Apocryphal Tales

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Menorah Lighting Blessing: (Transliteration:)

            Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam,

            asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir (shel) chanukah.

Translation:  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,

Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.”

Reading: 1 Maccabees 4:36-59             – The cleansing and rededication of the temple


It took me a while to find the story of Hanukkah in scripture.  The book describing the events is in a portion of the Bible known as the Apocrypha.  The Apocryphal Books are positioned between the New Testament and the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures; it includes the books of Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Bel and the Dragon, Psalm 151 and 1st and 2nd Maccabees.  None of these books were included in the Hebrew canon of Holy Scripture yet the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint includes them.  Many early Christian authors refer to them.  The term ‘apocrypha’ means “things that are hidden.”  This could mean that the books were hidden or removed from common use, or it could mean that they contain hidden lore.  Another term used to describe this collection of books is “Deuterocanonical” which translates as ‘added later to the canon.’  Modern Catholics commonly accept these books as a part of the canon while Protestants have followed the Hebrew canon by excluding them.

All that to say, among the many versions of the Bible that I own, most of them do not have any hint of the scripture I just read to you.  And perhaps you noticed something missing even from the version of the story that I read.  What is the most common understand of Hanukkah?  That they light the oil that was to last one day and it lasted instead for eight!  “The Miracle of the Hanukkah Lights” is not part of the Hanukkah story in scripture.  The story in Scripture is about rededicating the temple after a grand military victory against the Greeks who had defiled the temple.  Some jokingly suggest that the miracle is that a band of men cleaned up.

Originally the reason for celebrating for eight days seems to have had nothing to do with miraculous oil.  “A number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day celebration was that the first Hanukkah was in effect a belated celebration of the festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.  During the war the Jews were not able to celebrate [these two holidays] properly; the combined festivals also last eight days, and the Sukkot festivities featured the lighting of lamps in the Temple” (Wikipedia and others)  And yet, over time there developed another story, a folk legend perhaps, to explain the eight days.

From the website of Temple Concord, the Reformed Jewish congregation here in Binghamton, I read about how

The rabbis of long ago faced a dilemma; they did not want Chanukah to be looked at as a military victory alone. In the Talmud, the rabbis recorded the legendary miracle of the oil: When the Maccabees had cleansed the Temple and they were ready to kindle the Eternal Light, only one small jar of oil marked with the seal of the High Priests was found. It would last only one day and it would be eight more days before more oil could be prepared. But a great miracle happened; the oil lasted for eight days. [The time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready] According to the rabbis this is the reason we celebrate Chanukah for eight days.

The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions written around 500 CE.  There is great care taken to distance the ritual of Hanukkah from any formal glorifying of military victories.  The world was changing and one small military victory – however heroic – was not important enough or memorable enough to continue to be potent in people’s lives.  Therefore, we focus on the miracle of the oil and the religious work of the rededicating the Temple.  Thus the oil can be seen as “a metaphor for the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through millennia of trials and tribulations.” (Wikipedia)

And so Hanukkah may have at one time been simply the anniversary of a great victory, and while that may still be something worth celebrating; the holiday has taken on several other meanings.  It is a festival of Lights, it is a commemoration of Religious Liberty, it is a story of Consecration and Dedication. The word Hanukkah literally means dedication.  Each recasting of the story holds onto the concept of dedication to something holy and important in the face of cruel forces that seem overwhelming.  The modern renderings of the meaning of Hanukkah speak of Lights or liberty or re-consecration; yet always that original story of struggle is there in the background – not always coming through as a story of violence and warfare, but certainly of the struggle.

And so we have Lights and Liberty and Re-consecration as the modern meanings of this minor Jewish holiday.  Of those three, to message that this is a time of re-consecration is most easily connected to the historic roots of the story.  That is what the Maccabees were doing – re-consecrating the temple!  They were cleaning it after defilement, rededicating it after misuse.  And as they were cleaning out the outward symbol of their faith, it is also a time to consider the defilements of our inner faith.  Re-consecration: making it holy again, making it a fit vessel for the sacred once more.  This is an elegant personalizing of the communal story.  You, yourself, must clean out your inner space as well and rededicate your life to become once again a fit vessel for the sacred.

But it need not be only that.  You can take the imagery of cleaning the temple inward to self-consecration, and you can also take the imagery outward into the world.  The Environmental movement has gotten a boost from the Green Menorah concept.  There is an insert in the order of service that explains the Green Menorah Covenant and if any of you want to take up the challenge, you don’t need to be Jewish and you don’t need to wait until next Hanukkah to begin. People concerned for the Carbon crisis are taking the image of the lamp oil from the story to now speak of renewable energy and ways to re-consecrate to lands that have been defiled.  We must find ways to our lamps burn more efficiently so as to use up only one day’s fuel yet give eight days of light.  The earth needs our care and attention.  We rededicate ourselves to the work to which we are called and rededicate our holy places to the purpose for which they have been created.  There is great value amidst the struggle to remind one another of the purpose of our work.  The only glitch to recasting of the Hanukkah message in this way it that the idea of rededication is already a deep part of the Days of Awe.  In a way it shifts the minor festival from being Christmas-lite to being Rosh Hashanah-lite.  This is probably why the message of Hanukkah as a time of consecration and rededication is not the most prominent version available.

