The Ancient Fire that Fueled the Chanukah Story
Dr. Shai Secunda
In recent years, most scholars have observed that the story concerning the miracle of oil is a late addition to the Chanukah traditions.1 This article suggests a possible Greek precursor to the story, and examines the role that the Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism, played in both these traditions about miraculous fire.
— Part I —
Classical Sources for the Chanukah Story
The cruise of oil miracle is entirely absent from our oldest sources about Chanukah. Most classical rabbinic sources do not know of the story, and even appear relatively uninterested in the practice of kindling Chanukah lights.
Ancient Sources Preserved in Greek
Our oldest sources, preserved in Greek and written closest in time to the Chanukah story, barely mention the menorah and do not record a commemorative practice of kindling lights:
1 Maccabees, an historiographical account from the second half of the second century BCE, survives in Greek, based on a (lost) Hebrew original. It describes the cleansing and reconstruction of the Temple, and particularly the restorations of sacrifices on a newly constructed altar (the original altar had been deemed profaned, and hence torn down). 1 Maccabees 4:59 refers to the holiday as the “days of the dedication of the altar,” which “should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days”
2 Maccabees, which was originally written in Greek after 1 Maccabees, in the late second century BCE, similarly refers to the restoration of sacrifices, and mentions how the Jews now “offered incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence” (10:3). 2 Maccabees emphasizes the purification of the sanctuary, adding that the celebrations should last eight days just like Sukkot, which the Hasmoneans had not been able to properly observe, since “they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals” (10:6).
Josephus, towards the end of the first century CE, writes that Jews refer to Chanukah as “the Festival of Lights.” This name is not explained as relating to the menorah or to a miracle of oil, but as a commemoration of how “this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that hence was the name given to that festival” (Antiquities of the Jews 12:325).
Classical Rabbinic Sources
Tannaitic compilations, comprising the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Halakhic midrashim, do not tell any Chanukah story and never refer to a requirement to kindle Chanukah lights. In these sources, Chanukah, the official start of the winter season,2 is a festival on which fasting and mourning are prohibited.3 During the holiday, the Torah portion about the chieftains’ inaugural sacrifices in the tabernacle (Numbers 7) is read in synagogue,4 and Jews were known to kindle lights candles outside.5
Megillat Ta‘anit,6 a circa first century CE Aramaic list of dates on which fasting (and in some circumstances, eulogizing) is prohibited, mentions the eight day celebration of Chanukah. As Vered Noam has shown,7 the earliest version of the amoraic era Hebrew commentary on Megillat Ta‘anit, known as the Scholion, makes no mention of the miracle of oil.
The Yerushalmi, unlike tannaitic sources, does refer to a rabbinically endorsed practice of kindling lights for Chanukah, however, it is noticeably uninterested in the details. It offers a short dialogue about using contaminated Terumah (heath-tithe) oil (שמן שריפה) to light Chanukah candles,8 a brief discussion about the blessing that must be recited,9 one tradition stating that it is forbidden to use the lights to check coins,10 and not much else.
Liturgical texts from late antiquity, including piyutim and the ‘al ha-nissim prayer, which were composed in the Land of Israel, do not mention the miracle.
The Source of the Oil Miracle and
the Laws of Chanukah
The account of miraculously burning oil appears in the Bavli:
בבלי שבת כא ע”א
מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון.
שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה.
b. Shabbat 21a
What is Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.
For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
This account appears toward the beginning of a three-folio long “mini-tractate” preserved in the second chapter of b. Shabbat (20b-23b), which extensively details the laws of lighting the Chanukah menorah.11 This passage is unique; it is the only reference to the oil miracle story in classical rabbinic literature, and the only place where the rabbis devotes extensive attention to the laws of lighting the candles.
Explaining the Bavli’s Emphasis on
Kindling Lights and the Oil Miracle
Scholars have argued that the Bavli’s account of the oil miracle and its focus on the laws of kindling Chanukah lights signifies a new spin on the ancient Hasmonean holiday.
Deemphasizing the Hasmonean’s Military victory
One explanation is that by telling the miracle of the oil, the Bavli “effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.”12 If this explanation is historically correct, it is odd that the miracle is mentioned nowhere else in rabbinic literature.
