Jews around the world are celebrating Chanukkah, marking the victory of the Jews over the ruling Greeks in 164BCE and the restoration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. However, almost all celebrants harbor the following major misconceptions about Chanukkah:
Misconception #1: Chanukkah is 8 days long because when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks and the priests entered the Temple and found only one container of unopened olive oil with which to light the lamp (the Menorah), a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted eight days, to allow them enough time to press more oil.
We know this reason is false for several reasons:
1) One day’s worth of oil can’t last for eight days.
2) The earliest sources on Chanukkah (I Maccabees 4, II Maccabees 10, and Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities) mention nothing about the miracle of the oil. (You’d think a detail like that would be one you wouldn’t forget to mention.)
3) The earliest sources give other reasons for the eight days. For instance, the Second Book of Maccabees, which is edited from material written by a contemporary of Judah the Maccabee, says the Maccabees established the holiday for eight days as a makeup for Succos:
It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year. (II Maccabees 10:5-8)
The miracle of the oil doesn’t show up until much much later, for instance in the Talmud, which wasn’t compiled until some 700 years after the Chanukkah story, and in other late sources, such as Pesikta Rabbasi and the Hebrew additions to Megillas Taanis.
Misconception #2: The name “Maccabee” is an acronym that stands for the Hebrew words mi chamocha ba’eilim, YHWH (Who is like you among the gods, Hashem?).
There appears to be no source for this, and it seems quite farfetched anyway. It’s probably either a Hebraized form of the Aramaic word “hammer” or an acronym that stands for Matisyahu Kohen ben Yochanan. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maccabees#Origin_of_name.)
Misconception #3: The Maccabees called the holiday Chanukkah, which is a contraction of חנו כה – “they rested on the 25th day[of the month Kislev].”
1) חנו doesn’t mean “they rested;” it means “they camped.”
2) We know the holiday wasn’t called Chanukkah until later, because Josephus writes towards the end of the first century CE that it was called, not Chanukkah, but Lights:
Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, 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. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.
It seems the first mention of the name Chanukkah, which means “dedication (as in “to dedicate a new altar in the Temple”) appears in the New Testament, out of all places, in John 10:22.
Misconception #4: What do we celebrate on Chanukkah?
As we have seen above in the words of II Maccabees and in Josephus’ words, the holiday was established to celebrate religious freedom. It would be a shame to think that Chanukkah is a time to celebrate the miracle of the oil and focus on the oily Chanukkah foods like latkes and donuts. The Jews at that time were celebrating that they regained their freedom to worship as they saw fit, so why should Jews today celebrate for any other reason?
Can you think of any others? Do you celebrate religious freedom on Chanukkah or other things?
Special thanks go to Rabbi Barry Freundel, Ph.D., in whose graduate school course I learned most of the above.