Mai Hanukah
Hanukah: What Exactly are We Celebrating Here Anyway?

by Melech ben Ya'aqov
9 January 2005

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The ideas presented here are based on a talk originally given during Hanukah, 2003 to the public at large, and are supplemented by my own research.

Aviv (almost ripe) springtime barley, Jerusalem, Israel | © Melech ben Ya'aqov, Karaite Insights
Aviv (almost ripe) springtime barley, Jerusalem, Israel

Hanukah is a holiday the very reason for whose existence is to commemorate the struggle and ultimate victory of Torah over pagan culture. The Pharisees (Rabbis) have always presented themselves as the upholders of true Torah. How ironic then, for those who do not yet truly know the Pharisees, that they inserted pagan elements into the celebration of Hanukah and, in doing so, redefined its meaning to this very day. What exactly am I talking about? Read on.

The main primary historical sources for the events of Hanukah are the Books of Maccabees I1 & II2. Read these books from cover to cover and you will notice a very curious omission: nowhere in the entire text is there mention of a flask of oil which lasted miraculously for eight days. The Book of Maccabees covers – comprehensively – the events of Hanukah, sometimes in excruciating detail, and nowhere is such an event ever recorded.

Next, look at the writings of Josephus, c. 70-100 CE, (originally) a Pharisee, and you will see much the same thing – no mention anywhere of a miracle concerning a flask of oil which lasted for eight days. Josephus states that Hanukah is known as the Festival of Lights, but the explanation he gives for the appellation has nothing to do with miraculous oil: “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.”3

Look also at Megilat Ta’anit4 (first century CE), considered to be the earliest extant Pharisaic document (not to be confused with its scholion, or Hebrew commentary, which is a Talmudic or post-Talmudic document), and again there is no mention of a miracle of oil lasting for eight days. And these are Rabbinical documents! So what’s going on here?

To help us understand, let us ask ourselves the following obvious question: When is the first time that mention of a miraculous flask of oil is made? The answer: in a braita in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 21b5, which dates it at around 200 CE. (A braita is a statement from Mishnaic times which didn’t make it into the final cut of the Mishnah, but which is preserved in the Talmud.)

So lets consider the facts: a story about a miraculous eight-day flask of oil appears nowhere in any of the primary or secondary sources relating to Hanukah – including Rabbinical sources – for over 350 years from the time of the actual events (the storming of the Temple Mount by the Maccabees was in approximately the year 165 BCE), and then only first appears in a braita to the Babylonian Talmud dated at around 200 CE. Does this not sound a bit suspicious? That would be like adding a story about the Pilgrims’ journey to America — in the year 1975! In fact, there is little doubt that the story of the miraculous flask of oil never happened.

This then begs the question, “What was the motivation of the Rabbis to insert a fabricated story about a miraculous flask of oil into the record of the events of Hanukah, 350 years after the fact?” The answer is even more disturbing than the very fact that the Rabbis acted with such presumptuousness as to rewrite history in the first place.

To understand the reason, we must briefly consider the widespread tradition of winter solstice festivals common in pagan cultures of the ancient Middle East. Such festivals were typically celebrated by the lighting of candles, oil lamps, or other forms of fire in order to help strengthen the “sun god” — who had been growing weaker and weaker as the winter solstice approached — in order that the sun might return and bring back its light and warmth, allowing the crops to grow once again.6 (The lights seen decorating Christmas trees in gentile countries are a remnant of this tradition, as is the “Yule log”.)

One such winter solstice festival, that of the Romans, was Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated between December 17-23 of the (old) Julian calendar. Ambrosius Macrobius, in his book Saturnalia (c. 400 CE), writes that in celebrating the Saturnalia, the Romans used to “honor the altars of Saturn with lighted candles . . . sending round wax tapers during the Saturnalia.” [Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, lines 31-32] Though at the time that Macrobius wrote, Saturnalia was celebrated for only three days, he records that in earlier times, it was celebrated for seven consecutive days. [Saturnalia, book 10]

In Mishnaic times, when the braita mentioned above was recorded, Israel was under the firm control of the Roman Empire, the Jews having been routed in the failed Bar Khokhba rebellions of 132-135 CE. The Pharisees combined the celebration of Hanukah (or at least encouraged its combination) with the traditions of Saturnalia, which (like Christmas today7) was the most popular of the pagan holidays, according to Macrobius. This is the motivation for the false legend of the miraculous oil — to associate Hanukah with burning lights — and this is the reason that Rabbinites light the Hanukah “menorah” until this day.8