Chanukah and the Bavli’s Zoroastrian Context
A more recent angle relates specifically to the Bavli’s Zoroastrian context.13 Babylonian Jewry lived in the administrative heart of the Sasanian Persian Empire and alongside Persian speakers who identified as Zoroastrian. One of the hallmarks of Zoroastrianism is veneration of fire, and concern for this sacred element, which must be protected from impurity and treated respectfully. This may explain several talmudic passages that describe Zoroastrian priests trying to seize candelabras from rabbis – again, perhaps because they were worried about mistreatment of fire. One source notes that such Chanukah candelabras may even be moved on Shabbat to protect them from fanatical priests:
שבת מה ע”א
בעו מיניה דרב מהו לטלטולי שרגא דחנוכתא מקמי חברי בשבתא ואמר להו שפיר דמי.
b. Shabbat 45a
They asked Rav: Can we carry the menorah away from Zoroastrian priests (ḥabarei)14 on the Sabbath? He said to them, it is fine.
At the same time, it is also possible that Zoroastrian veneration of fire may have created a general climate of respect for the holiness of fire. Perhaps this encouraged some of the Bavli’s stringencies regarding the holiness of the Chanukah lights, which verge on the veneration of the burning candles.
Both factors may have played a role in the Talmud telling the oil miracle story, which of course emphasizes the role that fire –a miraculous fire – played in the events commemorated by the holiday. First, if lighting the menorah was indeed a central component of the Chanukah story, the Jews would be able to explain their custom of kindling lights, even in the face of fanatical Zoroastrians.15 In addition, a miraculous story about fire in the Temple may have resonated particularly well with Babylonian Jews, who lived in a world of fire temples and fire veneration.
— Part II —
The Bavli’s Oil Miracle Story and 2 Maccabees’
Tradition about Nehemiah’s Chanukah
The anti-Hasmonean and Zoroastrian approaches do not suggest the origin or the development of the oil story, though other ancient texts may offer certain clues.16
To begin with, let us boil down the main elements of the Bavli’s account:
- The Jews finally return to the Temple after the exile, yet are unable to perform a key ritual – the lighting of the menorah – due to the lack of appropriate flammable material.
- They search and manage to find just a small amount of oil.
- Ever hopeful, they light the oil and merit to see it miraculously burn for much longer than expected.
- They subsequently recite praise and thanks in subsequent generations.
Nehemiah Rededicates the Altar of the Second Temple on 25th of Kislev
The second chapter of 2 Maccabees narrates a story that comprises these same basic elements, although it describes the rededication of the altar and not the menorah. This tale appears in a letter that was supposedly sent to Alexandrian Jewry asking them to join in the annual celebration of Chanukah. One of the main goals of the letter is to refer to earlier “Chanukah” celebrations, so that the Maccabean Chanukah should not be seen as an unprecedented innovation, rather an observance with deeper roots in Jewish history.
In recounting this pre-Hasmonean dedication, the text describes the efforts of Nehemiah to restore sacrifices in the early years of the Second Temple, after the Babylonian Exile. Like the menorah, fire is central to the use of the altar; and as with the menorah, which in the Bavli’s telling requires oil stamped with the seal of the High Priest, one cannot use any kindling for the ritual, only material that can be traced back to the original altar.17 Thus, when Nehemiah is ready to restore sacrifices on the altar, he needs to somehow “retrieve” the original fire that burned in the First Temple. Of course, the original fire did not continue to burn, however, its residue had been hidden away by the priests and could now be retrieved. Miraculously, this “naphtha” caught fire and consumed the sacrifice, thus (re-)inaugurating the altar, inspiring prayers of praise and thanks.