Many look to the Hanukkah story as a message of religious liberty: the fight for the freedom to worship and practice your religion without coercion from outside forces.  There is a delightful Hanukkah story of Religious Liberty from Billings, Montana. This is a true story that happened maybe 10 years back.  Most of the folks in Billings are Christians and put up their Christmas trees.  There were also a handful of Jews in Billings also, and they displayed menorahs in their windows.  As it happened, there was a gang of skinheads in town who would go around town breaking the windows of any house in which there was a menorah.  This happened a few nights in a row.  The local newspaper carried the stories but not much was done about it.  That is until the editor of the newspaper came up with an idea.  He printed in the newspaper full size menorah.  That evening, nearly everyone in town had cut out the menorah from the newspaper and displayed it in their windows.  Suddenly nearly every house in town had a menorah in it.  Under the menorah was written, “Not In Our Town.”

One colleague (Rev. Joshua Snyder) tells this story and says it is an example of not just tolerance, but community.  The people in Billings did not just tolerate their Jewish neighbors.  They did not just mind their own business and not fuss about each other’s faiths.  They understood that a threat to the Jewish families in town was a threat to them all.  Their religious beliefs differ, but they are part of a community.  In this way, religious freedom has a communal level that must be acknowledged.  Likewise, the Hanukkah story heard as a tale about religious freedom is heard not in the individual sense.  It is a story that teaches us to stand together in love against the forces of hate, be they the skinheads or the ancient Greeks.

There is certainly something to be said for this idea that the Hanukkah message of religious liberty is a good and noble message.  However, there is a difference between the original story in which a small bond of Israelites struggled to have their religious freedom and the story of people struggling to allow all people to have that freedom.  It is an obvious progress from one to the other, but not a necessary one.  The Puritans came to what they called the New World that they might be free to worship as they saw fit and to make others around them worship in the Puritan way as well.  There is a difference between the struggle to be allowed to worship as you see fit and the struggle to allow all to worship as each sees fit.  But if, indeed, that broader sense of freedom is where we are headed with this idea of religious liberty then that’s where I’m headed too.

Lights, Liberty, and Re-consecration: the message of Hanukkah over the centuries has evolved from one of victory over an overwhelming foe into a message of dedication.  The tone is sometimes highlighted as re-consecration and a dedication to the earth, other times the tone is one of championing religious liberty.  Hanukkah is best known now, however, as the Festival of Lights and using the imagery of Lights, the holiday carries a message of hope during dark times.  There is something remarkably powerful about lighting candles amidst struggle and difficulty.

Yesterday I had the honor of officiating at the memorial service of a community peace activist.  Anne Herman was not a member of the congregation, though she was deeply connected to our community and many of the people here.  Her life was an amazing travelogue of trouble spots in the world from Iraq to Chiapas, from Fort Benning to the domestic shelter.  Anne was an activist for peace and an activist for hope.  One of the speakers who shared stories of Anne yesterday spoke about the power of lighting candles.  Rev. Tim Taugher reminded us that in South Africa during apartheid people would light a candle and place it in the window as a sign of hope.  At one point the government made it illegal to have a lit candle.  It was as illegal as carrying a gun.  Rev. Taugher said the children used to joke about it saying, “Our government is scared of lit candles!”  And indeed they were right to be scared for there is a power in a lit candle that is stronger than a gun.

And so we light candles to remember that the evils of the day will eventually be overcome.  We light candles as a sign of hope.  And each night we light one more candle than the night before until the last night the menorah stands ablaze with eight candles for eight nights along with the ninth servant candle – all in a row, each proclaiming hope and holiness in its small flickering way.

On the first night of Hanukkah, when only the one small light is lit with its companion servant candle, an extra blessing is traditionally offered that says:

            Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe,

            Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.

“… to this moment!”  That is another remarkable quality of a lit candle.  It exists in the moment and lasts but a short time.  You can’t hold onto that moment, you can’t cling to it.  Once the candle is burned down it is gone.  All you can do is hold it in your memory or light another candle!  A candle is for this moment and this moment alone.  A new one can always be lit, but that’s just it:  We must keep lighting them.

In his essay “The Soul of Chanukah,” Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf writes that:

Hanukkah is about the imperceptible human spark that enables people to reach far beyond their perceived limitations. It’s about the power of a diminutive flame to pierce a great darkness. It’s about a tiny band of people that is able to overcome the most daunting of foes.

The lights of Hanukkah remind us of the awesome subtleness of life, of how little things can make a profound difference… we discover the soul in the flame, and begin to reclaim the soul in everyday life.

So Hanukkah is a time to reflect on that to which we dedicate ourselves, and on what we need to re-consecrate in our own lives and in the world around us.  We shall light candles, we shall celebrate religious freedom, and we shall strive to re-consecrate the earth.  We shall honor our Jewish brothers and sisters during their holiday season.  And we shall remember that we are in a struggle, non-violent though our side of it shall be, a struggle to bless the world with every breath.

In a world without end

May it be so.