The traditional explanation of why the festival of Hanukah is celebrated for eight days is based on a Talmudic passage: Oil for one day, miraculously lasted eight. (See below). However, this is a late development. Early texts do not mention this so-called miracle. It is time we give up this irrational explanation and find a better one. And that historical explanation does exist.
The history behind Hanukah is, briefly, this: In the second cent. BCE, Antiochus IV, the Syrian king, set out to conquer Egypt. While he was fighting there, Jason, who was deposed from his position as the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem, left the Ammonites with whom he had taken refuge, and attacked Menelaus, his brother in Jerusalem, in order to regain the High Priesthood. A civil war broke out between the two, and Jason successfully entered Jerusalem. King Antiochus was furious. On his way back from Egypt, the king attacked Jerusalem, imposed restrictions on Judea, and eventually desecrated the Temple. In reaction, a priest by the name of Mattathias, and his sons (called the Maccabees), fought against the Syrians, and were able to clean and rededicate the temple of Jerusalem to the worship of one God in the year 165 BCE. This rededication is called Hanukah (“dedication” in Hebrew).
The First Book of Maccabees (c.mid-2nd cent. BCE), states that Hanukah ought to be celebrated for eight days but does not indicate the reason for it (see, 4:59). It is in the Second Book of Maccabees (c.125 BCE) that we find a rational explanation: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths [Sukkot], remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. (10: 6). So, Hanukah was really like a delayed Sukkot that lasts seven days plus Atzeret, a one day festival (See, Lev. 23: 33-36; cf. v.39).
The first reference to the lights of Hanukah appears in the writings of Josephus (1sr cent. CE) who calls the festival “Lights” by saying: I suppose the reason was this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us and that hence the name given to that festival. (Antiquities, 7:7).
Later on a midrashic text (c. 9th cent.) provides another explanation: When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they entered the temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on these spears and kindled them. (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 5).
It is clear that the explanation of why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days changed over the years, some legendary, and some more historical. For me, the simplest and the most reasonable explanation is that in its own time, Hanukah was a delayed Sukkot. No miracles. The festival today proclaims many important values, such as courage, dedication, thanksgiving, and, above all, the right to be different. These are the values we need to stress, and not the miracle of oil which is not rational, historical or even believable in our time.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D