Here is the story with the parallel four elements numbered and explained:
2 Maccabees 18-23
| The Jews return to the Temple after being exiled from it, yet are unable to perform a key ritual – the sacrifices on the alter – due to the lack of appropriate kindling material.||18 Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the festival of booths and the festival of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices. 19 For when our ancestors were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone.|
| They search and manage to find just a small amount of kindling residue.||20 But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it.|
| Ever hopeful, they light this material and merit to see it miraculously burn and consume the sacrifice||And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but only a thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it. 21 When the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and on the things laid upon it. 22 When this had been done and some time had passed, and when the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled.|
| They subsequently recite praise and thanks for generations.||23 And while the sacrifice was being consumed, the priests offered prayer– the priests and everyone. Jonathan led, and the rest responded, as did Nehemiah.18|
The structural parallel of Nehemiah’s altar dedication and the Bavli story is clear. But how might these stories be connected?
Explaining the Parallel
2 Maccabees was written in Greek and was not at all part of the rabbinic canon, and no evidence suggests that the rabbis had access to this text. The written Greek account of Nehemiah’s fire altar miracle, however, is the kind of tradition that may have circulated orally in antiquity. The appearance of the menorah-lighting miracle story in the Bavli, with its similar emphasis on returning from an exile, searching for lighting material, and a miraculous kindling, likely derives from this tale. Either the rabbis had an altar rededication tradition and transformed it into a story about the menorah, or a pre-rabbinic menorah miracle tale circulated orally alongside the Nehemiah one, yet was simply never written down.
A Zoroastrian Connection Between
the Two Stories?
The remainder of the story in 2 Maccabees describes a Zoroastrian connection to the Nehemiah tradition, which may further connect it to the Bavli’s discussion of Chanukah:
|…31 After the materials of the sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured on large stones. 32 When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out. 33 When this matter became known, and it was reported to the king of the Persians that, in the place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire, the liquid had appeared with which Nehemiah and his associates had burned the materials of the sacrifice, 34 the king investigated the matter, and enclosed the place and made it sacred. 35 And with those persons whom the king favored he exchanged many excellent gifts. 36 Nehemiah and his associates called this “nephthar,” which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha.|
A Zoroastrian Response to the Fire Miracle
As the text describes it, following Nehemiah’s relighting of the altar, an unnamed Achaemenid king reacted positively to the fire miracle, even “enclosing the place and making it sacred.” This is curious, since for Jews the place already was deemed sacred, as it was part of the restored Temple. It seems that 2 Maccabees knew that the Achaemenid’s were Zoroastrian, and imagined the king doing something that made sense in a Zoroastrian context – formally enclosing an area of fire in order to consecrate it. In this way, both Zoroastrian and Jew appreciated the restored fire on the altar.
While the Bavli does not mention any Zoroastrian response to the miracle, as we have seen, its telling of the story in a Zoroastrian context is notable. By detailing the ritual of lighting Chanukah candles and relating a story about miraculous burning, the Bavli’s discussion of Chanukah also reflects a world in which Jews and Zoroastrians could together praise “these holy candles” – הנרות הללו קודש הם.
— Appendix —
The Original Version of the Scholion’s
Explanation of Chanukah
The printed version and some manuscripts of the Scholion – the amoraic era commentary on Megillat Ta‘anit – preserve an almost identical version of the Bavli’s miracle of the cruise of oil:
מגילת תענית (דפוס וילנא)
שכשנכסנו יונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה יד בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן הגדול שלא נטמא ולא היה בו להדליק אלא יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו שמונה ימים…
Megillat Ta‘anit (ed. Vilna)
For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils in the Sanctuary, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days…
In her definitive study19 of Megillat Ta‘anit and its Scholion, however, Vered Noam demonstrates20 that the original version of the Scholion does not refer to the story. Here is her reconstruction, based on the Oxford manuscript:
בימים ראשונים חנוכת משה זאת חנוכת מזבח. משלמה ואילך חנוכת משה וחנוכתו, שנ’ כי חנוכת המזבח שבעת ימים ושמונה משנטל בית הלבנון. חנוכת בית חשמונאי לדורות. ולמה נוהגת לדורות? שעשאום בצאתם מצרה לרוחה ואמרו הלל והדליקו בה נרות בטהרה…
|In former days, the dedication (Chanukah) of Moshe – “This was the dedication of the altar” (Numbers 7:84); From Shlomo onward, the dedication of Moshe (was celebrated) and also his (i.e. Shlomo’s) dedication, as is stated: “for (they observed) the dedication of the altar seven days,” And eight (days) when the House of Lebanon was taken (?). The dedication of the Hasmoneans (was to be celebrated) for (all) generations. And why is it celebrated for generations? For they observed them when they emerged from distress to relief and they recited on it the Hallel and they kindled lights in it in purity…|
While the text refers to the Hasmoneans kindling lights, it emhasizes the recovery and rededication of the Sanctuary, which then allowed for such “pure” kindling. Unlike the more ancient accounts in First and Second Maccabees and Josephus, which emphasize the rededication of the altar, this version of the Scholion stresses the kindling of the lights in the beginning of its account. Perhaps this reflects widespread acceptance of the custom of lighting candles on Chanukah. That said, it is noteworthy that the Scholion does not mention the oil miraculously burning for eight days.
