit vaguely with a reference to the Jews re-entering the Temple courtyard, cleansing the sanctuary of the idolatrous accouterments that had been installed there, then “kindling lights in the holy courtyards and appointing the eight days of Chanukah as an annual occasion to give thanks to God.”) And it’s also true that even the meticulous Josephus, the most important post-biblical Jewish historian of ancient times, includes nothing of the miracle in the account of the story he included in his magnum opus, The Antiquities of the Jews.
But who cares about any of that? And who needs fancy historians anyway when every Jewish school child knows that the Maccabees and their followers only found one single cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest when they entered the Temple to purify and rededicate it? And that the Maccabees and their supporters, understanding that there was really only enough oil to burn in the great Temple menorah for one single day, resolved to light the menorah anyway. And that the most amazing thing then ensued as the single day’s worth of oil somehow managed to burn for eight days instead of just one.
Where this story originally came from, who knows? Its oldest attestation in any even remotely familiar form is in the Talmud, a work published six or seven centuries after the events under discussion. Still, the Talmud clearly serves as the repository of much older traditions, so the fact that a story was only preserved within the talmudic corpus hardly means that it isn’t very old. Or that it wasn’t told for centuries before being recorded. Or, supposing one believes easily in miracles, that it wasn’t true or that it never happened. The only thing is that the story as it actually appears in the Talmud is not precisely the tale as told. And that brings me to the story’s “other” point, the one I’d like to raise with my readers today for their Chanukah consideration.
The way the story is almost always told, the oil burns for eight days instead of only one. That’s definitely how it was told to me when I was a boy, so I checked on-line to see whether they’re still telling the story the same way. And so they are! At www.myjewishlearning.com, I found a reference to “the famous story of the miraculous jar of oil that burned for eight days.” At Judaism 101 (which is a little hard to find because the address is actually www.jewfaq.org), they inform readers that “there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah.” So far, it all sounds familiar. Even that repository of all human knowledge, the redoubtable Wikipedia, tells the same tale, noting that, “the oil (miraculously) burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.” So everyone appears to be in agreement that the miracle was that the oil burned for eight times as long as it ought to have. Only that’s not what the Talmud says. Not exactly.
In Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Talmud in which the lion’s share of the traditions relating to Chanukah are presented, we learn that the Maccabees only found a single cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest when they seized the Temple and that this tiny jug appeared only to have enough oil in it to burn in the great Temple menorah for one single day. So far, that’s entirely familiar. But then the Talmud moves on and explains that a great miracle happened when the oil didn’t run out after a single day. Instead, the Talmud says clearly but subtly (and you really could miss this easily if you’re not reading carefully or slowly enough), the oil didn’t run out…and the tiny jug somehow ended up having enough oil in its tiny interior to burn for eight days instead of just one. So that’s the miracle as it appears in its oldest literary source: not that the Maccabees lighted the menorah and it somehow remained ablaze for more than a week, but that the tiny cruse of oil didn’t run dry for eight whole days and that oil somehow continued to pour from it into the cups of the menorah for as long as it took—eight whole days—for fresh oil to be prepared under the auspices of the High Priest.
Does it make any difference? It does! For one thing, it’s not a story we haven’t heard before. Anyone who’s been in shul, for example, when Parashat Vayera was read and listened to the haftarah knows that there’s another magic jug of oil in our tradition, the one in the story of Elisha (the prophet Elijah’s less famous disciple) and the impoverished widow. The poor woman had no money to pay her debtors and was in danger of having her children seized as slaves by her creditors. And so, totally distraught, she sought out Elisha for his help (or at least for his counsel) and he offered her some of both. Did she have anything at all salable at home? She had, she said, a single cruse of oil in her house…and nothing more. Then that, he assured her, would suffice. She was to borrow as many pans and pots as she could from the neighbors, then begin pouring oil into them. What she thought was going to happen, who knows? But when she followed Elisha’s instructions and started pouring, the tiny cruse only ran dry when she ran out of pots to pour the oil into. And the rest was history: she sold the oil, paid off her creditors, and presumably lived happily ever after.
By telling this particular story about the Maccabees, the rabbis of ancient times were saying something subtle and very interesting about how they viewed the world. Everybody knows that the Maccabees are the heroes of the Chanukah story, but not everybody knows that they ended up a few decades later as self-proclaimed kings of Israel. The rabbis weren’t sure what to make of that—the Bible could not be clearer that the only legitimate king would have to be a descendant of David, which the Maccabees, a family of kohanim, certainly were not—but they weren’t quite ready to condemn a dynasty that had nevertheless somehow managed not only to restore Jewish sovereignty but also to maintain it for almost a full century. Could there be such things as kings that were authentic without being legitimate? It sounds like a complicated issue that only a political scientist could love, but the question has its own biblical pedigree…and that pedigree has to do with, of all people, the prophet Elisha. It seems that Elisha was the one who sent his disciple quietly to anoint Jehu ben Jehoshafat (sometimes confusingly called Jehu ben Nimshi, although the latter was his grandfather not his father) as king of Israel and to order him to assassinate the sitting monarch, King Jehoram. This, he did…and he became king too.
Was Jehu a legitimate monarch? He too was clearly not a descendant of David! And yet Elisha’s instructions were that the disciple was to anoint Jehu’s head with oil and say, “Thus said the Lord: I anoint you king over Israel.” It’s true that Elisha was only finishing up work left undone by his own master, Elijah, but the point here doesn’t have to do with who technically was first commissioned to make Jehu king, but with the fact that there apparently is such a thing as authentic, yet illegitimate, kingship: Jehu was ordained in the name of God by a prophet of God acting at the specific behest of the Almighty…and he still wasn’t a truly legitimate king from the House of David.
By bringing Elisha into the Chanukah story subtly, the ancient sages were saying something subtle too about the way Jews could think about the Maccabees: that for all the latter eventually turned into self-appointed kings who ruled without the requisite Davidic pedigree and thus illegitimately, it was not necessary for the pious to look down on them or treat them as renegades or miscreants. They could be admired if not fully endorsed, appreciated without being fully accepted. And that, I submit, is why they told the story of the Maccabees as though it were a latter-day midrash on the story about Elisha and the widow. Given that the back story of Chanukah has to do as much with internecine hatred than it does with resistance to tyranny launched at the Jewish people from abroad, what better lesson could the festival offer us than the one hiding just behind its most famous story, the lesson that in politics it is sometimes necessary to compromise, that you sometimes have to be a bit flexible regarding what you’d prefer if you truly wish to get what you want!