The eighth day, the culmination of Chanukah, derives its name from the Torah reading זֹ֣את חֲנֻכַּ֣ת הַמִּזְבֵּ֗חַ where the gifts of the tribal leaders are announced.
More mystically, the eighth day of a festival transcends a worldly or natural order, represented by the wholeness and limitation of seven units. Examples include the symbolism of a week, the binding of tefillin, a musical octave, the shmittah agricultural laws and many other finite complete cycles. The eighth is a bridge to the spiritual realm. The circumcision on the eighth day signifies such a connection. So the eighth day of Chanukah and the eighth candle carries a higher level of symbolism that is worth reflecting on today.
The festivals of Chanukah and Purim are similar as events that both occurred after the era of the Torah and whose celebration is decreed through Rabbinic law. Both celebrate Jewish victories, but Purim is designated to the physical victory and Chanukah to the spiritual.
The Persian regime of Acheshverosh set forward a legislated manifesto of genocide for the Jews. Purim therefore celebrates the miracle of physical survival. The Hellenists of the Syrian Greeks did not seek to kill the Jews, rather they sought cultural assimilation through politics, philosophy, art and architecture. Chanukah therefore is about a different type of survival, one of Jewish identity and morality, whose flame cannot be extinguished.
The empires of the Greece and Rome have long since disappeared. However, the Jewish Commonwealth has again been rededicated in our time. It is somewhat ironic that a group of religious zealots who secured the liberation of Jerusalem remains central to the narrative and whose legacy is celebrated by Jews more than any other Jewish festival today.
Reflect for a moment that the Jewish population of the world today is almost the same in number as it was in the days of the Maccabees. The Christian population over the past 2000 years has gone from one to about 2.4 billion. All the while the Jewish population has remained constant and stagnant. Anti-Semitism and persecution have contributed substantially to this over the course of history. However, the far greater destructive force for losing the chain of Jewish tradition has been, and remains, assimilation.
Chanukah is a counter-culture to assimilation, representing the quality over the quantity of our number. It is, as described in the words of Maoz Tzur, a defiant expression of Jewish self-determination:
מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּחַ
תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָּתִי וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ
לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ מִצָּר הַמְנַבֵּח
אָז אֶגְמֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
Mighty stronghold of my salvation,
to praise You is a delight.
Restore my House of Prayer
and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.
When You will have prepared the slaughter
for the blaspheming foe,
Then I shall complete with a song of hymn
the dedication of the Altar.
The Perth suburb of Menora was designed with a visual view from above to replicate the candelabra in recognition of its high population of Jewish residents. The symbolism of Chanukah is truely everywhere!
Chanukah is hardly mentioned in the Talmud. Our Amidah prayer contains a description of the military conquest only. Our ritual however is the lighting of candles, and it is this action that is central to the messaging of our spiritual survival. The miracle of the light is our metaphor. Ask anybody to describe Chanukah and they may struggle with the historical details. But they will always know that it is “light over darkness, goodness over evil”.
One of our main sources of information about Chanukah is Flavius Jospehus, the Jewish historian that defected to Rome to secure his freedom and therefore recorded a favourable history to Vespasian and the Roman empire. It was Josephus that defined Chanukah, some 200 years after its occurrence, by the lighting of the menorah, interpreting this as a rebellious act against Roman invasion. The very menorah that had been lit by Judah Maccabee had been taken from the Temple by Titus and was spectacularly marched through Rome to signify the rise of the Roman empire and the triumph of Judaea’s defeat. It’s image remains carved into the arch of Titus today.
A second source of information is in the book of Maccabees, part of the Apocrypha texts that were not canonised into the Tanach (unlike Megillat Esther). Part of the reasoning for excluding these texts is that the military conquest of the Maccabees was not enduring. The freedom of the battle ultimately led to the madness of Herodian, the destruction of the second Temple and exile.
But the lights of the menora continued to be kindled. As a reminder to never give up, especially not in the face of an assault on our culture or on right to defend our nation.
It has always struck me as unusual that at the sunset of the eighth day Chanukah just ends. There is no ceremony, no Havdalah. We daven mincha with Al Hanism, and a short time later just go about our business without any symbolism or extended additional festivities. But maybe there is something to consider as we transition between “chol” and “chol”, especially this year. At the end of Simchat Torah there is a tradition to quote the biblical verse “V’Yaakov halach l’darko”- and Jacob went on his way. It signifies that life goes on, that we should take the uplifting experience of the holiday into our regular daily routine.
This year, at the end of Simchat Torah we were not extended that luxury. We have been thrust into frightening and uncertain times.
Chanukah is a time of miracles, even for the religious rationalist.
There are miracles around us, many that we choose not to see or don’t take the time to realise.
Some of these are individual miracles simply relating to the presence of the people we have around us through to our individual opportunities and experiences. None of this should be taken for granted.
On a national scale, the Jewish people have a State that can assert military strength to fight genocide against our people in a way that has not been possible for 2,000 years until our preceding generation. This unwanted yet necessary war in Gaza has not extended to other fronts, and the progress of the military activity is becoming evident. The unification of the Jewish people and the sudden sidelining of political discourse, and the acts of bravery and chesed are all part of a miraculous era of history that we are so immersed within that we struggle to see its significance at this point in time.
When the Maccabees were waging battle they did not know if they would prevail with success. They could not have known that over 2,000 years later their heroism would be central to Jewish identity. They were caught in an existential war that they fought with faith and strength.
Today we replicate their struggle. And we sing Hallel in their honour, praising G‑d for restoring glory and liberty to Israel.
Our challenge for Chanukah 5784 is to not just let Chanukah end. The transcendence of the eighth day must stay with us, until we have defeated Hamas, and beyond. To make the light of the Chanukiah more than a metaphor, but an actualisation of Jewish sovereignty of a united Jerusalem brought about in a setting of universal harmony. It may seem like a far way off at the moment, but history shows that it is an attainable goal.
It is indeed time for completeness. Then a time to move further and beyond. To break the shackles of our mundane and rote observance, of political deadlock, and to elevate the spirituality within our project of modern nation building. We have already moved from almost two decades of containing terrorism to the clear objective eliminating terrorism. But what happens next? Do we suffer the same fate as the descendants of the Maccabees? Or do we create both a militarily and spiritually secure enduring future to make the light of Chanukah a perpetual light unto the nations? As they teach at Harvard, it is all about “context”!
An additional stanza was added to Maoz Tzur, many believe in the 16th century. Possibly a response to Christian pogroms, it calls on G-d to impose vengeance on enemies of the Jews. Rabbi Raymond Apple writes “The final phrase, “Raise up seven shepherds”, appears puzzling. However, Micah 5:4 indicates that in messianic times seven shepherds (seven denotes completeness or perfection) will overcome any adversary who attacks the Divine flock of Israel.”
חֲשׂוֹף זְרוֹעַ קָדְשֶׁךָ וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה
נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ מֵאֻמָּה הָרְשָׁעָה
כִּי אָרְכָה הַשָּׁעָה וְאֵין קֵץ לִימֵי הָרָעָה
דְּחֵה אַדְמוֹן בְּצֵל צַלְמוֹן הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה
Bare Your holy arm
and hasten the End for salvation –
Avenge the vengeance of Your servants’ blood
from the wicked nation.
For the triumph is too long delayed for us,
and there is no end to days of evil,
Repel the Red One (Adom – the empire of Rome) in the nethermost shadow
and establish for us the seven shepherds.