- For some relevant TABS essays on the topic, see Yael Avrahami, “Identifying the Building Blocks of Chanukah,” and Malka Z. Simkovich’s TABS essay, “Uncovering the Truth about Chanukah.” ↩
- m. Bikkurim 1:6. ↩
- m. Ta‘anit 2:10. ↩
- m. Megilah 3:6. ↩
- See m. Bava Kamma 6:6, where R. Yehuda exempts a store-owner from paying for damages caused by a conflagration despite placing Chanukah candles outside, which then caused an accident. This mishnah does not say that people must light candles, it merely assumes that it was a common and therefore legally appropriate practice. ↩
- For more on this work, see Vered Noam, “Megillat Ta‘anit and its Scholion: A Brief Introduction.” ↩
- See the appendix below. ↩
- Y. Terumot 11;10. ↩
- Y. Sukkah 3:4 (53d). ↩
- Y. Shabbat 2:1 (4c). ↩
- See Abraham Weiss, Studies in the Literature of the Amoraim (Hebrew; New York: Horev and Yeshiva University, 1962), which suggests that this sugya may be considered a “mini-tractate.” For a discussion of another such mini-tractate, see my Why and How a Complete Midrash on Esther was Preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. ↩
- See Malka Simkovich’s essay, “Uncovering the Truth about Chanukah.” ↩
- See Geoffrey Herman, “Religious transformation between East and West: Hanukkah in the Babylonian Talmud and Zoroastrianism,” in Religions and Trade: Religious Formation, Transformation and Cross-cultural Exchange between East and West (eds. in Peter Wick and Volker Rabens; Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 261–281. ↩
- The Babylonian Jewish Aramaic word חברא for Zoroastrian priests was taken from Deuteronomy 18:11’s term חבר חבר, a forbidden pagan practice. ↩
- Perhaps by explaining the origins of the practice the Jews would be able to justify it. Similarly, see b. Sanhedrin 54b, which describes rabbis trying to demonstrate to the Sasanian king, Shapur, that burial is in fact required by Torah law. Like fire, Zoroastrianism considers the earth sacred and in need of protection from impurity. Thus, it condemns burial in the ground, and at times Zoroastrians even exhumed dead bodies. ↩
- Indeed, the Bavli’s miracle story at least presents itself as not having been created at a relatively late period in talmudic Babylonia. First, the story is cited with the marker תנו רבנן – indicating that it was not invented by amoraim, rather is a baraita – and a relatively reliable one at that. In addition, the form of the sources – with an Aramaic date and a Hebrew explanation of that date – aligns with the form of Megilat Ta‘anit, which likewise begins with an Aramaic listing of a holiday and is then followed by a Hebrew commentary – the Scholion – on the significance of that day. ↩
- Indeed, by bringing a “strange fire” to the first dedication of the tabernacle’s altar, Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Aviyahu, were exterminated (Leviticus 10:1-2). ↩
- The continuation reads:
24 The prayer was to this effect: “O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, 25 you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. 26 Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. 27 Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. 28 Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. 29 Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” 30 Then the priests sang the hymns. ↩
- Vered Noam, Megillat Ta‘anit: Versions, Interpretation, History (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 2003). ↩
- For an English summary of the discussion regarding Chanukah, see her “The Miracle of the Cruse of Oil,” Hebrew Union College Annual 73 (2003): 191-226. ↩