Let me emphasize the seriousness of what the Rabbis did: They took Hanukah, a holiday created to commemorate the conquering and purification of the Holy Temple, and fabricated a false legend around it, with no historical basis whatsoever, 350 years after the fact, and then introduced into its celebration, elements from pagan winter solstice festivals. This sheds new “light” on the Hanukah menorah: it is actually the “Hanukah bush”9 of Roman times! That’s right, if you think about it, that’s exactly what it is: a symbol introduced from the surrounding pagan culture so that the people of Israel could celebrate Hanukah in the style of their Roman rulers. (Of course, it was Judaized a bit by modeling it after the seven-pronged menorah of the Holy Temple.) Would any orthodox Rabbi today encourage or even allow the lighting of a “Hanukah bush”? Yet this is exactly what the Pharisees of Mishnaic times did when they promoted the lighting of a Hanukah menorah to commemorate the false legend of the flask of eight-day oil.

Further, in an action which constitutes outright heresy, the Pharisees legislated that their followers recite a prayer which states that Yehowah, the God of Israel — who despises pagan nations and their rituals (see Leviticus 20:2310) — commands them to perform the pagan-inspired ritual of lighting the winter solstice Hanukah menorah:

Blessed are you, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us and commanded us to light the candle of Hanukah.

This prayer, which has the audacity to state that the pure and holy God of Israel, Yehowah, commanded us to light pagan-inspired Hanukah “menorahs”, constitutes an outright violation of the prohibition against adding to the Torah, of which it says in Deuteronomy 13:1, “Be sure to follow all these words which I command you. Do not add to them and do not take away from them.” Even worse, it can be construed as the Rabbis’ acting in the role of a false prophet (since they speak falsely in the name of Yehowah), for which the punishment in the Torah is death: “But the prophet who deliberately dares to speak in my name that which I did not command, … that prophet shall die.” [Deuteronomy 18:20, see also Yehezqel 13:311]

For a Karaite, these actions by the Rabbis come as no surprise. One of the age-old criticisms of the Karaites against the Rabbis has been that they introduced many pagan elements into their false religion. These include elements of sorcery, taken from Zoroastrianism and other ancient pagan religions, which found their way into the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. It also includes their very methods for interpreting the Torah (the “midoth” &ndash, most well-known by the three lists of Hillel’s 7 midot, Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 midot, and Rabbi Eliezer’s 32 midot.) Many of these Rabbinical methods of Torah interpretation were pawned directly from Hellenist rhetorical methods.12

In fact, the Rabbis are not and have never been the defenders of true Torah; this is a lie cleverly sold to the Nation of Israel, which apparently, through their own arrogance, the Rabbis themselves have come to believe. (“All the ways of a man are right in his own eyes, but Yehowah weighs the hearts.” – Proverbs 21:2) In fact, what the Rabbis are and what they have always been are the practitioners of a false, late Second Temple period religion based on the original Law of Moses, but supplemented and changed by the Rabbinical New Testament, which they call the “Oral Law” (in order to make it sound as if it was passed down from Moshe Karaieinu orally, so as to give it greater authority and so as to explain away the suspicious fact that it appears nowhere in the historical record of Israel until the late Second Temple period.)

The Rabbis have been peddling their false “Oral Law” to the Nation of Israel for over two millennia now, causing us the longest exile in our history by leading the nation astray from true Torah, thereby bringing all the curses of the Torah upon us for the past 2,000 years: exiles, pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions and holocausts. This is the true legacy of the Rabbis, and this is their special gift which they have bequeathed to the Nation of Israel.

The Nation of Israel has no future with the Rabbis, just as it has no past with them. The only future for the Nation of Israel – and the only way to stop the current tragedies: the current expulsions from our land, the bombs going off in our cities, the poverty and the discord within our nation – is to reject Rabbinical Judaism, just as we must reject secular Western culture, and to return to the original Law of Moses, the Tanakh, and interpret it in a simple and straightforward (“p'shath”) way, just as the righteous of ancient times did (as is clear by reading the Tanakh itself) and just as the Karaites have always attempted to do.

