A Hanukkah Mystery
The sacred story of Hanukkah reads like a mystery. Unlike Purim, Hanukkah has no biblical book and no tractate in the Talmud. There is the apocryphal book of Maccabees which documents much of the historical scene, but it fails to record the miracle of the menorah. Thus, we approach Hanukkah as we would a mystery. We collect the clues – the narrative fragments scattered throughout rabbinic literature. We compare and analyze them, formulate our deductions and then try to piece together a complete account.
In the medieval period, there was one such attempt to write a comprehensive story of Hanukkah patterned after Megillat Esther: the so-called, Megillat Antiochus. But rather than solving the mystery of Hanukkah, Megillat Antiochus creates a few mysteries of its own. After describing the Hasmonean military triumph, Megillat Antiochus tells that the virtuous Hasmonean kohanim (priests) restored the structural damage to the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), cleaned and purified the Temple precincts and sought out oil to rekindle the holy menorah. It says: “They found only one cruse of oil which was sealed with the insignia of the Holy Kohen from the time of Samuel the prophet.” A miracle occurred and the oil of one day burned eight. But why does Megillat Anitochus stipulate that the Hasmonean Kohanim found a cruse of oil sealed by Samuel the prophet? The matter is quite perplexing! Didn’t Samuel live two generations before the Beit HaMikdash was even built!? Wasn’t the Beit Hamikdash built by King Solomon, long after Samuel died?
So let’s put on our detective hats and try to decipher why the cruse of oil is said to have stemmed from the time of Samuel the prophet. What one event highlights the career of Samuel? Samuel inaugurated the Israelite monarchy by anointing King Saul: “And Samuel took the cruse of oil and poured of it on his head” (I Samuel 10:1). Samuel coronated Saul by anointing him with a cruse of oil. Perhaps it was that very same cruse of oil which the Hasmoneans found.
I discovered this idea in a citation from Sefer Kav Hayashar which tells that the cruse of oil that the Hasmoneans found was a unique cruse, “it was the cruse with which all of the kings of Israel were anointed.” Since Saul was the first anointed king, this cruse must have originated with Samuel the prophet who anointed him. And having discovered this clue, our mystery is solved. How did this cruse of oil from the time of Samuel the prophet end up in the Holy Temple? Presumably it was transmitted from generation to generation, from each Kohein Gadol (Chief Priest) to his successor, for safeguarding in the Temple. And after the rededication of the Holy Temple, it was this well-hidden cruse of pure oil that was found by the Hasmoneans.
But our story does not end here. Our story of glorious triumph actually ends in tragedy. Despite all of the wonderful and miraculous accomplishments of the Hasmonean Kohanim, they ultimately sinned a great sin against God and the Jewish People. They claimed for themselves both the monarchy and the priesthood, ignoring the separation of powers of the Jewish polity. The Talmudic sages teach that the Hasmoneans who reigned were severely punished. Each fell by the sword of his enemies. Their family was destroyed to the extent that the Talmudic sages declare that all who stem from the Hasmonean family have the presumptive status of slaves.
Everything in the world has potential for good and evil. Every person has the power to sanctify the world or to defile it. In that cruse which the Hasmoeans found, in that same oil which anointed the leaders of Israel, in that miraculous fuel resided the universal choice between good and evil. At first the Hasmoneans used the oil for a sacred purpose; they rekindled the extinguished menorah and with this holy oil a great miracle occurred and it burned eightfold its potential to manifest to all that God remembered His people in their time of need, that the military victory was by God’s supportive hand. But later, the Hasmoneans came to use the oil for their own self-serving and thereby evil purpose. In the wake of their military victory and the miracle of the menorah, they chose to anoint themselves with that very same cruse of oil. Hanukkah is a celebration of the realization of potential. With the help of God, may we realize our potential only for the good and bring abundant light to our world.
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin J. Samuels, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program alumnus (Class 4), has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton since 1995. He teaches widely in the Greater Boston area and recently completed his PhD at Boston University in “Science, Philosophy and Religion,” having written on “How Advances in Science Change Jewish Law and Ethics: Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Redefinition of Parenthood.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.