The earliest records that we possess about Hanukkah all concur that the festival is to be celebrated for eight days. The reason for this rule seems obvious to us: It is to commemorate the tale of that little jar of oil that miraculously illuminated the Jerusalem Temple for eight days.
The miracle of the oil appears only in a relatively late text from the Babylonian Talmud, and seems to have been unknown to earlier generations. In fact, even during the medieval era it was not widely known outside the sphere of Babylonian influence. It is not mentioned in any of the holiday prayers that originated in the Land of Israel, nor in the considerable body of liturgical poetry that was composed for the occasion.
What, then, was the original reason why Hanukkah lasts eight days? The earliest document to deal explicitly with that question is the Second Book of Maccabees, which claims to be a synopsis of a longer account of the revolt composed by a certain Jason of Cyrene. According to 2 Maccabees, the eight days of Hanukkah were ordained to emulate the eight-days of Sukkot, which were not celebrated during the year of the uprising, because the Jews were at war and the Temple was in enemy hands. Therefore, after their victory, they modeled their new holiday in honour of the one that they had missed. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.
A faint echo of this tradition is preserved in the Talmud. In explaining the School of Shammai's view that the number of Hanukkah candles should be progressively diminished each night, the rabbis suggested that this is analogous to the sacrifices that were offered on Sukkot, when the numbers of bulls offered up on the Temple altar were reduced with each successive day. The rabbis did not cite this episode to justify the number of days in Hanukkah; and there is no direct indication that they were aware of the tradition in 2 Maccabees. However, without that tradition in mind, it is hard to explain why they assumed any connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah.
Several early rabbinic traditions, however, found the precedent in ceremonies that served the identical purpose as Hanukkah, of celebrating the dedication of the sanctuary. Two such biblical ceremonies were singled out: the inauguration of the tabernacle in the days of Moses (Leviticus 8), and King Solomon's opening ceremony for the Temple of Jerusalem.
To the perplexity of the sages, these ceremonies lasted seven days, not eight! By the same token, the dedication ceremony described in Numbers chapter 7 lasted for twelve days, with a separate day allotted to each of the tribal princes. This chapter has been designated as the Torah reading for Hanukkah.
It is possible that the ancient sages were taking into account the additional day of solemn assembly that was celebrated by Solomon after his seven-day dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:9). A similar pattern was followed by the returning exiles from Babylonia when they consecrated the Second Temple: the seven days of the dedication ceremony were followed by an extra eighth day of assembly. Indeed, the author of 2 Maccabees (in a passage that he ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah) referred to the ceremonies of Moses and Solomon as eight-day events.
The simplest of the interpretations proposed by the ancient sources--and arguably the least satisfying--is that it took the Hasmonean priests eight days to fashion a new temporary candelabrum to replace the one that had been ruined by the Hellenists. The plausibility of this theory is seriously compromised when we consider that the sources are speaking of a crude makeshift replacement Menorah that the soldiers assembled from iron spits, probably from their weapons.
A similar explanation, apparently preserving an ancient tradition, was cited by the twelfth-century talmudist Rabbi Judah Sir Leon, except that in his version it was not the making of the menorah that caused the delay, but rather the building of a new altar and sacred vessels to replace the ones that had been desecrated. These major projects might well have required eight days to complete.
True, the altar functioned primarily as the place where a fire was kindle to consume the sacrificial offerings. However, the connection between it and the kindling of candles seems a bit stretched. The main advantage of the interpretations that involve the menorah is that they can explain simply why Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting candles, which cannot be said about the comparisons with the biblical dedication ceremonies.
However, if the story of the oil burning for eight days is authentic, then it is difficult to understand why it was not adduced by Josephus Flavius the first-century C.E. author of the Jewish Antiquities. Josephus reported that Hanukkah was known as the festival of lights, Photain Greek, but he was at a loss to explain why. In his bewilderment about the origin of that name, Josephus speculated that perhaps light was being used metaphorically to describe the Jews' freedom, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. If the stories about the rebuilding of the menorah and the miracle of the oil were current in his time, we would have expected him to mention them.
There remain many unresolved questions and puzzles about the origins of Hanukkah's observances. It's a good thing that we have eight days to try to shed light on them.
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