May Yehowah Be With You and With the Nation of Israel,
Melekh ben Ya’aqov


Additional Notes

1. Contempt by the Pharisees of the Hashmonaim: It has been suggested by some researchers that an additional reason for the invention of the myth of eight-day oil was in order to downplay the accomplishments of the Hashmonaim, due to contempt on the part of the Pharisees towards them. This contempt stems from the fact that the Hashmonaim were a priestly family, and therefore were mostly Sadducees. “While the more rigorous [Pharisees] … withdrew from political life after the death of Judas Maccabeus, refused to recognize the Hasmonean high priests and kings as legitimate rulers of the Temple and of the state, and … formed a brotherhood of their own, the majority took a less antagonistic attitude toward the Maccabean dynasty.” [Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904-1906] This is a huge topic which requires separate study not in the scope of this article.

2. Megilat HaHashmonaim: Some Rabbis point to this book, identical to the “Scroll of Antiochus”, as proof of the earlier origin of the legend of the miraculous oil. Sa’id Al-Fayyumi (“Saadia Gaon”) falsely attributes its authorship to the five sons of Mattityahu the Hashmonai, but all evidence points to the fact that the scroll was written in the eighth or ninth century CE.



I have tried to present the information in this article fairly and accurately, and I thank Yehowah, the Elohim of Israel, for giving me the strength and understanding to do this research. If anyone has any additional information that would be useful for future editions of this article, or if anyone has corrections or refutations of the points stated here (and can back them up with solid historical or other sources), I would be happy to hear from them at:

1Maccabees I consists of sixteen chapters detailing the events surrounding Hannukah from the ascent of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 175 BCE to the death of Shimon the Maccabee in 135 BCE. The book, originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, was composed around the year 100 BCE by an unknown author who has clear pro-Hashmonian leanings, possibly a Sadducee.
2Maccabees II consists of fifteen chapters, covering the years 175 – 160 BCE, from the end of the reign of Seleucus IV to the victory of Judah the Maccabee over the Greek general Nicanor. The book, written in Greek sometime in the first century BCE, is the abridgement of a five volume work, not extant, by the historian Jason of Cyrene. (See Maccabees II 2:23.)
3The complete text of Josephus is as follows: "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." [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12:316-325 (7:6-7)]
4Megilat Ta’anith is a list of 35 holidays on which it was forbidden by the Pharisees to publicly fast and/or mourn. One of these holidays is Hanukah.
5"What is the reason for Hanukah? For our rabbis taught: ‘On the twenty-fifth of Kislev are the days of Hanukah, which are eight on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.’ [Megillat Ta‘anit] For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmoneans 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 oil 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 praise and thanksgiving." [Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 21b]
6Or, alternatively, winter solstice festivals commemorated the death of the “old” sun god and the birth of the “new” one.
7Christmas, too, was an adaptation of Saturnalia by the early Christian church which “moved” the birthday of their god, Jesus, to December 25 on the Julian calendar so that it would coincide with the winter solstice celebrations, thereby boosting the popularity of their god.
8“Hanukah … was very likely combined with a winter solstice holiday that had come before it. Other peoples and religions have winter solstice holidays lasting about 8 days, beginning at about the time of the Winter equinox, December 21 - the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and often celebrated with lights. Holidays that are certainly or possibly related to the winter solstice in their origins include Christmas, the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, and the new African American Kwanzaa holiday.” []
9The “Hanukah bush” is a actually a Christmas tree, brought into Jewish households in modern-day America for the purpose of allowing Jews to celebrate Hanukah in the same way that the gentiles celebrate Christmas.
10“And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation, which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.”
11“[3] Thus says the Lord YHWH: Woe unto the vile prophets, that follow their own spirit, and things which they have not seen. … [6] They have seen vanity and lying divination, they say: YHWH says; and YHWH has not sent them, yet they hope that their word would be confirmed. [7] Have you not seen a vain vision, and have you not spoken a lying divination, whereas you say: YHWH says; but I have not spoken?”
12An excellent article on this subject is: David Daube, “Rabbinical Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric”.

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Hanukah Lights
Larry Sterner, Denver Co.
I have long assumed the pharisees made up the story about the Jar of oil lasting 8 days to give the people the idea it was a sign from God. I would have to ask why did the Jar of oil have the Priest's seal when Lev.24:1-2 clearly states the oil for lighting comes from the people of Israel? It sounds more like anointing oil that would likely be in a sealed jar.
You left out something
Davey, Scranton
Of course there is only a brief mention of Chanukkah in the Gemara. The fact that the Chashmonaim did not turn over the kingdom to the rightful heirs, ie. the Davidic line, was a direct insult to R' Yehuda Hanassi, the compiler of the Gemara who was an heir to the throne. Kind of ruins your argument.