Selection of Chanukah articles

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at



It’s strange that the Talmud asks, “What is Chanukah?” (Shab. 21b) but doesn’t ask, “What is Pesach?” or “What is Purim?” Chanukah must have had a special quality for the sages.

It isn’t, as Rashi points out, that they were unaware of the rules of the festival, but they felt that an ideological explanation of the occasion was called for.

Two things required emphasis – the miracle of the light, and the danger of Hellenism. The Hellenists had to be overcome because they were regarded as enemies of the light, the light of Torah. No-one denied the existence of Greek wisdom, but Judaism regarded it with considerable apprehension and compared it to the “darkness on the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2).

The problem of Hellenism was that it concentrated on externalities, material expressions of culture, art, philosophy, government, literature, science and bodily prowess.

Jewish teachers – notably Maimonides – quoted the Greeks, but wondered where the inner soul of the human being was to find its spark and source if not in the spirituality of the Torah. Greek culture was full but empty. Chanukah stood for the light of HaShem.


Chanukah has always been a highly popular festival. It had a great, romantic  hero – Judah Maccabee – whose exploits reverberate through history. But unlike Purim, it lacked a heroine. Purim had Esther, but what did Chanukah have in comparison?

Jewish tradition tried to fit Judith into the role, but though everyone enjoyed the story the attempt didn’t quite take off. The Judith episode is found in Greek sources, probably based on Hebrew material, about a young Jewish widow called Judith (said to have been the daughter of the high priest) who enticed and then assassinated a heathen general called Holofernes and saved the city.

The historicity of all the details is not our concern here, but the basic idea of a woman who was clever and courageous enough to “take arms against a sea of troubles”, in Shakespeare’s phrase, was inviting and exciting. It attracted artists, writers and musicians, and we even find chanukiyyot bearing depictions of the story.

In the Middle Ages there were attempts to rewrite the story in Hebrew, and Jewish poets even composed piyyutim (religious hymns) on the subject. Christian culture saw it as the maiden’s defeat of the devil, but this is going too far.


The Al HaNissim prayer calls Mattityahu “kohen gadol”. Does it mean metaphorically that Mattityahu was one of the great names amongst the priestly tribe? Or was he literally a high priest?

The latter is possible. He was removed from office because he criticised the occupying power. The Greek enemy tried (in vain) to weaken Judaism by removing traditionalists from office.


There are many keys to Jewish history. Our books, our prayers, our songs, our food  – certainly our chanukiyyot. You discover where Jews have been by looking at their Chanukah lights.

You find a Moroccan chanukiyyah in the shape of an Andalusian mosque and European chanukiyyot in the shape of Gothic cathedrals. You get the political picture when you see chanukiyyot bearing the seals, coats of arms, cyphers and flags of an array of rulers and regimes. You find musical menorot that play “God Save the Queen” and other national anthems, not to forget menorot that play the Hatikvah.

Architectural styles and artistic symbols reflect the milieu where Jews have lived. And of course there are Jewish motifs such as Biblical heroes, palm trees, lions of Judah, the Ten Commandments, the twin columns that stood outside the entrance to the Jerusalem Temple, the crown of the Torah, even the synagogue Ark.

A London silversmith of 1712 created a menorah that shows the prophet Elijah explaining to an Israelite woman how to fill her vessels with oil. After the First World War someone designed a menorah in which the candle-holders were spent bullet cases. Earlier, 18th century menorot were made from the metal hats of soldiers who fought in the Seven Years’ War, and some bore military insignia. Not that European countries allowed professing Jews to serve as soldiers, though there were Jewish traders who supplied the wants of the troops.

In Britain it was not until the late 1880s that professing Jews could officially enlist in the army, which basically removed the final restriction on Jews in public life.


One of the most celebrated controversies in Jewish history is the difference of opinion between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai concerning the lighting of the Chanukah lamp (Talmud Shabbat 21b).

Bet Shammai’s view was that on the first night, all eight lights were to be kindled and the number was to reduce until on the eighth night there was only one light. Bet Hillel took the opposite view; for them, the right method was to light one on the first night, two on the second, three on the third, and finally all eight on the last night.

The explanation of JL Landau, a former chief rabbi of Johannesburg, is that the Shammaites were pessimistic about Jewish survival with the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. “Gazing woefully at the Chanukah lights”, they said, “They will from now grow less and less, dimmer and dimmer”.

The House of Hillel, in contrast, were certain that nothing would prevent the ability of the Jewish people to “stand unshaken, and unbroken, ever proclaiming the words, ‘These lights we shall continue to kindle until the great day will dawn when the ideals of Judaism – love and justice – shall dominate human life throughout the inhabited world’.”

But there is a question to be asked. When Bet Shammai propound their theory in the Talmud they offer an analogy with the bullocks offered in the Temple on Sukkot. The number of bullocks was reduced each day: thirteen on the first day, twelve on the second, eleven on the third, and eventually seven on the seventh day (Num. 29:12). Is the analogy purely a co-incidence, or can we find something deeper in the link between Chanukah and the festival offerings?

One answer is to add up the total number of bullocks offered on Sukkot. The total is seventy, and our ancestors believed there were seventy nations in the world. There are times, Bet Shammai may be saying, when the whole world seems to be arrayed against Judaism, and in a hellenistic civilisation this may well have been the feeling of the Maccabees and their faithful followers. The struggle took time, but little by little the threat was reduced until Jewish monotheism prevailed. Hence, Bet Shammai may be saying, reducing the number of lights symbolises the lessening of the military threat.

Bet Hillel, on the other hand, are not concerned with the military victory. The sages are more interested in the spiritual than the military. For them, what is important is the discovery of the little jar of oil that somehow increased day by day until it lasted eight days and not one.

But there were two miracles, the military and the spiritual. And this fact may explain another interesting phenomenon. When we say the Chanukah prayers, what phraseology do we use? We do not praise God “al ha-nes”, for the miracle, but “al ha-nissim”, for the miracles, in the plural. Whoever formulated the wording may have had both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel in mind and recognised that without the military victory, itself unexpected unless the Divine hand had been involved, the miracle of the oil would never have come about.


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